Ten Tips for Ironing Shirts

Most people hate ironing, but I admit to finding a strange pleasure in it. There’s something gratifying about passing a hot iron over cloth, and seeing a wrinkled mess transform back into a smooth, familiar garment. It is, however, a chore, and like all chores, there are better and worse ways of doing things. Over the years, I’ve picked up ten practices that I think not only help speed the process, but also improve the results. 

  • Dampen your shirts. Most irons are terrible at giving off steam, so before your start ironing, dampen your shirt with some water from a spray bottle (set it on mist, not stream). This will help soften up the fibers. 
  • Put damp shirts in a plastic bag. Let the water soak in and evenly distribute by rolling up your damp shirts and putting them in a plastic bag. This will also prevent the water from evaporating. I typically spray down three shirts at a time, and let them soak while I work on the others. 
  • Press down. Get the job done faster by actually pressing down on the iron. Do this to the back though, not the front, otherwise you risk pushing in new wrinkles. 
  • Don’t crease the sleeves. Unless you’re in the military, sleeves shouldn’t be creased to the edge. So, iron right up to the edge and stop. You can also use sleeve boards. 
  • Iron the thick parts first. To avoid having to do touch-ups, iron things such as the collar, placket, and cuffs first. They’re less likely to wrinkle than the thinner, larger areas such as your shirt’s back.
  • Gently iron around buttons, snaps, and hooks. Don’t iron over them, as they can crack or melt.
  • Don’t flatten the collar. Iron your collar so that it’s flat and smooth, but don’t use your iron to fold it down entirely. Instead, iron just the back of the fold, where the collar would touch the back of your neck, then use your hands to fold down the rest of the collar. 
  • Get a good ironing board. Countertop ones are small, but they don’t give you enough space to work. Foldable, four-legged ones are the business. I like ones with slightly narrower, pointy ends, so I can get to tough-to-reach places on my shirt (just under the arms can be a pain).  
  • Avoid over-ironing. Remember this bit from Seinfeld? Yes, something can be “over dry.” Iron up to the point where the last bit of moisture can evaporate after five minutes of hanging. Otherwise, you risk making the fabric shiny, brittle, or even a bit yellow with time.
  • Button everything up. If you iron in batches, button your shirts all the way up before hanging them. This will help you avoid that wavy, bacon-like placket that can result from a shirt hanging too long in your closet.   

(Video by Garra Style)

The Unnecessary but Useful Sleeve Board
Ironing is a pretty simple and straightforward task that only requires an ironing board and iron. However, I’ve found it’s useful to have three other items on hand: a spray bottle, a plastic bag, and a sleeve board. The spray bottle is useful to help soften up the fabric and get the fibers to relax. Your iron should also have this function, but from my experience, a spray bottle always works better. After you’ve lightly sprayed down a few shirts with water, roll them up, and stick them in a plastic bag. Then, as you iron each one-by-one, the others will soak a little, instead of dry up.
The third item – the sleeve board – is useful for ironing sleeves or getting to hard-to-reach places (it’s also great for pressing seams if you sew). It’s similar to an ironing board, but it’s smaller and narrower. This allows you to slip your sleeve through and rotate it after each side has been ironed. The benefit it doing is this way is that you don’t have to constantly adjust your sleeves in order to make sure two layers of fabric are constantly flat. It also means you don’t have to worry about ironing in sharp creases at the edge of your shirt.
You can buy sleeve boards at any number of places. Amazon has a bunch and Target sells a model. Someone even posted an online tutorial on how to make your own. I personally got mine from WAWAK, a company that mostly sells to people in the tailoring trade. Theirs is made from a very sturdy plywood, and both sides have a padded slipover cover. Should you ever damage these covers, WAWAK sells replacements.
The upside to their model is that one side is perfectly built for sleeves while the other side is good for trousers. Of course, if you use this for trousers or jacket sleeves, you’ll want to use a pressing cloth, which WAWAK also sells. The downside, however, is that it’s not foldable or collapsible when you store it away. Something to consider if you’re tight on space. 

The Unnecessary but Useful Sleeve Board

Ironing is a pretty simple and straightforward task that only requires an ironing board and iron. However, I’ve found it’s useful to have three other items on hand: a spray bottle, a plastic bag, and a sleeve board. The spray bottle is useful to help soften up the fabric and get the fibers to relax. Your iron should also have this function, but from my experience, a spray bottle always works better. After you’ve lightly sprayed down a few shirts with water, roll them up, and stick them in a plastic bag. Then, as you iron each one-by-one, the others will soak a little, instead of dry up.

The third item – the sleeve board – is useful for ironing sleeves or getting to hard-to-reach places (it’s also great for pressing seams if you sew). It’s similar to an ironing board, but it’s smaller and narrower. This allows you to slip your sleeve through and rotate it after each side has been ironed. The benefit it doing is this way is that you don’t have to constantly adjust your sleeves in order to make sure two layers of fabric are constantly flat. It also means you don’t have to worry about ironing in sharp creases at the edge of your shirt.

