Tuesday, November 17, 2009


When ironing a man’s dress shirt, Martha suggests you start with the shirt fresh from the dryer just before the full cycle has finished. She prefers it when the shirt is slightly damp, grabbing it before it has completely dried. I like to save my un-ironed shirts, letting them stack up in crumpled heaps waiting for my time of need. When the stress of everything going on around me becomes unbearable that’s when I get out the ironing board and the spray starch. I like doing dress shirts better than something simple like tablecloths or napkins. With a napkin the process is too monotonous. Each napkin is pretty much identical. First you spread it out on the ironing board, smoothing out the folds and wrinkles. Then it’s the spray starch. I like to put a little swish in my spray, moving my hand in an “s” motion overlapping the path of the starch. I usually start with the iron in the middle of the napkin and then work my way outward to the edges. Then I turn the napkin over and repeat the process on the other side. Once both sides are done I begin the folding process setting in the creases for what I want the final shape to be. First I fold the napkin in half adding my first seam. Then I fold it in half again and finish it off by folding the remaining form into thirds giving me an elongated rectangular napkin perfectly sized for setting on the table next to a dinner plate. I like a heavier fabric, a strong linen rather then the thinly worn cotton napkins that tend to pucker and stick to the iron when you first lay the iron down on them. After having finished ironing two or three napkins into perfect rectangles the fun is gone and the repetition turns into an ache in my lower back.
Dress shirts are different, more complex. Martha and I approach the process in much the same way. I start with the collar, so does she, ironing it from the backside first and then turning it over and smoothing out the front. Next I use the pointed end of the ironing board and stretch one side of the yoke over it. I use my swishing spray technique and then iron out the yoke and the upper part of the sleeve. Each stroke of the iron leaves a path of smooth fabric where before there were crumpled limbs and furrowed skin. The healing aspects of ironing works wonders on my self-esteem. It elevates me to the status of doctor fixing broken bones and mending cuts and gashes. After repeating the work on the other side of the yoke I move on to the cuffs. I do the inside of the cuff first and then move to the outside. I do one cuff and then its corresponding sleeve before I move on to the second cuff and then the second sleeve. Once the sleeves are done I begin the plackets starting with the right placket. I tuck the board into the niche formed by the yoke and sleeve smoothing out the fabric and pulling it as close to the seam as I can. Sometimes I’ll get starch dots laced across the fabric. I focus my attention to these first, letting the iron rest on them just long enough to dry them up but not too long to leave an iron imprint on the shirt. Slowly I move around the shirt doing the back and then the final placket, ironing around the buttons and the pocket if the shirt has one. Martha prefers to do this from the inside of the shirt laying down an extra towel to cushion the buttons. I like to iron from the outside driving my iron in circles around each button. It may take longer to do it that way but for me that’s the point. When the shirt is finished I gently place it on a rubber-coated hanger. God forbid the ghost of Joan Crawford should peek in my closet and find any wire ones.

Ironing is an art. You can’t rush through it. It forces you to slow down. You need to focus and pay attention to each wrinkle and starch stain. The iron has its own speed of healing the crinkled wounds of the fabric. It leads the way and you follow. It’s mesmerizing and it takes me away from the stress. It calms and my heart slows down. For some men fixing a car soothes their jagged nerves, For me, standing in front of an ironing board pressing out the furrows on a clean white shirt steams out the wrinkles of my life. 

A drawing of my mom I did in the late 70's when she was at her ironing best. It was apparently no fluke that I inherited the ironing gene from someone who practiced the zen of the perfect crease.

Find something that can take you out of yourself when the stress of money, joblessness and providing for your family becomes too much. Get out the iron, the monkey wrench or the Sudoku and remove your mind from the moment. Take time for yourself and allow the blood pressure to settle to an acceptable level.

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