Illustration by Claudine Helmuth
I was rooting around my linen closet recently, looking for a folded stack of holiday tablecloths, when I was surprised by a memory. I wasn’t visited by a ghost of Christmas past. I just remembered how much I detest ironing. I realized that I probably hadn’t ironed anything since Christmas 2014—a new record. I paused, head in closet, and tried to recall when and why my ironing aversion began.
During my suburban childhood in the Midwest, an iron and ironing board stood always at the ready in our basement laundry room. Somebody in the family ironed something every day. No family road trip launched without someone in our jammed station wagon admitting—usually when we were miles from home in heavy traffic—“I think I forgot to unplug the iron.” Later, as a busy young professional, I enjoyed the mindless simplicity of starching and ironing a week’s worth of shirts or a stack of napkins for a dinner party.
These days, I think of my iron like the fire extinguisher under my kitchen sink: to be used only in case of an emergency.
I’m not alone. Gabrielle Duvall, 40, hasn’t ironed since she graduated from law school 15 years ago. “I spend so much time ironing my hair with a flat iron that I don’t have time to iron my clothes,” quips Duvall, a business attorney who commutes to her Bethesda office from Olney.
A few months ago, Duvall briefly debated lifting her ironing ban long enough to press nice napkins for Thanksgiving. She couldn’t bring herself to do it, so she sent the napkins to the dry cleaners. “If something needs to be ironed, I always send it to the dry cleaners,” the busy mother of two says. “Ironing is one of those problems you can throw a little money at and it goes away.”
As two-career families have become more egalitarian and time-starved—and household chores are shared, jointly ignored or outsourced—many people have come to believe that ironing is as archaic and unnecessarily laborious as, say, churning their own butter. (I’m in that camp.) Not coincidentally, this happened as options for attractive wrinkle-resistant clothing expanded. Brooks Brothers began selling non-iron dress shirts in the late 1990s. In 2006, a Brooks Brothers representative was quoted in The New York Times as saying that 70 percent of the shirts it sold were non-iron. Last year, 90 percent of the shirts sold by Brooks Brothers were non-iron.
Derrick Jacobs, a 33-year-old financial planner and father of a 4-year-old, estimates that he hasn’t ironed much of anything in eight years. He dry-cleans his clothes and buys non-iron shirts. And because no fabric is completely wrinkle-free, he often throws a shirt in the dryer for five minutes to relax any creases before he leaves for work.
“My wife hates that because she thinks the dryer is beating up my clothes,” says Jacobs, who lives in Rockville. “But I’m not going to iron them—and neither is she.”
Katie Burke, 39, a Chevy Chase, D.C., mother of four, says she almost never irons unless she has to affix an iron-on badge to her daughter’s Girl Scout uniform. “If something needs to be ironed, I won’t buy it,” she says. She tugs at the white pullover top she’s wearing, which is made of a crinkled fabric. “Not wanting to iron is why I bought this—it’s meant to be wrinkled.”
Asked whether her husband irons his shirts, she laughs and says: “I have no idea. I take care of the kids’ clothes and mine. He’s on his own.”
In 2009, a survey paid for by the Washington, D.C.-based Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers showed that 87 percent of households nationwide owned or had access to an iron. But only 9 percent of the people surveyed said they use their iron daily. Forty-one percent used the iron once a month or less. The association hasn’t repeated the survey since, a spokesman said. So I did my own informal polling in downtown Bethesda. In a day spent accosting strangers to ask about their ironing habits, I found just one person—Lee Roeder, 52—who said that he not only irons regularly, but enjoys it. “I love ironing,” Roeder said. “It’s kind of therapy.”
Roeder is something of an ironing expert. His father, who was in the military, taught him how to iron with pride. Now he runs the housewares department at Strosniders Hardware in Bethesda, which stocks a large selection of irons and ironing boards. Sales of irons, including a fancy Rowenta that costs $299, remain strong, he says. Cultural knowledge of how to iron properly, however, may be slipping away. Many customers don’t know that filling the water tank of an iron that is already hot might break it, he says. Talking with customers about ironing best practices, Roeder has come to realize that many of the buyers have no intention of ironing. They are getting an iron for their maid or nanny to use.
In other words, people who can pawn off their ironing on someone else often do. The rest of us develop ironing avoidance coping mechanisms. We buy knits or favor dark colors, which hide wrinkles better than lighter shades. We use our dryers as hands-free irons. We leave the house in slightly rumpled outfits knowing that by the time we get where we’re going our body heat will have caused the residual wrinkles in our jeans or shirts to relax.
A few months ago, I traveled to my college reunion at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. Getting ready in my hotel room, I planned to hang my black knit dress inside the shower to steam. But the hotel had those annoying anti-theft hangers that have no hook at the top once you remove them from the closet rod. There was no easy way to hang my dress in the shower. Sure, an iron and an ironing board were in the hotel room, but using them would have meant, you know, ironing.
Instead, I looped a big towel through a wooden hanger, then tied two corners of the towel together to make a sling. I tossed that towel-sling over one corner of the shower door so I could hang my dress to steam. It was an imperfect solution. The sling slipped a few times and my dress hit the shower floor. By the time I left for the party my dress was still a bit damp. At least I didn’t have to iron. n
April Witt (email@example.com) is a former Washington Post writer who lives in Bethesda.