In the second part of our series about ironing, we discuss how to properly iron a dress shirt step-by-step so you get perfect results even if you are a beginner. If you haven’t already done so, definitely check out Part I about essential ironing tools because without those ironing will be slower, more painful and the result will be worse.
How to Iron a Dress Shirt
Of the three major garments worn for tailored clothing, a dress shirt is the easiest to iron and the best one, to begin with when learning how to iron correctly. Preparations begin in the laundry room. Though you would never throw a suit into the washing machine, cotton dress shirts will obviously find their way into the wash, and how you handle them when they come out can help with effective ironing.
To preserve the life of your shirts and eliminate any risk of shrinkage, using a dryer is not recommended at all, but whether you use or skip the dryer, promptly removing your shirts from either machine, smoothing them out, and hanging them are important steps to avoid over-wrinkling. You don’t want to let your shirts sit crumpled in the washer or dryer for any length of time. Then, iron your shirts when they are still damp or slightly wet, which enables you to shape the cloth better than ironing something that is fully dry.
0. Prep Your Shirt
The higher the spin cycle on your washing machine the dryer your shirt will be but also the more wrinkles the fabric will have. If your shirt is too wet, it takes a long time to iron, especially if you do not have a vacuum ironing board.
On the other hand, if your shirt is too dry, chances are you will not release all the wrinkles when ironing. So ideally you iron a slightly damp shirt. If it is already dry, spray it generously with water, and let it sit in a plastic bag for 10 minutes. Afterwards, you have the perfect fabric conditions for ironing.
Because ironing requires all the setup and prep work you want to iron shirts in batches, not individually, and you can pack a whole bunch of shirt in a plastic bag or even better a garbage bag if you iron a dozen in one go.
1. Layout Your Equipment & Ironing Board
When your shirts are ready for ironing, prepare your board and other equipment, such as a sleeve board, tailor’s ham, and spray bottle. Turn the ironing board with the pointed end to the left if you’re right-handed and to the right, if you’re a lefty.
2. Make Sure Everything is Clean When Ironing A Shirt
Check over your shirts closely to make sure there are no recent stains or spots. If you iron these, the heat will set them in and make them difficult to remove. Instead, ensure all stains are taken out beforehand. Likewise you want the ironing board cover to be in pristine condition.
It’s also important to make sure the sole plate or underside of your iron is clean. Hopefully, you haven’t allowed your iron to get filthy, but if something has burned onto the bottom of the iron in the past, what’s stuck there will almost certainly spread onto your clothes if you use it in an unclean state. Put some detergent on the iron and let it sit, using a scouring pad if needed to get it clean.
3. Add Water
Unless you have a water softener, or your water is soft, fill your iron’s reservoir with distilled water. In many places, tap water is “hard,” meaning it’s rich in minerals that will eventually precipitate calcium and magnesium scale inside your iron when the water in it evaporates. Scale can clog up the holes and prevent any steam from coming out of your iron. And, if you do get steam, whitish or brownish solids will come out with it onto your shirts and stain them. Usually, you’d be able to sweep the particles away with your hand, but they are a nuisance. Better to invest a dollar for a jug of distilled water when you iron.
4. Set the Proper Temperature
Set the proper temperature on the iron for cotton. Consumer irons will have fabric specific heat settings, while professional irons usually just have numbers. Most irons will have a designated heat or steam area that is best for ironing shirts, so take a closer look.
Don’t start ironing immediately, however, give the iron some time to reach the proper temperature. Ironing prematurely can cause water to sputter and spit from the underside of the iron onto your clothes; any rust inside the iron also has a tendency to spill out if the iron is put in the horizontal position too soon. You don’t want this to happen on a white shirt that is waiting to be pressed.
5. Press the Cuffs and Sleeves
Begin by laying a sleeve on the board. If you have a sleeve board, now is the time to use it. Open the cuff button and lay it flat; press it, first the inside and then the outside. Then press the length of the sleeve. If you have french cuffs, iron the underside first, and then the side of the cuffs you’ll see when you wear it. Cuffs should be also ironed from the outside in with gentle motions so you do have wrinkles. Personally, I dislike a crease on my cuff because if looks like it just came ouf of the package.
A key to success with all ironing is not to make broad sweeping motions with the iron but to apply short, controlled movements, applying consistent pressure to the cloth. Moving your arm like you’re conducting an orchestra or swinging a mug of beer to a German drinking song will pinch the fabric, adding new creases. Remember, ironing is also called “pressing” and putting weight on the material as you do it is essential for good results.
If you don’t want a crease down the middle of your bicep and elbow, avoid pressing the edges of the sleeve down against the board. Instead, concentrate on the middle of the sleeve. Repeat with the other arm. If you like the crease, I suggest you invest in a clapper which gives you razor-sharp results.