You can buy sleeve boards at any number of places. Amazon has a bunch and Target sells a model. Someone even posted an online tutorial on how to make your own. I personally got mine from WAWAK, a company that mostly sells to people in the tailoring trade. Theirs is made from a very sturdy plywood, and both sides have a padded slipover cover. Should you ever damage these covers, WAWAK sells replacements.

The upside to their model is that one side is perfectly built for sleeves while the other side is good for trousers. Of course, if you use this for trousers or jacket sleeves, you’ll want to use a pressing cloth, which WAWAK also sells. The downside, however, is that it’s not foldable or collapsible when you store it away. Something to consider if you’re tight on space. 

A Cheap Iron
A year or two ago, I got inspired to up my ironing game. I read some iron reviews and bought the fanciest one. It was a gorgeous Rowenta, just like Derek’s, and I was in heaven. Ironing was so easy! The Rowenta was so powerful! It was the best $150 I’d ever spent.
Until it broke. Which, looking at the consumer reviews, the ones that last past initial performance, seems to happen a LOT with Rowentas. And of course, there’s no small appliance repair in my neighborhood anymore.
So I faced a choice: I could replace the Rowenta, and run the risk of having it break again. I could buy a professional iron, which, with professional ironing board, would cost $500 or so. Or I could go cheap. I went cheap.
After looking at even more reviews than I looked at the first time, I picked the Black & Decker Digital Advantage. It costs $47. It was head-and-shoulders above any other inexpensive iron in performance in ever review. Its reliability was superb. And its performance is pretty darn good.
Sometimes when I’m ironing, I miss my old Rowenta. And I think about getting a $300 Reliable, like the pros use. (Incidentally, word is that Reliable’s cheaper consumer models aren’t worth the money - you need a separate steam generator to get great performance.) But frankly, I don’t think about that stuff all that often. Mostly, my Black and Decker is a solid performer. It heats up quickly, it puts out decent steam, and it glides smoothly. For less than fifty bucks, I’m not gonna complain.

A Cheap Iron

A year or two ago, I got inspired to up my ironing game. I read some iron reviews and bought the fanciest one. It was a gorgeous Rowenta, just like Derek’s, and I was in heaven. Ironing was so easy! The Rowenta was so powerful! It was the best $150 I’d ever spent.

Until it broke. Which, looking at the consumer reviews, the ones that last past initial performance, seems to happen a LOT with Rowentas. And of course, there’s no small appliance repair in my neighborhood anymore.

So I faced a choice: I could replace the Rowenta, and run the risk of having it break again. I could buy a professional iron, which, with professional ironing board, would cost $500 or so. Or I could go cheap. I went cheap.

After looking at even more reviews than I looked at the first time, I picked the Black & Decker Digital Advantage. It costs $47. It was head-and-shoulders above any other inexpensive iron in performance in ever review. Its reliability was superb. And its performance is pretty darn good.

Sometimes when I’m ironing, I miss my old Rowenta. And I think about getting a $300 Reliable, like the pros use. (Incidentally, word is that Reliable’s cheaper consumer models aren’t worth the money - you need a separate steam generator to get great performance.) But frankly, I don’t think about that stuff all that often. Mostly, my Black and Decker is a solid performer. It heats up quickly, it puts out decent steam, and it glides smoothly. For less than fifty bucks, I’m not gonna complain.

ThingX: How To Iron a Shirt

Folks are always asking me for ironing how-to videos. This one from ThingX.com's “XHow” series is a particularly good one. Let clinically depressed “XPert” Matt Beacon show you how to have “the stylish look of a gentleman who didn't accidentally throw his last unemployment check away.”

“I’m eighteen years behind in my ironing.” — Phyllis Diller

How to Maintain your Iron

After my post yesterday, one of our readers, David, emailed with a helpful note saying any good iron should have a self-cleaning setting. You should use the feature about once a month. Another reader, JT, noted that some irons, like the Rowenta I pictured, should not be used with distilled water. I Googled the manual and apparently the company recommends bottled spring water. Probably always best to check your own users’ manual. 

Jesse also sent me this link, which covers almost anything and everything you’d want to know about ironing, including how to clean your machines. It’s from a book that he’s recommended before, and after reading a few pages, I’m convinced that I need to get my own copy. Seriously, take a look at the link he sent - the section alone on ironing is probably enough to make you a world’s expert on the subject. DealOz shows a bunch of sites that will sell you a copy for about $10. 

Don’t Use Tap Water
I have two irons - one that I only fill with distilled or filtered water, and another that I fill with tap water. 
I used to be even more meticulous about my clothes than I am now (a fact that will surprise friends). In college, I would only use distilled or filtered water with my iron. I kept the practice until my late-20s, but for some reason began to stray when I bought a new iron. So for the last three years or so, I’ve been filling up my second iron with tap water. 
This past weekend, I was ironing my shirts and noticed some brown spots on them. It took me a bit to figure out where the spots came from, so I ironed a clean dishcloth I have. Sure enough, the brown spots were coming from my iron. Apparently it spits slightly browned water now. I suspect there is some old mineral deposits in the spray valve or something. 
I switched over to my old iron, the one I used to only fill with distilled water, and it worked fine. 
I can’t say with absolutely certainty that my ironing malfunction was caused by tap water. However, I definitely won’t be chancing it again and will only use distilled or filtered water from now on. 

