For me, the only type of shirt worth buying is 100% cotton, long sleeve, with either a button down or spread collar. It can be white, oxford blue or in a variety of pastel colors. Above all, it must be pure cotton. 100% cotton has a look and feel that no poly-blend shirt can fully mimic. When properly tailored and ironed it looks appropriate at all times. Wear it with a suit and tie, or open-collar with a pair of khakis. What is more, it breathes. Because it breathes, you can roll up the sleeves during the summer and never break a sweat. It is an iconic symbol of timeless style at its best.
But here’s the thing: Pure cotton shirts are difficult to iron properly if you don’t know what you’re doing. Unlike poly-blend shirts that easily release their wrinkles, it is not easy to get an all-cotton shirt to look as smooth and wrinkle-free as it did when first purchased. Cotton fabric requires higher heat and more steam to release its wrinkles after laundering.
The easy solution is to simply have your cotton shirts professionally cleaned and pressed. The problem is that while they look great, the techniques used by professional cleaners shorten the life of the shirt and buttons. For me, a quality cotton shirt is something I want to care well for. They’re not cheap! Plus, I enjoy the process of laundering and ironing my shirts. I dare say that after much trial and error I now have a process for laundering and ironing all-cotton shirts that results in a near-perfect wrinkle-free appearance, without the expense and shortened shirt life span of professional cleaning processes.
Here is the first rule of keeping your all-cotton white shirts and bright pastels from fading or yellowing: Avoid using bleach, it weakens the cotton over time. Instead, add baking soda to your wash cycle. I add about a half cup to each load. It brightens white and light-colored fabrics without the harshness of bleach. Also, always dry your all-cotton shirts on the warm (not hot) setting on your dryer. That will also prevent yellowing due to excess heat. Finally, leave the shirts very slightly damp if you plan to iron them right away. If you plan to iron at a later time it is better to fully dry them to prevent any mildew smell.
A good quality steam iron is the secret to wrinkle-free all-cotton shirts. For years I struggled with a typical low-cost steam iron and wound up damaging my shirts in an effort to make them look as crisp as possible. The secret to quick, easy ironing of all-cotton shirts is lots of steam. Not starch… Steam baby, steam! And lots of it!
Generally, you want an iron that has a steam rating of 1600 watts or higher. This rating indicates how much steam the iron generates. When shopping for an iron check if it lists the steam rating in the description. If the iron has a good steam rating the manufacturer will usually promote it. Generally, cheaper irons with a poor steam rating will not provide that rating at all in their advertising.
The first iron that I ever purchased that made the ironing of all-cotton shirts a breeze was from Rowenta, a German brand of professional irons. It was a revelation seeing how easy it is to iron cotton when you have the steam to do it right! Professional quality irons like Rowenta (another excellent brand is Shark) usually have a steam rating between 1600-1700 watts. These irons generally cost $75 (US) and up. They deliver the large volume of steam needed to conquer cotton shirt wrinkles.
I discovered a moderately priced iron (the one I use presently) made by Black & Decker that also provides the volume of steam needed to flatten my cotton shirts. It is the Black & Decker Allure (D3030). This professional iron retails for around $40 and offers the same steam power as pricier models from Rowenta and Shark (1600 Watts steam rating). It’s an excellent bargain that can compete with steam irons three times its price.
Good Housekeeping rated the digital version of this iron (The Black & Decker D2030, selling for $45 on Amazon.com) as the best bargain steam iron in a recent review of 27 steam irons (including Rowenta and Shark steam irons). The only meaningful differences between the Black and Decker Allure and the D2030 are the digital temperature controls and display. If you can live without the digital gadgets, then buy the Black & Decker Allure (D3030). It has the same specs at a slightly better price.
Honestly, this is the real secret to a well-pressed all-cotton shirt. Get an iron that delivers lots and lots of steam! It is the steam, not pressure or starch that will remove those stubborn wrinkles. A tiny bit of starch will give you a crisper finish, but the secret to a wrinkle-free cotton shirt is lots of steam!
No matter the brand, I have found that all heavy duty steam irons tend to start having problems after a couple of years of heavy use. They don’t stop working. However, they start having problems with calcium deposits from hard water and producing discolored steam and sputtering as a result. So don’t expect them to last forever. Be sure to follow the manufacturer instructions about the right type of water to use with your steam iron to extend its usable life.
A cotton shirt should always be slightly damp when you iron it. The benefit of slight dampness it that it all turns into steam with just a couple of passes of your iron. Too much moisture will leave the shirt damp after ironing, robbing it of a crisp finish. Keep a spray bottle (that can deliver a fine mist) of water handy and give your shirts a light spritz. Then, wrap them in plastic for 15 minutes before ironing to allow the moisture to spread through the shirt and relax the fibers.
If you are using a good steam iron and the right technique, the need for spray starch will be minimal. I only use a light spray of starch on the cuffs, collar and front placket to give it extra crispness.
For this step, I defer to the masters. The video below provides a masterclass in ironing cotton shirts. Personally, I prefer to iron the sleeves before ironing the placket (front) of the shirt as demonstrated in this video. In this video, the demonstrator uses a professional steam generator iron with a separate water reservoir, the ‘Cadillac’ of steam irons. They are expensive but good for ironing lots of shirts without constantly replenishing water in your reservoir. If you’re just ironing five or six shirts a week the steam irons mentioned earlier in this article will do just fine.
One final tip: The heel or widest part of the iron produces the greatest amount of heat and steam. It does the best job of flattening wrinkles.
You should now have a perfectly pressed all-cotton shirt that you can wear proudly! -Don Peterson