If you just have a regular ironing board, you will always iron two layers at the same time, which increase the risk of wrinkles. For better results, I suggest you invest a few bucks in a sleeve board. You’ll be able to also use it for ironing pants and jackets but as the name suggests, it is great for shirt sleeves. You’ll just iron one layer at a time, thus eliminating wrinkles.
A shirt with glued interlining in the cuffs is easier to iron than one with sewn interlining. Watch the video to see how you can ensure to get perfect results for both versions.
6. Press the Collar
Next, pop the collar and check that you’ve removed collar stays, especially plastic ones that might melt; press the inside flat. First, iron the underside of the collar with gentle motions. Now turn the shirt and iron the outside of the collar (the side you will see when you wear the shirt). Fold the collar back to the normal position and press the outside. If you want a soft roll collar, don’t press down to the points, just the portion that will sit behind your neck.
If you have a sewn interlining in your collar, make sure to iron from the outside in and use short ironing strokes. If you just iron in one motion you will get wrinkles in the shirt.
7. Iron the Yoke
Next up is the yoke, place it at the end of the ironing board or use a sleeve board if you have one and iron the yoke. If it is a split yoke do one side after another. Watch out, not to iron wrinkles in the sleeves or back
8. Finish with the Back and Body
You’ll find that the pointed part of the ironing board is perfect for curved areas like the shoulder and upper chest of shirts and jackets. So, with either the top button of your shirt closed or not, align the top area of your shirt with the narrow part of the board and press the shoulder and chest on one side of your shirt.
Ideally, you have sprayed the shirt with water beforehand but you will still want to steam generously. Then, either iron the other front half or rotate the shirt to work your way around the back. Look for any wrinkles and press those out. If you have a lot of wrinkles, iron the front part from the inside first, and then from the outside. With patterned shirts be careful about the placet and make sure it is neat. Watch the videos for details.
No matter what you iron, spreading the fabric out on the board or actively smoothing it with your hands is essential. As you press, keep pulling and moving the shirt as needed to keep it flat. Concentrate on small areas and avoid putting weight on the tip of the iron; if you drive the iron forward, the point will act like the cow-catcher on a steam train, but instead of catching livestock, it will cause ripples and creases in the fabric. The only time you need to apply force to the tip is when pressing between the buttons of your shirt. Conclude by ironing there and down the placket. If your buttons are made of plastic pay attention not to melt them with your hot iron. Mother of pearl or horn buttons should be just fine.
Typically I start with the button side first, then transition to the back, and then finish with the placket shirt front side.
When ironing the back, you might encounter different pleat arrangements, such as two middle pleats, side pleats or grinze, which are Italian style waves along the yoke seam.
When ironing your pleats, pull the shirt from the bottom, so you get the pleat where you want it, then press them with steam and heat. Of course, you can also use a clapper here. For the grinze, just use gentle motions and make sure you remove wrinkles. Do not iron in one big motion or you will likely end up with wrinkles.
9. The Shirt Pocket
If your shirt has a pocket, it pays to iron around it when you iron the front and to focus just on the pocket once you are done with the surroundings. Often a shirt pocket has excess material, in that case, it pays to use small gentle iron motions to avoid any creasing.
10. Starching A Shirt
Starching a shirt the proper way requires rice starch and it is an entirely different process. Sometime you may find cheap spray starch products that promise a military-style result but ultimately the results are mediocre and if you use too much heat you’ll end up with stains. Hence we suggest not to use them. If there is enough demand we might do another video on how to properly starch a shirt at home.
Do I Need to Iron Wrinkle Free Shirts
The truth is, there is no such thing as as Non-Iron or Wrinkle-Free Shirt. It is correct that some companies have added formaldehyd to their fabrics thus making them wrinkle resistant but after a few washes the substance comes off and you will have to iron it. However, the feel of the fabric will be stiff and uncomfortable forever.
Eton of Sweden has developed a process that is chemically free and helps to prevent wrinkles and makes ironing shirts easier but they charge north of $250 for off-the-rack shirts. While they have fewer wrinkles, you’ll still want to iron them.
Once you know how to iron a dress shirt, ironing a t-shirt or polo shirt will be a piece of cake for you.
In the following video you can watch me ironing a dress shirt from start to finish to finish with steam and heat:
Once you develop the proper mindset for ironing and get the basic equipment, you’ll find that ironing shirts is straightforward. You’ll quickly get the hang of making your shirts look sharp within minutes, and, before you know it, you can graduate to the slightly more challenging task of pressing pants and jackets.
Apart from acquiring an iron with enough heat and steam, I strongly suggest you consider investing in a vacuum ironing board as you will spend less time and get superior results compared to a generic consumer ironing board. Meanwhile, give us your tips for ironing shirts. What ironing gear do you own? Do you use a spray bottle? Tell us in the comments below.
Also, stay tuned for our in-depth guides on how to iron dress pants and a suit jacket of blazer at home.