In the first installment of our series on ironing, we introduced the equipment and preparations required to press tailored clothing effectively, with a specific focus on how to iron a shirt. In Part II, we intensively discussed how to iron dress shirts. Today, we move on to the more challenging task of pressing dress pants.
This is just Part II of our ironing series. You can see the other parts here
Pressing Trousers: Perceived Difficulties
Although they may not hesitate to iron a cotton shirt, some men shy away from pressing dress pants, whether they are separates or part of a suit, because they’re afraid the iron will “shine” the wool and ruin it. Or, they think that they will not be able to create a sharp crease down the front and back of the legs. Beyond this, the construction of trousers is such that you will most often be pressing two layers of cloth (the pant leg) while a shirt most often involves ironing a single layer, except for the sleeves. These aspects present an additional level of challenge, but they are easily handled by learning the correct techniques.
How to Iron Pants
As with shirts, begin by preparing your ironing equipment, referring to Part I of our series if necessary. Make sure your pants and iron are clean. Set your iron to the proper setting, which, for wool pants, will be lower than for cotton, which is itself lower than linen. Fill your iron with distilled water if you have hard tap water. This prevents limescale from building up inside the iron and later coming out onto your pants in the form of white flakes when you use the steam. You can brush these off the fabric, but it’s an added nuisance, especially if you’re working on darker colored trousers; better an ounce of prevention.
1. The Pants Rise
Begin with the top area of your trousers, the waist and the rise, which require similar techniques to the upper portions of a shirt. Because there aren’t long stretches of fabric, you’ll essentially be doing detail work to begin. Here’s where a tailor’s ham comes in handy; it allows you to press along a contoured surface that better follows the curve of the fabric and of the human form that will wear it. Shove a ham inside your pants and lay the curved areas of the hip and rise over it, moving the cloth as you press. If you are concerned that the iron may create an unsightly shine on wool trousers, use a pressing cloth between the iron and the fabric.
If you don’t have a tailor’s ham, you can still use a sleeve board or regular ironing surface. The lack of extended surface area at the top of trousers guarantees that you won’t really be able to move the iron back and forth, which is a good thing: it’ll train you to make small movements, pressing down with the iron and lifting it up afterwards to move it around instead of dragging it along the fabric, which can catch and cause more wrinkling, not to mention shine the wool. The area in between the belt loops, if you have them, can be approached the same way you would tackle the space between shirt buttons, by using the tip of the iron.
2. Pants Legs: Making a Crease
Legs of dress pants are tricky because you need to create a sharp crease up the center of the leg, both front and back to give it the proper finish. Something that comes up specifically when ironing cotton pants is whether or not to create a front crease at all. The answer depends on whether they had a crease when you bought them, and this depends on the formality of the pants. Casual chinos will have a completely flat front, while those that are formal enough to be worn with a sport coat should have a crease. Since we’re discussing tailored clothing, we’ll assume the need to make a crease.
The main challenges are to ensure the crease is perfectly centered in the middle of the leg and, assuming you already have a crease there, not to create a different one. A lot of ironing guides online speak of the process like you are creating a crease from scratch, but most of the time you will just be reestablishing and refreshing the original, existing one, especially with wool pants, which don’t lose the crease easily. On the other hand, with cotton dress pants, the crease may fade, or you may lose it. In such a case, it may be easier to iron the front of your trouser legs completely flat and start a completely new crease rather than trying to restore it.
After laying the legs on the ironing board, take the bottom leg and locate the top and bottom center seam inside the opening of the leg. It’s important to do only one leg at a time because doing two would mean pressing four layers of fabric at the same time, which will not yield good results. Line up the two center seams carefully. You should be able to use the existing crease to judge whether the fold is in exactly the right place; adjust as necessary, and press the hem area at the front of the leg firmly against the board to set the start of the crease.
Next, locate the same center seams inside the top of the pants to guarantee the leg is straight and that the crease you create will be right in the center of the leg. Press the top edge of the front leg as high up as you want the crease to go, usually about 18″ below the waist to set that spot. Then press methodically up or down the front edge, again being careful not to drag the iron. If you have a wooden tailor’s clapper and want to have fun, bang it down along the crease you have just created to make it extra crisp. Repeat the entire process with the crease at the back of the leg. An alternative is to buy and use a pants press just for this purpose. You line up the seams and close the press on the leg. This is fine, but you’d still want to use an iron for the rise of the pants, so there is little value in having a specialized $250 piece of equipment just for legs. Better to put the money toward a vacuum ironing board.
The lesson of not sweeping the iron back and forth is especially important with wool trousers, not just to avoid creating new wrinkles and keep your crease straight but to steer clear of shining the wool, especially navy blue wool. When you think about it, that sweeping motion is similar to what you would do when polishing or buffing shoes, so it makes sense that it might shine your wool too. Instead, press with some force in one spot, drag the iron slightly, lift, and go to another spot. Pressing your pants in this way, and even better, using a pressing cloth too, will virtually eliminate the risk of shine.
3. Pants Legs: To Steam or Not to Steam
Despite the overall benefits of steam in the ironing process, it is not your friend when pressing trouser legs. Wool is more resistant to wrinkling than cotton, so pants don’t need as much steam as shirts, especially when you are pressing the legs. If you apply a lot of steam, the top layer of cloth right below the iron will look great, but moisture will remain in the bottom layer, leaving it puckered and wrinkled. If you flip it and try to fix the problem with more pressing and steaming, now the other side will be puckered, and you’re stuck in a never-ending cycle. The problem is that you’re steaming through more than one layer of cloth.
For this reason, it is most important to press as few layers of fabric as possible, in other words, only one leg at a time, and to avoid steam. Instead, apply a light misting on surface wrinkles before pressing. Some pros just brush the wool lightly with a wet paintbrush. Of course, if you have that vacuum ironing board, its suction will draw out the moisture and hold your pants completely flat, so there will not be any issues.
As you can see, there are special considerations to keep in mind when pressing pants as opposed to shirts. However, once you realize how easy it is to avoid shining your wool trousers and that you can create a professional-looking crease, you’ll have the confidence to move on to pressing your own suit jackets.