If ironing isn't your favorite chore, you're not alone. People have been enduring it since ancient times. Clothes irons have come a long way since then. Having the right kind can make your task much easier. Learn about different types of irons and how to choose the right one.
For most of us, it’s a dreaded chore. We take clean clothes out of the laundry only to find them wrinkled. If you’re like me, you’ll try every stopgap solution to avoid pressing them. Throwing them in for an extra spin in the dryer. Turning the shower to its hottest setting and hanging the clothes in the steamy bathroom. Or, when all else fails, smoothing the fabric with your hands and putting it on, hoping the creases will work themselves out.
Ironing clothes is more of a “thing” than you might realize. The Chicago Tribune reports that 99% of US households own an iron, and about 14 million of the devices are sold in the country every year.
Ironing is something most of us have to do at some point. Your task will be much easier with the right appliance. This article will iron out (pun intended) any confusion you might have about pressing your clothes at home.
Table of Contents
- Types of Clothes Irons
- The Origin of the Clothing Iron – A Little Backstory
- How to Choose the Best Iron for Clothes
- What’s the Best Iron for Clothing?
- What’s the Best Iron for Quilting and Sewing?
- What’s the Best Iron to Take On the Go?
- Clothes Iron Maintenance
- What’s the Difference Between an Iron and a Clothes Steamer?
- How to Choose an Ironing Board
Types of Clothes Irons
Basic Clothes Irons
A basic clothes iron (also known as a dry iron) has nothing in the way of extra features. It consists of a metal plate for pressing and a dial for temperature-adjustment. It’s a good go-to if you’re looking for something cheap. When I was a struggling college student, I snagged one for about five bucks.
Well, they say you get what you pay for, and that’s the case with this kind of iron. It’ll get the job done. But you’ll need some accessories, like a spray bottle of water or starch, to get the most out of this no-frills tool. When I had mine, I found I had to be generous with the water or starch. Without enough liquid to help the process along, the iron – and therefore also my clothes – could be prone to scorching.
Plus, a basic iron usually won’t shut off automatically, so make sure you turn it off when you’re done. You’ll probably also be hard-pressed to find one with a retractable cord, so they don’t store as conveniently as the higher-end models.
Conventional Steam Irons
Steam irons are the most widely-available. They’re definitely a step up from the basic variety. The iron is equipped with a little tank that holds water for the steam. Just release the vapor, and apply the iron to the fabric.
Another plus, you may be able to snare a steam iron that has the aforementioned helpful features like a retractable cord and automatic shut-off. Steam irons are relatively easy to use. It’s just a matter of getting used to them if you’re not accustomed to appliances releasing puffs of steam. Of course, you’ll want to keep yourself out of the hot vapor’s path.
Vertical Steam Irons
These are a more “modern” take on the traditional steam iron. Like their conventional cohorts, vertical irons allow you to steam horizontally as you iron. But you can use them to steam vertically. Sometimes, a little steam is all it takes to get creases out of a garment; no pressing required. With a vertical steamer, you can direct the steam at the wrinkled area without making contact with the fabric, so there’s less work involved. These devices don’t release continuous steam; you have to press a button to activate the vapor.
I wish I’d had a steam iron when I graduated from eighth grade. My gown came folded and wrapped in plastic, and when I unfurled the thin fabric, I found it to be full of creases. My teacher told the class to take their gowns home and hang them up in a steamy bathroom. But most of us found that we had to do this several times to make them presentable. A direct shot of steam would probably have been much more effective.
If you’re traveling and iron isn’t provided with your overnight accommodations, this item is an essential addition to your luggage. It won’t take up much space in a bag or suitcase because it’s smaller and lighter than your average iron. A travel iron is usually foldable, making it even more compact. You might even be able to find some that are cordless, too. There’s one drawback, though:
Some travel irons don’t come with steam features, so read product descriptions carefully to make sure you get what you want. If your travels include hotel stays, ask if there will be iron in your room or if one is available at the front desk before you rush out to purchase one. If you decide you need one, find one that you like and that you’ll actually want to use.
Deluxe Clothes Irons
These five-star irons come with plenty of extras, like seamless temperature adjustment, advanced steam features, a retractable cord, and that all-important automatic shut-off. These top-of-the-line irons usually come with more steam holes and have water tanks that are easier to fill. If you’ve ever wrestled with opening the tank on a simpler model, you may want to trade it in for a deluxe model.
