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When newlywed Dolly Humphrey asked her mother what was the most important thing for a new bride to know, she never dreamed it would be the home number of a good dry cleaner. But sure enough, even before she said, "I do," she needed one. Badly.

Last summer, the suburban Prairie Village, Kan., native, who now lives in Florida, was wearing her designer wedding dress when she tripped on her brother's pet ferret and fell - plop! - in the middle of a black raspberry bush. She and the ferret were all right. But the once-white wedding dress was dappled with black raspberry splotches.She took it well, under the circumstances. "AHHHH! IT'S RUINED!" she screamed. "I can't get married in this! I'd rather die!"

OK, not that well.

After all, it was less than five hours before the wedding, and she didn't know what to do.

Luckily, her mother did. Marian Humphrey called a friend in the dry cleaning business who - on a Saturday - opened his store and successfully cleaned the garment before the wedding.

Now Humphrey, who has a taste for expensive clothes and admits to being "pretty messy," ranks her relationship with her dry cleaner as "every bit as important" as her relationship with her doctor. That's especially true in summer, she says, when her clothes become "stain magnets."

Dolly Humphrey would just as soon forget the fruity ferret fiasco. But she can never forget the dry cleaner who came to her rescue. "I was crying and praying for more than an hour," she said. "And then we got the dress back. It was like `Whew!' I could have kissed him. I think I did kiss him!"

Lisa Caruthers of suburban Blue Springs, Mo., got married last summer, too.

She didn't kiss her dry cleaner. She sued him.

After the ceremony, Caruthers saw an advertisement for a dry cleaner who specialized in the careful cleaning and preserving of wedding dresses.

She took in her dress. Days later she returned to discover that not only was the dress clean, but also it was hot pink!

When the cleaner tried to bleach the pinkness out, the dress turned beige.

The cleaner became defensive and rude.

"What's the difference?" she remembers him snapping. "You just got married. You're not going to use it again."

That earned him a lawsuit.

A day before the date in small-claims court, she said, the cleaner called and apologized. "I just had a really bad day," he said. He wrote her a check for the full amount of the dress, the dry cleaning and court costs - more than $500.

Now Caruthers has three words for those seeking a dry cleaner to perform a costly or sensitive service. "References, References, References!" she said. "Make sure to get a recommendation from a friend or someone you know."

Bruce Gershon of Arrow Fabricare in Kansas City, a cleaning company that has cleaned and repaired garments for Ralph Lauren, Donna Karan and Warren Beatty, among others, agreed.

"That's a great idea," he said. "A reputable cleaner will be able to give references. We get a lot of our business through word of mouth recommendation."

Given the volume of business and the complexity of the stains and other challenges, Gershon cautioned, even the best cleaner is going to make some mistakes.

"We're human," he said. "But it's how you handle your mistakes that affects your reputation."

By the same token, Gershon said, customers need to be realistic. Routinely they come to dry cleaners in a tizzy asking for them to perform near miracles. Many times they can do it. Other times the garments are beyond help.

"It's like asking you to bring back the dead," he said. "Sometimes you just can't do it."

Verna Gause of suburban Overland Park, Kan., says she is very picky about where she takes her clothes. "The cheapest and the closest one may not always be the best one for you," she said. It's something she found out the hard way.

Once, before a trip, she sent some soiled clothes to a dry cleaner. She packed the clothes and left with her husband for Dallas. When the couple went to put on the clothes, they found the stains still there. Because they had not packed extra clothes, they had to wear the stained clothes to a business function.

"It was embarrassing," Gause said.

Upon her return, she went back to the store and found that workers hadn't even put them in the dry cleaning solution. Instead, wrongfully assuming they needed only to be pressed, they had just run them through a steam tunnel.

Now, whatever she takes in, she always identifies the specific type and location of stains.

"I always mark my garment. If I have a spot I tell them what I think it is. It is very important to keep them informed, and that way they have something to work with."

She calls her relationship with her dry cleaner "one of the most important relationships I have in managing the household."

Customers need to realize that dry cleaners face many problems that are beyond their control, said Norman Oehlke, director of information services for the International Fabricare Institute in Silver Spring, Md. The institute, a non-profit trade association financed by member dry cleaners, analyzes what went wrong when garments are ruined or damaged.

"The No. 1 problem out there is the poor colorfastness of the garments today," Oehlke said. "You can take a bright blue garment and it comes back a dull blue. That is because the manufacturer is not producing a garment that is colorfast (as the care label in the garment indicates). What is the most mystifying about this is a consumer may buy a dress that has a green top and a white skirt, and then the green will bleed onto the white skirt and this is permanent. That is disaster. That is absolutely a violation of the care label."