It seems that in every household, there's at least one person who leaves behind a trail of stains and spots like a path of gingerbread crumbs: the home handyman who scatters grease spots from garage to attic, the toddler who expresses independence by painting with peanut butter on the wallpaper; the enthusiastic cook who splatters spaghetti sauce from ceiling to carpet; the new puppy that pointedly demonstrates its need for house-training.

Grass spots on jeans, wine spots on tablecloths, oil stains on the driveway. And what makes it worse is that each stain calls for a different treatment. Ketchup on carpet is not treated in the same way as catsup on concrete, and on top of having to identify both the staining agent and the stained surface, you have to work fast.

The longer most stains set, the harder they are to remove without damage to the stained surface. If you haven't identified the stain correctly, or if you use an improper stain-removing agent or technique, you may make the stain permanent and cause additional damage to the stained object.

Three Types of Stains on Fabrics

Generally, stains can be divided into three types. Each type dictates certain general treatment procedures.

Greasy Stains. Lubricating and cooking oils, butter, machine grease, and similar substances produce greasy stains. Grease spots are sometimes removed from washable fabrics by hand or machine laundering. Pretreating by rubbing a little detergent directly into the spot often helps, as does using a dry-cleaning solvent on the stain. If you are treating an old stain or one that has been ironed, a yellow stain may remain after treatment with a solvent. Bleach is often effective at eliminating this yellow residue.

To remove grease spots from nonwashable fabrics, sponge the stain from center to edge with a stain-removal product. Removal may take several applications, and the spot should be allowed to dry completely before each sponging. Greasy stains may also be removed from nonwashable fabrics by using an absorbent substance such as cornstarch, corn meal, French chalk, or fuller's earth. Absorbents are dusted on greasy spots to pick up the grease. When the absorbent material begins to look caked, it should be shaken or brushed off. Repeat this procedure until most of the stain is gone.

Absorbents are easy to use and will not harm fabrics. However, the other stain removal agents (detergent, dry-cleaning solvent, and bleach) can damage fibers; before using them you should carefully read the care label on the stained item and the label on the product container.

Nongreasy Stains. Nongreasy stains are produced by materials such as tea, coffee, fruit juice, food coloring, and ink. If you have such a stain on a washable fabric, the best treatment is to sponge the stain with cool water as soon as possible. If this doesn't work, try soaking the fabric in cool water. The stain may soak out within half an hour, or you may need to leave the item in the water overnight. If some stain still remains, gently rub liquid detergent into it and rinse with cool water. The last resort is to use bleach, but read the fabric care label first. If the stain is old or has been ironed, it may be impossible to remove it completely.

A nongreasy stain on a nonwashable fabric can also be sponged with cool water. Or, you can place a disposable diaper or other absorbent pad beneath the stained area and slowly and carefully flush the stain by pouring water onto it using a mister or eyedropper. You must control the amount of water and the rate at which it is poured to avoid spreading the stain. This may be sufficient to remove some stains, especially if treatment is started promptly. If not, work liquid detergent into the stain as described above and rinse by flushing or sponging with cool water. Sponge the stain with rubbing alcohol after rinsing to remove detergent residue and to speed drying. (Caution: If treating acetate, acrylic, modacrylic, rayon, triacetate, or vinyl, dilute 1 part alcohol with 2 parts water.)

Combination Stains. Coffee with cream, Thousand Island salad dressing, and lipstick are items that cause combination stains; that is, they combine greasy and nongreasy elements. Such stains may require double treatment-first the nongreasy elements of the stain should be treated, then the greasy residue should be removed. The first step in treating such stains is to sponge with cool water as described above, then work liquid detergent into the stain and rinse thoroughly. After the fabric has dried, apply dry-cleaning fluid to any remaining greasy portion of the stain with a sponge. Allow the fabric to dry. Repeat applications of cleaning fluid if necessary.

Learn some of the basic methods for stain removal in the next section.