Another thing you’ll like about “luxury edition” irons is that they’re typically equipped with better soleplates that are less likely to stick to fabrics. While these appliances may cost a bit more up-front, they’re a worthwhile investment if you get a lot of use out of them. They’re a popular purchase among people who regularly sew or need to press heavy fabric.
The Origin of the Clothing Iron – A Little Backstory
Smoothing the wrinkles out of clothing has a long history, dating all the way back to ancient China around the first century BC. These rudimentary irons consisted of metal pans filled with hot coals. Sounds like they could double as portable grills.
In 17th-century England, people used triangular cast-iron slabs with handles to get rid of wrinkles. Called a sad iron (middle-English for “solid iron), this device had to be warmed up on a stove or in a fireplace. It was also called a flatiron, not to be confused with the modern electrical gadget used to straighten hair.
Later, these chunks of metal were tweaked a bit, fashioned as boxes that people could fill with hot coals. One slight disadvantage of these is that they had to have air circulated through them on occasion. Some of these box irons used metal inserts in lieu of coals.
In India, people used hot coconut shells instead of traditional coals. They had a similar heating capacity but made for a cleaner burn than charcoal. Interestingly, the coconut contraption is still used as a fall-back technique when all else fails. Power outages are frequent in some parts of the country, so it’s always good to have coconut shells on hand.
Even before the advent of the modern iron (also called a flat iron or smoothing iron), people had options to choose from when they needed to flatten out the fabric. They could get their chore done with a cluster of irons that utilized one source of heat. When one iron cooled down, they could quickly reach for another hot one.
By the late 1800s and into the 1900s, irons were frequently heated with fuels like natural gas, carbide, ethanol, gasoline, and even whale oil. Homes were built with pipe systems leading to the various rooms to power lights and appliances. This probably wasn’t the most efficient method for heating an iron, considering the fire hazards it posed. Nonetheless, irons warmed by liquid fuel were common in American households through the mid-1940s. These were primarily used in rural areas, where electricity was harder to come by in those days.
Irons as we know them (the electric variety) use resistive heating to warm an aluminum or stainless steel soleplate (the part that comes into direct contact with fabric). The metal is polished to make it super-smooth. The soleplate is frequently coated with a heat-resistant plastic to minimize friction.
Wondering how the iron regulates its temperature so it doesn’t turn into a broiler? Irons have an internal thermostat that turns the electrical current on and off to maintain the desired temperature, similar to the way your furnace kicks on and off to maintain the setting.
If learning about the evolution of this appliance has given you a greater appreciation for the modern iron, you can thank Henry W. Seeley. The New York City inventor came up with his innovation in 1882. That same year, an iron heated by a carbon arc came into being in France. It never caught on though, because it was too dangerous to operate.
Therefore, Seeley’s electric iron prevailed. One shortcoming with these, however, is that there was no way to consistently regulate their temperature. That problem was resolved by the 1920s when thermostat-controlled irons arrived on the market. Then, in 1926, Thomas Sears introduced the first steam iron. It never took off. But by 1934, Chicago inventor Max Skolnik patented the first electric steam iron with a dampener. This one was a tremendous success.
How to Choose the Best Iron for Clothes
Now that you know irons aren’t all created equal, you might be wondering what to keep in mind when purchasing one. Knowing what you want ahead of time will make life a lot easier when you’re browsing through the selections available in-store and online. Here’s a run-down of iron features 101.
Any steam iron can release hot vapor horizontally. The ones that steam vertically give you added versatility because you can get the wrinkles out of drapes and other items that are hard to press. You can smooth hanging garments without taking them down.
Different fabrics need varying amounts of steam to smooth them out. Look for an iron with a gauge for the steam setting so you can customize how much steam you release onto the fabric. Irons equipped with a spray nozzle allow you to gently mist clothing and other fabrics if you don’t want to use a lot of water. For tough-to-iron fabrics like denim and linen, you can use an iron with a steam burst feature that centralizes the vapor’s release.
Steam irons come with a water reservoir that you will need to refill periodically. A transparent reservoir makes it easy to keep an eye on how much water remains. It’s even more convenient to have an iron with a reservoir that you can remove when it’s time to replenish the supply. This makes spills or accidental overflows less likely.
Most traditional irons come with an equally conventional cord. Sometimes, that cord can get in the way and doesn’t let you move beyond the limits of its reach. For more flexibility and freedom, you can get a cord that swivels full-circle in all directions. It minimizes wire fatigue, too.
