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How to Erase Clothing Stains

Scheer is founder and CEO of J. Scheer & Co., which cleans and preserves wedding gowns and couture garments. He has worked with textile conservators at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and with clients including Madonna and Carolina Herrera.

Pharmacies are open all the time. Dry cleaners aren't. And if you spill a glass of Merlot on your Marc Jacobs dress on a Saturday night, you shouldn't wait to take care of the matter.

Minimize the damage. Never use seltzer water on a stain--it can spread, making it worse. Instead, if the stain comes from a liquid such as olive oil or wine, immediately cover the area with baby powder to lift the liquid away from the material. Let the powder sit, ideally overnight, before brushing it off with a tissue. If there's no powder around, dab the stain with a thin white cloth. Do no rub. If it's a solid smudge like chocolate mousse, scrape it off with the blunt side of a butter knife.

Check the label. Silks, rayons, wools, or wool blends shouldn't be treated at home--but the powder, cloth, or knife trick should buy you a day or two until you can get to the cleaner. You can feel confident treating water-friendly cotton, denim, linen, nylon, polyester, and Lycra yourself.

Choose your weapon. You could use a commercial stain remover, but matching each stain with its particular remedy is more precise. White wine vinegar removes red wine, fruit juices, and deserts such as raspberry sorbet. Ballpoint pen marks and oil-based pigmented makeup such as foundation or lipstick are best treated with rubbing alcohol followed by acetone, most commonly found in nail-polish remover. Liquid laundry detergent with enzymes (listed on the label) gets out fresh stains of chocolate, milk, blood, and water-based markers. It also removes oil or butter stains, but for these, first use a dab of citrus-based degreaser from a hardware store.

Hit the spot. Turn the garment inside out, lay the stained area on a white towel, and apply a Q-tip dipped in the cleaning agent to the back of the mark, pressing it into the towel. (Rubbing on the outside can push the stain into the fabric.) If the fabric is anything but white, do a test for colorfastness first.

Repeat and rinse. Keep dipping the Q-tip in the solution and pressing it on the stain until it lifts. Then rinse the area with water--I recommend distilled. Dry it with a blow-dryer on low heat to prevent a ring from forming. Don't use the hot-water cycle on the washing machine. That will set the stain.