If you can spill it, Herb Barndt can get it out

Published March 5, 1994|Updated Oct. 6, 2005

Ink spots? Spaghetti splashes? Cranberry dribbles? No problem. Herb Barndt and his telephone hotline can turn the laundry blues into a rhapsody.

Barndt uses his extensive knowledge of textiles, dyes, fiber processing and chemistry to help thousands of callers conquer blots with common household products. In the end, he's always successful at removing spots _ even if his methods are sometimes radical.

"Any stain can be removed," he said, brandishing a pair of shiny shears.

Before that step, however, the hotline offers seven basic methods of removing stains, all tried and tested by Barndt, director of the Grundy Center for Textile Product Evaluation at Philadelphia College of Textiles & Science.

Barndt's former colleague, Fred Fortess, started the hotline in 1975 as a community service, a sideline to their research on color testing and fabric durability.

Barndt soon joined as he expanded his work in fabric testing into stain removal. Eventually, he standardized the answers to common questions from textile researchers, professional dry cleaners, carpet cleaners and individual launderers who were directed to him as a last resort.

The hotline, manned by Barndt's students, now averages about six to 10 calls a day from around the United States, Canada and Mexico.

Barndt developed some of the recommendations by experimenting in his laboratory and broadening his understanding of textile structure and stain components.

"There's a little bit of science, a little bit of chemistry and sometimes a little bit of good luck," he said.

Success depends on the fabric. Nylon stains and holds stains more easily than most fabrics, according to Barndt, because of its chemical structure. Some stains act as natural dyes and easily penetrate fibers such as cotton.

Barndt said he has made no effort to find the ultimate stain remover, because no chemical mixture could work on all stains on all fabrics.

"It's not a goal to reach the Holy Grail," he said.

Instead, he relies on a combination of removal methods plus several washings and time to remove tough stains.

People using the hotline seek help on all kinds of materials, including soiled artwork and upholstery.

Sometimes pranksters call _ including at least one radio station _ to try to stump the "Stain Master" with fake or odd stains.

The most unusual call came a few years ago from an Ohio man who dyes his clothes green and red every year for Christmas. His dog, Loopy, jumped in the green tub. The hotline could come up with only one suggestion: Put a red bow on Loopy and let the fur grow out.

The hotline usually handles disasters involving red socks washed with the whites in hot water, crayons tucked in a pocket and thrown in the dryer or salad dressing spilled on a new silk blouse, Barndt said.

He has no measure of the service's success; only about one in 100 people call back to thank him. "But almost no one calls back and says (the recommendation) didn't work," he said.

Once word about the hotline spread, Barndt compiled standard suggestions into a pocket-sized book, "Professor Barndt's On-the-Spot Stain Removal Guide," which was first published in June 1992 and has sold 100,000 copies.

"One of my goals was maybe I wouldn't get so many phone calls," he said. "But it actually had the reverse effect."

Barndt organized the book around his conviction that there are seven basic methods of stain removal, using common non-hazardous household products such as white vinegar, lemon juice, alcohol and hydrogen peroxide.

He also lists 100 common stains _ including ink, coffee, wine, urine and acrylic paint _ and how to remove them according to the seven formulas.

The toughest customer, Barndt says, is a caller who's already washed and dried the item.

"Once you've run it through the dryer, you've probably set the stain forever," Barndt said. "If it doesn't work, it's a paint shirt, right?"

Call for help

The hotline, 215-951-2757, is open Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. "Professor Barndt's On-the-Spot Stain Removal Guide" sells for $2.99, excluding shipping and handling, through Doubleday at 1-800-223-6834.