The best way to store a corded iron is usually to wrap the cord around the device and place it somewhere out of the way. But you have to wait for the iron to cool down first, or you’ll scorch the cord. For easier storage, consider an iron with a retractable cord. The cord rolls up inside the iron when not in use and protects it from the device’s heat.
Another option is to forgo the cord altogether. A cordless iron has to be warmed up on a heat plate, and it only retains heat for a few minutes, so it needs to be returned to the plate frequently. But it gives you maximum freedom of movement since there’s no cord to get tangled in.
If you sometimes forget to turn appliances off, or you’re used to ones that turn off on their own, an iron with an automatic shut-off feature is probably your best bet. These irons have a timer inside that turns off the appliance when it hasn’t been in motion for a preset time period.
Any iron you buy should have settings for low, medium, and high heat. If you get an iron with more bells and whistles, it will probably come with additional temperature settings if you want more precise heating. This feature is especially useful if you iron a wide variety of fabrics.
Sole Plate Material
You can find an iron with a ceramic soleplate, an anodized aluminum soleplate, or a nonstick soleplate, although stainless steel soleplates are more common. If you want an iron that glides easily over your fabric, go with a ceramic or stainless steel soleplate. Other materials have a little more “give” when they pass over the fabric.
This is a feature many people probably aren’t aware of. If you’ve had the same iron for any length of time, you may notice that sometimes the soleplate seems to lose some of its smooth finish. An anti-calcium system prevents sediment from building up on the soleplate, keeping it looking like new and doing its job more effectively.
Last but not least, look for an iron that’s comfortable to handle. Make sure it’s not too heavy and doesn’t feel awkward in your hand. This is easier to do if you’re shopping in-person, since it may be possible to pick up the iron to test it out a bit before you buy. If you’re purchasing online, read product descriptions to check the weight of the appliance, and read customer reviews to see what other people are saying about it.
Of course, irons aren’t just used for putting neat creases in your favorite jeans or making your business casual clothes look more professional. People use them for quilting and sewing or pressing linens and formal attire. Here’s what to look for so you can get the appliance that best meets your specific needs.
What’s the Best Iron for Clothing?
If you’re pressing clothing, a steam iron will give you the greatest versatility for handling nearly every fabric type. An iron with plenty of temperature settings lets you smooth out sturdy fabrics, like denim and cotton. At the same time, you’ll be able to preserve the quality of the more delicate fabrics, like silk or polyester. Customizable temperature settings, spray nozzles, and vertical steaming capabilities will give you everything you need to cover virtually all of your fabrics in the clothing department.
What’s the Best Iron for Quilting and Sewing?
When you’re sewing or quilting, getting the wrinkles out of the fabric will make your task a lot easier. Since most handiwork projects involve cotton or fabric blends with cotton is woven throughout, you’ll probably want to go with an iron designed to tackle those materials. The best sewing and quilting irons are the steam variety and have dedicated settings for cotton.
What’s the Best Iron to Take On the Go?
As we’ve already mentioned, there’s no one-size-fits-all configuration when it comes to travel irons. When you’re on the go, you probably want to pack as light as possible. Go with a compact iron that isn’t too heavy and has adjustable temperature settings. If your itinerary takes you out of the country, consider an iron with dual-voltage systems so you can use it both at home and in a foreign country.
Clothes Iron Maintenance
Something as small and unassuming as a clothes iron seems like it wouldn’t need much in the way of maintenance, especially if it’s a dry iron. If you have a steam iron, its water receptacle requires the occasional refill. But giving your iron a little TLC will make it last longer and keep it in optimal working condition. Here are some tips for keeping your iron in good shape.
Avoid Using Tap Water in a Steam Iron
While it might seem like second-nature to fill your steam iron’s water tank under the faucet, it’s better to use distilled water instead. Most tap water contains sediment that, over time, will cause buildup that blocks your iron’s steam holes, preventing the vapor from releasing efficiently.
Clean Your Iron Occasionally
If sediment does build up in your steam iron, it’s not a lost cause. To clear the buildup, prepare a solution of 1:1 parts vinegar and water. Pour it into the reservoir and let your iron steam for five minutes. Vinegar is great for cleaning just about anything, and a stopped-up iron is no exception.
Polish the Soleplate
And while we’re on the topic of vinegar, let’s talk about your iron’s soleplate. Sometimes, starch accumulates on it. To get rid of the residue, all you have to do is pour some vinegar onto a clean cloth and wipe off the sticky surface. (Only do this when the iron is cool).
You may also notice burnt residue on the soleplate. The first time I saw this, I thought my soleplate had reached the end of its lifespan. But there’s good news: you can restore the plate to its pre-scorched condition. Just follow these steps.
