It may be too late to follow television's George Jefferson to fame and fortune in the dry-cleaning business. Astre Corporate Group, a research company based in Charlottesville, Va., has developed a way to dry-clean clothes at home for much less than the nation's 20,000 commercial cleaners charge.

Roy Ackerman, Astre's technical director, got the idea for home dry cleaning when he had to take off for a distant meeting with no time to have his suit cleaned. Unlike the rest of us, though, Ackerman could do something about his frustration: He assembled a team of scientists to solve the problem. Using techniques the company had developed for the controlled release of drugs, the scientists designed a bag that gradually releases chemicals as it tumbles in the dryer. The bag is big enough to hold two suits, and costs only $3 -- a third of what an average commercial cleaner would charge for the service.

"What we've managed to do is get washing and drying done within the dryer," says Ackerman." It could work in the washer, but I wouldn't trust any home-owner, male or female, to leave it on the water-off cycle." Unlike commercial cleaners, which use hazardous chemicals, the home system uses substances the government classifies as safe, according to Ackerman. Clothes cleaned this way don't need ironing if they are removed promptly from the dryer.

In company tests, Astre's method has worked well on all fabrics except taffeta, which it ruins. It isn't very good on ground-in mud or dirt or heavily soiled white garments either. Now Astre is looking for a consumer-products company to invest "high-five figures to low-six figures" and to market the final product. With the right partner, Astre hopes to clean up.