As long as we've had clothes, we've tried to get someone else to clean them.

From the ruins of Pompeii comes a record of a highly developed trade of professional clothes cleaners called "fullers." Lye and ammonia were used in early laundering, and a type of clay called "fuller's earth" was used to absorb soils and greases from clothing too delicate for laundering.The first "modern" dry cleaning firm was probably that of Jolly Belin, opened in Paris in 1840. In these early days, cleaning was done by "garment scourers and dyers," using a variety of solvents.

Dry cleaning - or the use of solvents to remove soil and stain from fabrics - has come a long way since those days. Modern procedures and solvents are much safer and more effective.

Here, from the International Fabricare Institute, are answers to some common questions asked about dry cleaning:

Q.: When a garment's label says "washable," does that mean it cannot be dry cleaned?

A.: Not necessarily. The care label rule requires professionals to care for a garment according to the instructions on the care label. So if you want your washable items dry cleaned, the cleaner may ask you to sign a customer release.

Q.: Should I have all matching pieces cleaned together?

A.: Yes. If all pieces are cleaned together, any color loss will be uniform and pieces will still match.

Q.: Does dry cleaning shrink clothes?

A.: No, not if the dry cleaning process has been carefully controlled. Excessive shrinking is caused by improper preshrinking by the manufacturer.

Q.: Are suede and leather cleaned the same as cloth garments?

A.: No. Special procedures and additives are used on leathers to help retain their color and texture. Sometimes suedes and leathers are re-dyed to restore color loss.

Q.: Can a dry cleaner stretch fabrics?

A.: Dry cleaners can steam finish and stretch fabrics that have relaxed in dry cleaning. This does not damage the fabric. Excessive shrinkage caused by poorly preshrunk fabrics cannot be totally corrected, however.

It is important to keep in mind that there are some things dry cleaning cannot do. Such as:

- Remove some stains (depending on nature and age of the stain)

- Prevent some colors from bleeding or fading.

- Correct product deficiencies, such as separation of bonded or fusible fabrics.

- Prevent excessive shrinkage if fabrics have not been preshrunk.

- Reverse worn or torn areas.

- Prevent or correct holes caused by insect damage or acid spillage.

- Correct excessive shine on fabrics caused by excessive heat and pressure.

- Correct poor home spot removal procedures.

If you have any questions or concerns about dry cleaning, be sure to ask before the cleaning begins.