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Back to Basics: How to Iron

It's really not that hard.
The Duchess of Cambridge, aka Kate Middleton, and Prince Charles show off their ironing techniques during a charity event. Photo: John Stillwell/WPA Pool/Getty Images

The Duchess of Cambridge, aka Kate Middleton, and Prince Charles show off their ironing techniques during a charity event. Photo: John Stillwell/WPA Pool/Getty Images

"Basic" may have adapted a negative connotation in recent years, but there's no shame in seeking advice on theoretically simple sartorial conundrums. In our latest column, "Back to Basics," we're here to guide you through life's most common (and important) fashion and beauty concerns.

Ironing is one of those overwhelming household tasks that many folks do their best to avoid entirely. Some people accomplish this by spending serious dough at the dry cleaner, or by getting creative: In a pinch, I've hung a shirt, wet out of the washing machine, with a row of clothes pins hooked along the bottom hem to weigh down the fabric as it dried. Neither of these options are as ideal as simply investing in a good iron and/or steamer and getting familiar with the best way to tackle a shirt collar. Let's be honest: it's really not that hard, and nothing's worse than struggling to pick out an outfit before realizing your go-to work pants are all bunched up at the knees. Not chic. 

For expert ironing advice, I turned to Martha Stewart Living's Gardens and Features Editor Melissa Ozawa, who broke the process down step by step. Read on for her top tips for achieving a perfectly crisp wardrobe. 

1. Invest in a good iron

The most important step is perhaps the easiest. "Invest in a high-quality iron that lasts a very long time," says Ozawa. "Look for a reputable brand, something that's heavier is better. You don't have to apply as much pressure for wrinkles." That's especially important for tougher fabrics like cotton and linen, and if the iron has a steaming capacity, that's very useful, too.

2. Know your fabric and act accordingly 

"The most important thing is to identify what type of fabric [you're dealing with]," notes Ozawa. Then, set your iron's heat dial following its guidelines. "You don't want to use the highest setting for something that's not a natural fiber or a polyester," she says. Test a small area on the inside of the garment to make sure you have no problems. Sometimes delicate fabrics can develop a shine while being ironed because "the pressure can cause the fibers to knit together and it can cause a sheen." In that case, and whenever you're in doubt about the sensitivity of the fabric, use a pressing cloth of cotton or muslin laid between the iron and the garment for an added layer of protection.

Some fabrics should never be ironed: velvet or anything with a nap, pile (raised surface) or embroidery. Those pieces, along with wool and silk, are better off steamed. (More on that in step six.) 

3.  Water can be your friend

First of all, make sure your iron is full of water. And if you're ironing cotton or linen, have a spray bottle of water on hand to give your garment the once over before before getting started. "It's always good to start when it's slightly damp," says Ozawa. "Don't just rely on what you can get out of your iron." If you make a mistake and create a crease somewhere you didn't intend to, spritz it and start again; the heat of the iron will evaporate the water. For really tough wrinkles in linen, try wetting the pressing cloth, too. "Linen can be one if the trickiest to get wrinkles out of, but wet it with water — damp not dripping — and then try putting another piece of wet cloth over it, iron with high heat and see if that will take the wrinkles out," she says. 

You can also use the spritzer to freshen up a garment's smell with lavender or rose water. "I wouldn't put that in the iron, but just use it in the spritzer," says Ozawa. 

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4. Order of operations

Particularly complex garments, like a long-sleeved button-down shirt, are best tackled step by step. Ozawa recommends starting with the inside and outside of the cuffs before going up the sleeves. Then iron the collar (first opened, and then folded) before hitting the yoke, or shoulders. Finish off by ironing the front two panels and the back. Be careful not to iron over buttons, instead sneaking the iron in between then. 

It's also best to iron in the direction of the fabric — look closely at the garment and follow the direction of the weave. 

5. Tricky bits (sleeves, shoulders, pleats, crease)

The ironing board's narrow end is your friend when dealing with narrow seams and corners. "If you're really fastidious about getting a perfectly ironed sleeve, there is such a thing as a sleeve board that's designed for small areas — it's super-tiny and very narrow," says Ozawa. "You can slide your sleeve on there and you can iron without it getting any creases — same for your shoulder."

When tackling pleats, lay the garment flat on the board with the seams lined up and pull the pleat taut. "Then just gently press down to where you want the pleats to fall out," Ozawa explains. 

6. Steaming

Steamers are great for voluminous skirts and dresses that can be challenge to lay flat on an ironing bar. Hang the garment at shoulder height against a clean surface. (You can buy a steamboard to hang over a door to protect both your garment and the wall.)

If you're working with a delicate item or a fabric like velvet, test the effect of the heat on a small swatch before proceeding. Then apply heat to the inside of the garment, being careful not to touch the garment directly. "Sometimes steamers can spit and you just want to make sure that you're extra cautious," says Ozawa. For tougher fabrics like cotton or linen, it's okay to apply a light touch with the steamer. 

7. Hang it up afterwards

Finally, hang up your newly ironed garment in an open area — not your closet — after you're finished, until it cools down and finishes drying completely. And voila! Anti-wrinkle mission accomplished. 

Homepage photo: Mark Mainz/Getty Images

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