I was packing for vacation and reached for my almost-brand-new blue dress shirt. As I held it up to fold it for the suitcase, I noticed a brownish stain four or five inches long to one side of the front pocket.

Since I had 24 hours before I had to leave, I sprayed the stain with one of those commercial stain-removal products, soaked it for a couple of hours, and then stuck it in the washer.

No dice.

The stain, which at first appeared to be a stray drip of coffee, remained firmly in place. I hung the shirt out to dry and found another one to pack.

A lot of stain-removal products on the market promise a great deal but don't seem to deliver very much. They also tend to contain chemicals that I don't want to have lingering on my clothing, or on the pillowcases on which I rest my head a few hours every night.

Most important, they don't seem to do the job - the reason why the instructions always urge you to try the spot remover on a part of the carpet that no one will see.

Because I don't have much luck with stain removal, I tend not to offer advice. I'd hate to suggest something and then have a valuable heirloom destroyed because of it.

So when a colleague stopped by the other day looking for a way to remove what looked like white paint from her brand new suitcase, I hesitated.

The paint was added to the suitcase during a recent airplane trip. In the last two months, my own suitcase has been lost on a business trip to Orlando and spent an extra day in Italy, so I didn't consider a little paint a major catastrophe.

That said, I did sympathize with a new suitcase being marred on its maiden voyage. So I handed her Good Housekeeping Stain Rescue: The A-Z Guide to Removing Smudges, Spots and Other Spills (Hearst Books, $12.95) and suggested she try a tip or two.

There were several for dealing with latex/acrylic and oil-based paints, but what worked not only for my colleague but also for her traveling companion was nail-polish remover.

I don't like the odor, and some people can become ill in the presence of it, but if you can use with proper ventilation, I suggest trying it.

From what I've read and from personal experience, I've found you need to know the nature of a stain before you can try to get rid of it.

My colleague and her friend could easily figure out that the substance marring their luggage was white water-based paint. My shirt stain remains unidentifiable. I'm about ready to hand it over to CSI for analysis.

As I perused the book, I learned that some stains are more common than others. And, of course, how to remove them.

For example, I've never dropped olive oil on the dining room carpet (we use it in the kitchen exclusively), but if I did, I'd scrape off the excess oil, sprinkle baking soda, cornstarch or another absorbent on the stain, let it stand for 15 minutes, and then vacuum.

"Using a clean white cloth, sponge the stain with a dry-cleaning solvent. Blot until the solvent is absorbed" and then repeat those steps until the stain disappears.

I'd probably retool some of the advice to fit my personality. If I dropped peanut butter on my shirt, I'd scrape the excess off onto the nearest slice of bread, then pretreat (the shirt, that is) and launder with hot water.

For pollen, which turns my front-porch floor yellow every spring, it is suggested that you not use your hand to brush it off. I assume that the authors are referring to fabric or upholstery; the oils from your skin will set the stain.

I just sweep the pollen dust off the porch periodically, and only after the family has dosed itself with Claritin.

Some of the book's suggestions are downright amusing, such as the "Ten Stains of Christmas."

You can sing this one to the "12 Days" tune - if you want to have your family stare at you:

"On the sweet potato stain of Christmas . . .

Scrape off the excess,

Flush with cold water . . ."

And so forth.

Then there are the stains that require a product not available at the grocery store to remove.

If you want to remove rust from fabric, for example, use a commercial rust remover. But also use caution, the book exhorts, because "these products contain toxic acids."

Sometimes, I guess, the cure is worst than the stain.

"On the House" appears Sundays in The Inquirer. Contact Alan J. Heavens at 215-854-2472 or aheavens@phillynews.com.