When it comes to cleaning commercial upholstery, window and wall coverings, it looks like building service contractors will encounter more variables than ever before in 2001. But that means proper cleaning without damaging sensitive materials become much more difficult.

For instance, DesignTex Inc., a New York design firm, uses fibers produced by more than 90 mills and 20 different countries for countless commercial uses, says technical director Marty Gurian.

“In textiles, there is so much out there with so many different names the average user can’t follow it,” he says.

There are more choices, mainly due to breakthroughs in synthetic fiber technology, adds Tony Garrett, design principal with Interior Architects in San Francisco. These synthetics look like natural fibers but offer ease of cleaning, and abrasion and soil resistance.

While so many choices present a field day for designers, it can be difficult, even disastrous, for the cleaning workers responsible for cleaning and maintaining them.

“The cleaning company has to be a very good detective,” Gurian says. “There aren’t labels on chairs like we have on clothing. It gets more complex every year.”

There are some clues BSCs can seek, says Gurian. Members of the Association of Contact Textiles, an organization of textile designers and manufacturers, provide cleaning codes for most of their fabric. However, these codes may or may not be included by the company that manufacturers the final product. Gurian says one day he hopes to see actual labels on furnishings identifying fabric and care, but achieving that goal is a slow process.

In the meantime, he has co-authored a book called Health Care Design that explains fabric types and cleaning processes. His purpose was to bring design students and practicing professionals up to speed on the latest developments in textile design for health care. Commercial custodians can benefit from the fabric information as well.

“Those fabrics [in health-care facilities] can be subjected to some of the most extreme conditions,” Gurian explains. “If you use some of those same materials in an office setting you would have nothing to worry about in terms of wear, etc.”

He uses a code system to identify proper fabric care:

W: Clean only with water-based shampoo or foam.

S: Clean only with dry cleaning solvent.

WS: Clean with either formula.

X: Do not clean with water or solvent. Use only vacuuming or light brushing.

Steelcase, Inc., Grand Rapids, Mich., uses those same codes to identify proper cleaning for their products, notes LeeAnne Williams, senior marketing specialist. While most of the fabrics Steelcase uses are rated WS, Williams says a reference manual is available to help.

Stain removal
But even if that information comes with the product, it doesn’t always make it to the cleaning staff — it may be buried in the facility manager’s file cabinet. So here are some basic tips for any type of fabric:

“The more you vacuum and brush the less chance you have of stains or soil build-up on fabric surfaces,” says Williams. “Regular vacuuming is a really great way to keep airborne particulate out of fabric. It will make it much easier to clean.”

Fabric stains fall into basically two categories: water-based or oil.

“Use your best judgment,” Williams says. “If it looks like food, it’s usually water-borne. If it’s lipstick, grease, or ink you might want to go directly to the dry cleaning solvent.” Use a gentle circular scrubbing motion and work from the outside of the stain in toward the center.

Finding help
Beyond those tips, Williams advises contractors to call on suppliers and manufacturers for help.For instance, DesignTex offers a hotline for their products that connects callers with technical assistance.

Cleaning contractors also should take advantage of seminars and conferences that promote fabric education. Organizations such as the Association of Specialists in Cleaning and Restoration (ASCR), and the Institute of Inspection, Cleaning and Restoration Certification (IICRC), offer a variety of classes. Product manufacturers also can help with on-line information, videos and brochures.

Contractors will need all the help they can get as the textile market continues to innovate. Gurian predicts textiles will become an even more complex mix of fabrics, vinyls and urethanes.

Polyesters disguised as rich wools are becoming a more popular choice as well, adds Williams.

“It has durability and cleanability with the beauty factor,” she says.

Tony Garrett predicts even more dramatic changes.

“We’ll see more fabrics that don’t even look like fabric – woven metals or plastics that might look like fine woven rattan.” Garrett also predicts more colorful furnishings, a departure from standard office beige.

“It’s the whole idea of retaining workers,” Williams adds. “You want them to feel comfortable in the work environment that they’re in. If they’re sitting in a beautiful environment they’re going to be much happier.”

Jennifer Jones is a frequent contributor to Contracting Profits. She is a business writer based in Layton, Utah.