“What’s that?” I had to ask Helen recently. I was staying in her guest room where, to my untrained eye, something resembling a coat rack stood in the corner atop a super sleek upright vacuum. Her initial response was probably mild shock. How is this woman my mother? And how the heck did she get through life this far and really not know the answer herself? But she hid it well. “It’s a garment steamer,” she said.
“Oooh,” I said, “That’s cool. You put your dress or whatever on the hanger and you don’t have to iron!” Helen quickly left the room before I could ask her to “bring it up” next time she came to visit. I already saved sewing for her, tossing any mending more challenging then a loose button into a “Helen pile” I’d sheepishly meter out over her trips back home. And she knew I hadn’t bought a new iron since the first Bush administration. Nope, her state-of-the art garment steamer was staying put.
The last time I gave that much thought to ironing, Helen was six years old and wanted to be a golden princess angel for Halloween. I’d done my best to customize a Simplicity pattern, and was pressing out the seams so she didn’t end up looking like a giant Dorito with wings, when a TV ad caught my fancy.
“Take the wrinkles out of ironing!” it promised. On the screen, the latest and greatest in steam irons practically propelled itself over an unraveling blouse while the woman waiting to wear it chatted on the phone. She was barely lifting a finger toward the miracle appliance. Commercial dramatization scrolled across the bottom of the screen.
“Shucks,” I said. “I always wanted a turbo-glide iron.” The regular kind, the kind I needed to push, I could barely justify. I already had one of those and, aside from dragging it across golden princess angel satin and other must-have garments, it had really low mileage on it.
If I can’t totally ignore it, I leave ironing at rock bottom on my to-do list. Even the lowest home maintenance tasks, those involving rubber gloves, mildew repellent, and Goo Gone, get tackled while I let the clothing in my ironing basket go in and out of fashion. These days, my lifestyle forgives such procrastination. I am far removed from professional circles that frown upon showing up looking like a Wheatie. Gone are the years when forging ahead on the career front ironically shackled me to my ironing board and domestic slavery at its worst.
Iron willed. Iron clad. No wonder a word meaning heavy-handed still describes the chore, even though the implement used has advanced beyond the triangular slab of metal for which it was originally named. My great grandmothers, who propelled their irons with elbow grease, would have rejoiced over today’s plug-in models. And they would have burst their buttons over the technological breakthrough that automated repetitive ironing motions to the tolerable level we modern women enjoy. The best advancement, in my opinion, had nothing to do with steam vents or fabric thermostats, and more to do with RCA than General Electric. Because it was actually the television that truly liberated us from the drudgery of pressing out wrinkles.
Growing up, I always thought taking on responsibility for my own wrinkles would be no big deal. How difficult could a job be that moms accomplished without taking their eyes off General Hospital? “There’s one chore that’s not even worth bothering to observe for future reference,” I decided. As a result, I soon had to come up with my own ironing solutions. Sprinting to the dryer to extract crinkly clothes mid-spin and, when that failed, consulting the garment care instructions for a second opinion. (In my book, a tag that said “cool iron if needed,” meant don’t bother, whereas “warm iron,” left room for dispute, and “iron, steam setting,” meant the shirt was out of circulation for at least a month.) For occasions when I absolutely could not dodge my ironing board, I kept a few handy helpers close by: steel wool for scraping molten materials off the back of the iron, rust remover for whatever the forsaken apparatus decided to unleash and, most importantly, the TV Guide. On good days, I managed to look somewhere between what my mother would call “put together” and what my Nana would classify as “something the cat dragged in.”
Fabric trends were forever complicating the job, too. Pure cotton, for instance, became popular when the high fashion gurus decided polyester was out and, full steam ahead, turned their attention to natural clothing fiber. It’s versatile, they said. It’s comfortable but crisp. It’s the fabric of our lives. What they should have also said is it crumples! One washing and it turns from easy breezy into something that crawled out of the back of a gym locker. If I’d written it, the tag on that stuff would read: “Machine wash, warm. Tumble dry. Beat down with a baseball bat, as needed, while ironing.”
I thought I caught a break when garment manufacturers introduced “crinkle cloth”—a puckered up material that looked like you slept in it and was supposed to stay that way. Trouble was, permanently unpressed fashions made from it were never properly labeled and I was left to wonder: Am I wearing “new wave” wrinkles with confidence or just in denial, wearing my distaste for ironing on my shirt sleeves?
Luckily, now that I live in Rangeley and telecommute from the woods, my wardrobe is perfectly “put together” for my lifestyle. Except for extraordinarily special events (and requests made far in advance) my iron stays shelved, my attitude Zen-like. If a shirt gets wrinkled and no one is around to see it, does it make any impression? And if someone happens to get hot under her crisp little collar because the loon on my tee shirt isn’t swimming on smooth, placid water, or my tie-dye looks more grooved than groovy, what am I gonna do about it? Nothing that involves turning away from the lake to slam pressurized steam into my camp duds, that’s for sure.
On occasion, the subject still does come up in conversation. Some friends talk about their ironing pile—how long it took them to forge through it, etc., etc. A few even mention travel irons. Not wanting to dis an apparent source of gratification and fulfillment, I smile, nod, and try not to look like I’m watching paint dry. To me, travel and iron is a complete oxymoron. The last time I touched an ironing board while on vacation, I was on my way out of my condo heading for the beach. My favorite sundress looked scrunched, even to my standards. So I propped the folded up ironing board next to the lanai and hung my dress over the end. By the time I needed to put myself together for dinner, the wrinkles had magically disappeared in the moist, tropical breeze. I didn’t know it at the time, but I’d stumbled across garment steaming at its finest.