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Forget The Common Cold, Find Out Why My Striped Shirts are Fading 3/8

May 18, 1993

WASHINGTON (AP) _ So it’s not the Bermuda Triangle or the search for Atlantis. The Mystery of the Disappearing Shirt Stripes, which baffled shirt makers and launderers for years, is solved.

″It’s responsible for a lot of the white hair I have,″ said Betty Leppin, research director for the International Fabricare Institute.

The problem first appeared in the mid-1980s with a rash of complaints about striped or plaid cotton dress shirts that tore or began to lose their stripes after just a few washings at a commercial laundry. Some solid-color shirts, mainly of oxford cloth with interwoven blue and white threads, also showed damage.

The problem seemed to plague only 100 percent cotton shirts - the togs of choice for millions of American businessmen and a few businesswomen as well.

For years, folks at the laundry had no answer when the irate shirt-owner demanded an explanation for the slowly disappearing stripes.

Now research has finally found the culprit: chemicals.

Actually, the explanation is a bit more complicated, having to do with the relationship between laundry chemicals, dyes and pH balance, a measure of acidity.

Commercial laundry chemicals leave wet cotton shirts with a low pH level, and that makes cotton yarn treated with certain dyes gradually disintegrate under the heat of pressing, according to Fabricare researchers.

Researchers say the problem can be solved by changing the type of dye used on cotton shirts or changing the way commercial laundries clean them.

Shirt makers steadfastly refuse to switch to another type of dye.

″You couldn’t get the bright fashion colors, and the price would not be acceptable to the people who buy the shirts,″ said Jacquie Sain, product testing manager for Salant Corp., a large menswear maker based in New York.

So it’s left to laundries to solve the problem. Several chemical companies have come up with a laundry fluid to adjust the pH level and save the stripes.

The International Fabricare Institute, which represents laundries and dry cleaners, recommended a year ago that its members begin using the new products when washing shirts.

Ms. Leppin said the Silver Spring, Md.-based institute doesn’t have statistics on how many laundries have followed its advice. She suggests that cotton shirt wearers check with their laundry.

Brian Grozbean, owner of Lustre Cleaners of Capitol Hill in Washington, said he learned about the remedy just this month. He plans to try it, even though it will cost a few extra pennies per load.

″It definitely would be worth it,″ Grozbean said.

Another solution for consumers is washing cotton shirts at home, where they shouldn’t be damaged, or buying cheaper polyester-cotton blends, because the problem dye is only used on 100 percent cotton shirts.

One mystery remains: Why did the problem suddenly appear in the ’80s, although the dyes and laundry chemicals were not new?

Ms. Sain believes it was because 100 percent cotton shirts for men became popular then, and pinstripes and oxfords were a staple of preppy fashion. Previously, men’s dress shirts were usually white, she said.

″Now men are spoiled,″ she said. ″They’re not about to give up their red striped shirts.″

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