Don’t Use Tap Water

I have two irons - one that I only fill with distilled or filtered water, and another that I fill with tap water. 

I used to be even more meticulous about my clothes than I am now (a fact that will surprise friends). In college, I would only use distilled or filtered water with my iron. I kept the practice until my late-20s, but for some reason began to stray when I bought a new iron. So for the last three years or so, I’ve been filling up my second iron with tap water. 

This past weekend, I was ironing my shirts and noticed some brown spots on them. It took me a bit to figure out where the spots came from, so I ironed a clean dishcloth I have. Sure enough, the brown spots were coming from my iron. Apparently it spits slightly browned water now. I suspect there is some old mineral deposits in the spray valve or something. 

I switched over to my old iron, the one I used to only fill with distilled water, and it worked fine. 

I can’t say with absolutely certainty that my ironing malfunction was caused by tap water. However, I definitely won’t be chancing it again and will only use distilled or filtered water from now on. 

Ironing for People Who Like It
For the past month, I’ve been using Pierre’s method of ironing, which he demonstrates step by step here. The really unique parts of the technique involve spraying down the shirt with water, and then sealing it up in a bag for a bit, as well as using a stiff card for when you fold the shirts. The entire process means I take more than an hour to iron just a few pieces, but the result seems to me like a softer, tidier shirt. 
Am I going to use this technique for the rest of my life? Unlikely. Am I enjoying the OCD attention to detail, slow process, and novelty for the time being? Absolutely. 

Ironing for People Who Like It

For the past month, I’ve been using Pierre’s method of ironing, which he demonstrates step by step here. The really unique parts of the technique involve spraying down the shirt with water, and then sealing it up in a bag for a bit, as well as using a stiff card for when you fold the shirts. The entire process means I take more than an hour to iron just a few pieces, but the result seems to me like a softer, tidier shirt. 

Am I going to use this technique for the rest of my life? Unlikely. Am I enjoying the OCD attention to detail, slow process, and novelty for the time being? Absolutely. 

I jokingly remarked on Twitter earlier today that the key to ironing was putting the thing you want flat under the iron. I genuinely believe that many people, especially many men, are unduly afraid of ironing. Frankly, it’s pretty easy if you have decent equipment and you don’t expect perfection of yourself.

Above I’ve posted a nice, simple how-to from the folks at the English shirt company TM Lewin. It gets all the basics along with a little trick that I’ll have to try: buttoning the collar to do the shirt’s body.

My main advice is to get a good iron - I like my Rowenta, which was about a hundred bucks on eBay. I think it’s tough to understand how much different the good iron ironing experience is from the cheap iron ironing experience without trying it, but suffice it to say I’m very happy with my investment. When my mother-in-law visited, she literally exclaimed at how easily her ironing went. A really nice iron helps make the spray bottle a bit redundant, though go for it if you don’t mind keeping it on hand.

I do my ironing after my wife does the laundry (along with her ironing). I ask her to take the shirts out of the drier when they’re still very slightly damp, and then I iron while I watch TV. An episode of Archer later, I’m usually done with a pile of eight or ten. Frankly, I don’t try to get everything perfect. I don’t mind a little rumpling from time to time - it builds character.

When I was researching the Q&A for episode four of Put This On, I reached for one of my favorite reference books, “Home Comforts: The Art and Science of Keeping House,” by Cheryl Mendelson. Ms. Mendelson is a true domestic goddess.
The book offers practical advice and explanations of everything from laundry to vacuuming to sewing to entertaining. It’s exceptionally well-written and absolutely fascinating. The advice is consistently excellent, as well. It’s my shortcut to figuring out how to do things the Right Way.
Of particular note to readers of the blog are the careful explanations of the valuable properties of various fabrics, the simple explanations of clothing repair techniques, and the rundowns on ironing and stain removal. Whether you live alone, or share home care duties with a partner, it’s essential information.
The book costs less than twenty bucks, and it’s worth every penny.

When I was researching the Q&A for episode four of Put This On, I reached for one of my favorite reference books, “Home Comforts: The Art and Science of Keeping House,” by Cheryl Mendelson. Ms. Mendelson is a true domestic goddess.

The book offers practical advice and explanations of everything from laundry to vacuuming to sewing to entertaining. It’s exceptionally well-written and absolutely fascinating. The advice is consistently excellent, as well. It’s my shortcut to figuring out how to do things the Right Way.

Of particular note to readers of the blog are the careful explanations of the valuable properties of various fabrics, the simple explanations of clothing repair techniques, and the rundowns on ironing and stain removal. Whether you live alone, or share home care duties with a partner, it’s essential information.

The book costs less than twenty bucks, and it’s worth every penny.