How to Iron as a Toxin-Free Alternative to Dry Cleaning

If you’re concerned about dry cleaning, you’re not alone. That’s because the main ingredient conventional dry cleaners use to clean our clothes also pollutes our homes, our bodies and the environment. Perchlorethylene (PERC) is a strongly suspected carcinogen and neurotoxin, and it’s a major contaminant in over half of all toxic waste cleanup sites that are on the federal priority list.

Eliminating toxic dry cleaning is easy if you live in places where greener alternatives, like wet or CO2 cleaners, are thriving. Or if you don’t need to wear dry-clean-only clothing very often, hand washing now and then will work fine as long as you know what you’re doing.

However, if you’re one of the millions of Americans who still wears suits or even upscale business-casual slacks and blouses, it’s a lot more challenging to give up dry cleaning. When looking polished is a major part of your job description, you really can’t risk experimenting with hand washing. But there is still an alternative that can keep you looking crisp and professional without the toxins: ironing. Even better, you may already have everything you need to do it.

Mastering the iron

The truth is that most of what gets dropped off at the dry cleaner is not really dirty — it’s just wrinkled. When fabric like velvet, cashmere, silk or lined wool is too wrinkled to be worn again, many of us take it to the dry cleaner simply because we don’t know what else to do with it. That’s the only way we know it will come back neatly pressed and creased in all the right places.

If you’re like me, you own a decades-old iron and never quite got the knack of ironing. Don’t panic. These days, good quality irons don’t drip. They have such powerful steaming capabilities that no wrinkle is safe. Believe it or not, a good iron and a little practice can empower you to freshen up your whole week’s worth of clothes faster than you’d spend in the car going back and forth to the dry cleaner. Plus, you’ll save money.

Types of irons

Most people will do fine with a steam iron to press their pants and still have enough steam to touch up wrinkled waistbands and knees when the garment is hanging on a hanger.

However, if you frequently wear suits and have a lot of ironing each week, it makes sense to spend a little more on a steam generator iron (sometimes called a pressure iron). These give you so much continuous steam that you will get dry-cleaner-quality results in half the time. It takes about 20 to 30 minutes to do a whole week’s worth of clothes — and that’s even for slow ironers like me.

Technique is everything

When I decided to cut down on my dry cleaning and learn to iron, I knew my old cheapo iron wouldn’t help me. I decided to invest in a new one (a Rowenta Pressure Iron and Steamer that runs about $170). The manufacturer actually has on staff a “Queen of Steam” whose job is to teach people how to iron properly. Since I needed all the help I could get, I called up the “Queen of Steam,” Barbara Zagnoni. If it weren’t for Zagnoni's tutorial on how to iron a shirt, I probably would have given up in frustration and gone right back to dry cleaning.

Here’s how:

  • Start with the collar: Iron the inside of the collar from the center out so you won’t create more wrinkles than you remove.
  • Next, iron the shoulders: Insert the nose of the ironing board into the shoulder of the shirt and make sure the material is flat. Iron from the base of the collar at the shoulder to the center of the back. Do the same on the other side.
  • Then the cuffs and sleeves: Place a sleeve on the board with the buttons or cufflink holes oriented up. Iron the inside of the cuff and then turn the sleeve over and iron the other side. Turn the sleeve back so the buttons are facing up and iron the sleeve. Flip it again and iron the other side. Do the same thing on the next sleeve.
  • The rest of the shirt: Start with one side panel. Then do the back and then the other side panel. Keep adjusting the fabric to make sure the section you are ironing is flat on the board.
  • Survey your work: Usually you’ll just need to touch up the collar and you’re done.
  • Let it set: Once you’ve finished ironing your garment, don’t immediately put it on or hang it in the closet because you’ll just create wrinkles. Instead, hang it where it won’t be disturbed and it can set.

Keep it green

Cutting down or eliminating dry cleaning is definitely better for the environment. However, it is important to understand that ironing has its own environmental costs. Irons can use a lot of energy and are made with heavy metals and plastics. For those reasons, it’s important to choose an efficient iron that can get your clothes pressed in a minimal amount of time.

Also, take care of your iron to prolong its life. Zagnoni states that her irons can last up to 10 years if taken care of. She says getting an iron with a self-cleaning feature or remembering to clean your iron every few months is a good idea, especially if you have hard water. If you do have hard water and iron only once a week, Zagnoni also suggests emptying the iron after each use to reduce buildup.

With these tips and a regular ironing routine to keep it from piling up, you’ll drastically reduce your trips to the dry cleaner, saving money and the environment.

Kimberly Delaney is the author of Clean Home, Green Home: The Complete Illustrated Guide to Eco-Friendly Homekeeping, published by the Knack imprint of Globe Pequot Press.

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Mira421's picture
User offline. Last seen 7 years 3 weeks ago. Offline
Joined: 07/08/2009

I rarely have clothes dry-cleaned, but when I do, it is not because of wrinkles but of perspiration smell and spots. What then?

lmbaer's picture
User offline. Last seen 5 years 47 weeks ago. Offline
Joined: 07/08/2009

I find it hilarious that we need articles on how to iron a shirt. (And, no, don't iron the collar first; as the article says, you'll have to do it again, so just do it last.) And, as Mira points out, ironing doesn't resolve spots and smells. In fact it makes them worse.

So, buy clothes you can clean buy hand or in your washer (front loaders are great for silk blouses and washable wools). And, resort to those wet or CO2 cleaning services for the stuff you really can't do at home. (I've been ironing since I was about 10 and I still send my husbands shirts to a CO2 cleaner because I can't do one in under 2.5 minutes--the equivalent of what they charge).

So, come on America! Learn how to iron, learn how to fold a fitted sheet in a square, grow some vegetables and teach it all to your kids. Sheesh. We can stop looking sloppy without a lot of dry cleaning. But, you'll still need some soda water or lemon juice--or maybe even a CO2 cleaner--if your kid dumps ketsup on your white worsted suit.

KimD's picture
User offline. Last seen 7 years 3 weeks ago. Offline
Joined: 02/28/2008

Thanks for your comments. While it's great that you know how to iron, the fact is there are millions of people who don't know and think it will take them forever. In fact, if you don't know the right way to iron the shirt or pants, it will take you forever and is not a viable option. So it's easier to take it to the dry cleaner at a dollar a shirt. But once you have a system down, it can go really fast and your clothes look great without harming the environment.

I wrote this article because I was tired of seeing the same old greener than thou articles about "alternatives" to dry cleaning (such as CO2 cleaning) that are GREAT but are simply not available for most of the country. And there are still people in the world whose work dress code and time constraints make dry cleaning seem like the only option. For some dry cleaning may still be an option for soiled or smelly clothes but they can cut it way down with the right tools and a little technique.

marcia422's picture
User offline. Last seen 7 years 2 weeks ago. Offline
Joined: 07/11/2009

I loved this article! So many times in our busy lives, we don't focus on the simple, basic ways we can approach tasks that not only will save us money but also improve the world we live in. Good job for bringing Ironing back into our focus!! For those of us who obviously know everything (!), skip the article. For those who never learned how to iron, definitely iron the collar first!!

Mariah423's picture
User offline. Last seen 7 years 2 weeks ago. Offline
Joined: 07/11/2009

I don't know how many times I've seen business shirts head off to a dry cleaners not because of stains, but due to my other half's desire to skip that ironing step..... Perhaps putting it in Green terms will resonate with him! Thanks

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