The Lost Art of Ironing

There was a time when a crumpled dress or shirt would be deemed a sign of slovenliness, but there is now good news for domestic dissenters: ironing has become unfashionable. Whilst the vintage housewife may have prided herself on the quality of her starched collars and crisp trouser creases today un-pressed, crumpled and even fraying hems are considered rather hip and fashionable by some folks.

This crumpled and creased look is not confined to hipsters and students, it has ventured into the realms of fashion and glamour with quite a few ‘trendy’ brands having launched crumpled clothing lines and in 2016 even a Pirelli calendar was launched featuring models enrobed in creased clothing.

The creased clothing trend may not be for all of us though; Jeffrey Goltis, managing director of  suits’ success banks on being perfectly pressed, is horrified at the thought of un-pressed clothing, in an interview he said: “I do understand the casual look – that distressed, crumpled fabric appearance – but I don’t see this as a trend that will take on. To me, creased clothing suggests laziness. Really, the technology today means there’s no need to wear anything crumpled. Eight out of ten

of the shirts we sell are virtually non-iron. They’re cotton, and go through a pre-curing and dipping process. There isn’t really a reason to wear anything creased – it’s also far more flattering.”

Putting fashion trends aside, it is certain that we iron less now than we did fifty years ago, I wonder why this is? I can’t help thinking it’s less about style choices  and more about not having the time to. The days of housewives pushing themselves to complete a daily list of household chores have vanished.

Statistically, we are still ironing, although nowadays many of us are using an ironing service. According to a recent study, many of us will spend around four months of our lives ironing clothes – apparently the pile of clothes a British mother will iron in her lifetime will stand at just over 1200 metres tall, but I can’t help thinking that the figure sixty years ago would have been greater, indeed my calculations mean that the average 1950’s housewife would have spent 480 days in a thirty year period ironing although depending on the size of the household it may have been more.

Perhaps we won’t have to worry about what type of iron to buy or even ironing technique for long though as a robot, called TEO, has been invented and it is a dab hand at domestic chores. TEO is 1.8 metres tall and weighs about 80 kilograms and since it came into being at the Carlos III University of Madrid, Spain, in 2012, TEO has learned to do all sorts of things including ironing. This clever bit of kit kicks into operation once an item of clothing is placed on an ironing board in front of it. Then it uses a camera built into its head to create a high-resolution 3D representation of the garment and the ironing board.

TEO then detects creases by computing a “wrinkliness local descriptor”. After TEO has calculated and recorded  all the wrinkles to be ‘exterminated’  it slowly lowers the iron on to the garment, then executes an ironing trajectory calculated to smooth out each crease efficiently.

It seems that for many ironing is now considered an archaic and unnecessarily laborious task and amongst younger generations ironing is considered a soul destroying chore. This attitude would have been an alien concept to a 1950’s housewife who’s married life often revolved around cooking, cleaning, laundering, ironing and child minding. Indeed for  most married women the dramas of their everyday lives were played out beside the washing line, over the washtub, mangle or at the ironing board. They had few hours to call their own. In 1951a Mass Observation survey revealed that housewives in the London suburbs were spending an incredible 15 hours a day on domestic activities. It is certain that a good percentage of this was spent on washing and ironing. Ironing Monday’s wash, was always a task for Tuesdays and this seems to have been a trend from the Victorian times through into the 1950’s.Cleanliness was akin to godliness and everything had to be ironed.

most women in the early part of the twentieth century were very particular about the appearance of their finished weekly wash. This meant that it didn’t only have to be clean; it also had to be free of creases. Fabrics were not designed to be crinkle free after washing, so everything had to be ironed. But there were no electric irons, steam irons or crease-resistant fabrics to make the early twentieth century housewife’s work easier. When came to easing a housewife’s ironing load in these days the best she could hope for would be a wind and warm day that would help to blow some of the creases out. This combined with careful mangling and folding was the best in labour saving the period had to offer the average housewife.

Today we don’t have to worry too much about how dry things are before tackling them with a steam iron. But in the early twentieth century it was quite a skill to get the washing to the right dampness for ironing, because if it was too dry, the creases wouldn’t iron out completely, whilst if the fabric was too wet the washing creased up as the next section was being ironed.

The modern-day technique of dashing out and grabbing the washing in off the line and then leaving it scrupled up until it can be tackled with an iron would not have been heard of by the vintage housewife, after spending Monday washing clothes and linen and pegging it out to dry the washing was always carefully folded and rolled up on Mondays, so that the dampness would spread evenly through it by the next day, ready for ironing.  The practice of ‘dampening it down’ would be practiced if it was a particularly fine and blustery day. This involved sprinkling the washing with water before rolling it up for ironing on Tuesday.

Etiquette expert William Hanson, believes that the downturn in ironing is due to the fact that “people aren’t taught to iron. Or they buy a cheap iron and a cheap ironing board which aren’t that effective.”  Hanson boasts that he once refused to sleep in a bed because its sheets has not been ironed explains that ironing is important because it, “improves your appearance by 100%. ‘ saying that, ‘’The fact that it’s waning is a pandemic issue.”

Perhaps, Hanson is right perhaps the issue is that people in our fast paced society feel there are more important lessons to learn than how to iron, but it is certain that the range of irons, ironing gadgets and indeed ironing boards available today is staggering.

The earliest known ironing boards were used by the Vikings in the 9th century and they were nothing like the one you would pick up at today’s home ware store. The Viking ironing board was made from whalebone and hot rocks were then used as a type of iron.

Later, throughout Europe, it became common for people to iron their clothes on the kitchen table, or on a flat piece of board resting between two chairs.