- Turn the iron to its maximum temperature setting.
- Place a piece of newspaper or a brown paper bag on your ironing board.
- Pour plenty of salt onto the paper.
- In a circular motion, rub the hot iron over the salt until the burned buildup vanishes.
If you want to clean burnt residue from a soleplate without heating your iron, you can simply wipe the cold surface with a wet, spongy magic eraser.
What’s the Difference Between an Iron and a Clothes Steamer?
A steam generator iron allows for vertical steaming and smooths out your clothes (and other fabrics) without making contact with them. You can get wrinkles out by holding the steamer — consisting of a wand suspended at the end of a hose — in close proximity to the fabric.
A clothes steamer is well-suited for delicate materials (satin, polyester, jersey, silk). It’s also good for pressing pleats, sleeves, suit jackets, and other hard-to-iron articles. You can access difficult-to-reach parts of garments without the risk of burning them.
Also known as steam generators, these devices emit a much more powerful steam release than your average iron. This type of steam press typically has a higher water capacity, too.
One drawback of a garment steamer, though, is that it doesn’t allow you to press creases into your clothing, so steamed items won’t look as “crisp” as ironed garments.
How to Choose an Ironing Board
When it comes to ironing boards, you can get them in stand-alone and tabletop varieties. If you want to carry your iron from room to room, you’ll probably prefer a tabletop board. These are popular for sewing projects because of their portability.
If you go with the stand-alone kind, consider one that’s easy for you to maneuver, especially if you’re going to put it up and take it down frequently. Choose ones with mesh, metal tops that essentially serve as steam vents. That way, the board doesn’t absorb moisture if you’re using a steam iron. The surface should be sturdy but not too heavy.
You can also install a built-in board (or have it installed professionally). This kind of board should be at hip level if you iron standing up.
Choosing the right cover is important too. While most ironing boards come with their own, you might want something a little different. Some covers have non-stick surfaces to keep clothes from adhering to them. Others are made of reflective material that transfers heat back to the fabric to make your work a little more…well…seamless.
What temperature should you use to iron clothes?
Different fabrics call for different heat settings. When in doubt, start with low heat, especially with delicate materials.
How do you get scorch marks out of clothes?
There are a few ways to do this:
- Rub liquid laundry detergent on the spot right away, then wash the garment with liquid detergent and (only if it’s safe to do so) oxygen bleach.
- If the marks are slight and you want to wear the item right away, lightly apply white distilled vinegar to the area. Then wipe the spot with a clean cloth.
Or use this more in-depth method.
- Apply hydrogen peroxide to the stain using an eyedropper. Add 1-2 drops of ammonia.
- For the next few minutes to an hour, let it stand, continually applying peroxide and ammonia so it doesn’t dry out.
- Rinse thoroughly with water, then launder with oxygen bleach if it’s safe for the material.
Are there some fabrics that shouldn’t be steamed?
Be careful when steaming velvet and suede. These materials don’t tolerate much moisture, so if steam them you must, do it sparingly, preferably from behind.
How do you prevent shine marks on clothing?
Shine marks from ironing are definitely not glamorous, but in most cases, they can be prevented. When pressing your clothes, use a protective cloth, or set the iron to a lower temperature. You can also try pressing the garment when it’s turned inside out. Using a vertical steam iron brings the risk of shine marks to about zero since it never comes into contact with the material.
Does the number of holes in a steaming iron matter?
The more holes in the appliance, the more outlets for steam to pass through. A good distribution of holes on the soleplate means you can cover a wider surface area when pressing. The number and placement of holes vary quite a bit from one model to another.
How long does an iron typically last?
Irons aren’t designed to be long-term investments. While they don’t necessarily have a set “lifespan, ” they aren’t made to last for years on end. When you buy one, it will probably come with a one-year warranty. Hopefully, it will operate well for much longer than that. But if you’ve had yours for quite a while and it’s showing signs of decline, don’t feel guilty about springing for a new one.
Our Everyday Life: Oat Bran Vs. Wheat Germ
Wikipedia: Clothes iron
The Home Depot: How to Choose the Best Iron
The Ironing Room: Is A Steam Generator Better Than An Iron?
Good Housekeeping: Stain Buster — Iron Scorch Marks (Light)
Fridja: What Fabrics Can Be Steamed?
Homecult: How Do You Stop Shine When Ironing?
Heirloom Creations: How Long Does An Iron Last?
Chicago Tribune: The Iron Is Hot
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