Indeed it was common for women to perform ironing on the table in the kitchen. The full width of the table was particularly useful for ironing sheets and table cloths and so an old blanket folded into several layers with an old sheet on top, kept especially for ironing was often employed to convert the table into an ironing table.

There is a little controversy about who actually invented the ironing board, for like all good ideas they get improved on and tweaked. In 1858 W. Vandenburg patented the ironing table and about three years later Isaac Ronnie Bord of Georgetown, Delaware, took out a patent for an adjustable flat horizontal surface for the pressing of undergarments, garments and bed linen.

Whilst in 1892 an African American woman, Sarah Boone, patented an ironing board that was the forerunner of the modern folding ironing board with a narrow, curved shape, designed to make it easy to iron shirts

The ironing board took until the 1940’s to start resembling today’s ironing board. As iron’s became lighter in weight and powered by electric then the ironing boards changed shape and structure and in the 1940’s manufacturers were producing all-metal collapsible ironing boards with tubular legs, and this design has very much remained the same ever since.

The flat irons and box irons were replaced by electric irons and it is certain that this invention and spread of the electric iron made the housewife’s ironing chore easier, though, it must be remembered that the early electric irons were not thermostatically controlled.

Electric Irons were first used in France in 1880, it took until the 1930’s for thermostatic heat control to be introduced. By 1939 the electric iron was second only to the wireless as the most common domestic appliance in the home. Today we use mainly steam iron’s and they are often thought of as a modern idea, but, Hoover introduced the first UK-produced steam iron between 1953 and 1962.

I have a nice collection of vintage irons in my home and a vintage ironing board, so I couldn’t help pondering over the question of how my vintage iron’s might compare to a modern day  steam iron.

So I decided to put the vintage irons to the test in a little modern versus vintage challenge. The results were as follows-

GEC 1950s iron

This was rather a cumbersome iron that was very effective know  crinkle removal but a lump to manoeuvre it was also difficult to manoeuvre into small areas and to do frilly cuffs.

1950s Gramophone CO Ltd

This nice little yellow number was my favourite it glided along the cotton  shirt and was the most effective at crease  removal.

1980s morphy Richards senior iron

This was a nice weight and a gave good overall performance, it was great for getting to the frills.

The modern day Russell Hobbs

This was not brilliant. It faired the worst out of the irons in terms of producing a crisp finish. It was the lightest of all the irons but it was also quite bulky and not good for tackling those frills.


Seren’s guide to ironing a shirt:

Step 1

Iron the underside of the shirt collar, starting at the centre and working out toward the edges, then back toward the centre.

Step 2

Work on the back shoulder yoke, draping one side of the yoke over the narrow end of your ironing board. Work the iron from the shoulder toward the centre of the back. Then iron the other shoulder using the same technique.

Step 3

Iron the inside of the cuffs of conventional shirts. For French cuffs, use a sleeve board or roll up a towel, insert it in the cuff, and iron directly on top of the cuff.

Step 4

Iron the sleeves, working from the cuff toward the shoulder. Iron the outside of the sleeve, then the inside. Repeat on the other sleeve.

Step 5

Tackle the shirt’s front panels, ironing one front panel at a time. Press the back from the centre to the bottom hem.

Step 6

The final touch is to re-press the collar top.

Top Tip: After you iron a shirt, place it on a hanger and set it aside to cool. A warm shirt creases when you put it on. A cool shirt is more likely to keep its fresh, crisp look.

On the subject of starching …

Now I am a great fan of the practice of starching when it comes to shirts, I just feel  that when pressing a nice shirt a bit of starch really enhances the finish. There are a few

  1. The shirt must be a woven fabric. You cannot achieve a crisp shirt with a knit fabric.

2.Shirts made of natural fibres like cotton or linen will hold the starch and their crispness much better than a blend of natural and synthetic (cotton/polyester) fibres.

  1. If the shirt is labelled dry clean only you will not be able to successfully apply the amount of starch needed to achieve crispness.

Making your own Spray Starch


  • An empty spray bottle
  • 200ml lukewarm tap water
  • 400ml boiling water
  • 2 tablespoons cornflour




Whisk the cornstarch into the tap water, doing your best to avoid any lumps. Add the 2 cups boiling water.



Pour the mixture into the bottle carefully, and then reattach the nozzle. Shake it up, making sure that all the starch has completely dissolved.

Once your starch has cooled enough to handle, spray it generously on your fabric and press as desired.



  • If you have your iron on high  take care not to scorch your iron or your fabric. As a carbohydrate, starch burns easily and can potentially ruin your project or leave burn marks on your iron plate.
  • Store any excess starch in the fridge so that it doesn’t ferment or get mouldy.
  • Clean your iron regularly with iron cleaner or with a solution of vinegar and water. Starch has a tendency to build up over time


If you really can’t bear to pick up the iron then consider these tips for getting crinkle free garments:

  1. White vinegar – Mist your garment with 1 part vinegar and 3 parts water. Then, just let it air dry.
  2. If you have a hair straightener on hand, this can be a good tool to get out stubborn wrinkles. It’s particularly useful for hard to iron areas like your shirt collar.
  3. use a damp towel – On a flat surface, place a damp towel over the wrinkled clothing and press down to smooth out deep creases. Then, hang to air dry.


I must admit that the though of wearing crinkled clothes or else relying upon the tumble drier to remove wrinkles from fabric, quite frankly creases me up. I am not as pernickety over my ironed appearance as Prince Charles who allegedly gets his shoelaces ironed, but I do feel that there is nothing like a ironed dress or well-ironed shirt on a man.