Why should you learn how to iron a cotton dress shirt? Because nothing finishes a well-chosen suit quite like a well-pressed dress shirt. And no fabric is better suited for that task than pure cotton!
I am rather opinionated about this: The only type of dress 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 polyester-blend shirt can fully mimic.
100% Cotton Shirts look and breathe better than blends, but are more difficult to iron
When properly tailored and ironed, a crisp cotton shirt 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.
Why Are Cotton Dress Shirts Difficult To Iron?
But here’s the thing: Pure cotton shirts are difficult to iron properly if you don’t know what you’re doing. Unlike polyester-blend shirts that easily release 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 wrinkles after laundering.
The easy solution is to 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. 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 lifespan of professional cleaning processes.
Laundering Your All Cotton Shirts
Here is the first rule for keeping your all-cotton white shirts and bright pastels from fading or yellowing: Avoid using chlorine bleach, it weakens the cotton over time and can cause yellowing with overuse. Instead, add baking soda or hydrogen peroxide to your wash cycle. I add about a half cup or more to each load. Both of these products brighten white and light-colored fabrics without the damage and eventual yellowing of bleach.
Another great product for keeping whites and pastels looking great is oxygen base cleaner. The most popular brand is Oxyclean, but I use the Dollar Tree’s much cheaper $1.00 alternative Awesome Power Oxygen Base Cleaner. It works just as well as Oxyclean. It is a powder and needs to be mixed with warm/hot water and fully dissolved just before adding to your wash. Nevertheless, it is a fantastic bleach alternative that won’t damage your white and light colored shirts in the long term. I’ve received compliments on the brightness of my white shirts after starting to use this product. All oxygen base cleaners are powdered forms of concentrated hydrogen peroxide with an additional ingredient or two.
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.
Your Choice of Iron (Really) Matters!
A good quality steam iron is the secret to wrinkle-free all-cotton shirts. For years I struggled with a typical low-cost, low-powered 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!
The secret to wrinkle-free cotton shirts is choosing the right steam iron for the job. All steam irons are not made equal!
How To Choose a Steam Iron
Generally, you want an iron that has a steam rating of 1500 watts or higher. This rating indicates how hot the steam iron will become. 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 (I am located in the United States so these ratings may vary in irons marketed and sold in other countries). Always look for a steam rating, pass over any steam irons that do not make that rating available in the advertising or specifications. Here are a few steam iron models with a good steam rating that I have had good experience with:
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 shirts when you have the steam to do it right! Professional quality irons like Rowenta (another excellent brand is Shark) usually have a steam rating of 1600-1700 watts or higher. These irons generally cost $75 (US) and up. They deliver the large volume of steam needed to conquer cotton shirt wrinkles. Rowenta steam irons do command a premium price and are the first brand many professional tailors will recommend. However, there are other steam iron models that can deliver excellent results for less money.
The best measurement of a steam irons ability to iron cotton shirts is the steam rating. Look for a steam rating of 1500 Watts or higher.
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 as low as $35.00 and offers the same steam power (1600 Watts steam rating) as pricier models from Rowenta and Shark . 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 D3030 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.
Update: Steam Iron Reliability
Truthfully, steam irons do not last forever. No matter the brand, I have found that heavy duty steam irons tend to start having problems after about a year of heavy use. Nearly all of the steam irons I have owned start having problems with calcium deposits from hard water and discolored steam and sputtering after a year of ownership. So don’t expect them to last forever. The good news is that most steam irons have a warranty of two years or more, so hold on to that warranty card! If you spend less than $50.00 (US) for a 1500-1800 watt steam iron that lasts over a year than you’ve done pretty well. Just be sure to hold on to your warranty, you may need to use it!
After 8 months of ownership and many well-pressed shirts, my Black & Decker D3030 steam iron died. It suddenly stopped heating or making steam during a morning of ironing. Because it is still under a two-year warranty, Black & Decker is sending me a replacement unit (nice!). Until it died, I was very happy with the results whenever I used this steam iron, and look forward to my replacement. In the meantime, because I cannot appear unkempt and poorly-pressed for even one day, I purchased a new steam iron, the Shark Ultimate Professional. This is an 1800 watt heavy duty steam iron that I purchased for $48.00 at my local Walmart. Here are my first impressions after a couple of hours of ironing:
The Shark Ultimate Professional Steam Iron reminds me of my vintage Lincoln Town Car. It is big, heavy, and smooths out wrinkles like my old smooth-riding boulevard cruiser. Its weight and large ironing plate combined with 1800 watts of steam power make ironing my all-cotton shirts effortless. It does produce a bit more steam power than my Black & Decker D3030, (1800 watts vs 1600 watts). However, the difference is not drastic. Both steam irons do a great job of smoothing wrinkles in cotton fabric. Frankly, both the Black & Decker D3030 and the Shark Ultimate Professional models are very capable tools for ironing all-cotton dress shirts. I do like the fact that the Black & Decker model has a two-year warranty compared to one year for the Shark Ultimate.
Update: Shark Ultimate Professional Steam Iron 1 Year Ownership Review – This is a solid steam iron that continues to work perfectly. The one thing I noticed is how quickly it consumes water. When ironing cotton shirts on the highest heat setting, I usually have to refill the reservoir after about a shirt-and-a-half of ironing. So keep a bottle of water nearby for refills. That water is all becoming steam that quickly melts away wrinkles. The Shark Ultimate Professional is very sturdy and continues to iron my shirts beautifully. The sole plate is exceptional. It has a smooth polished finish that is very easy to clean. Highly recommended!
How To Steam Iron a Cotton Shirt
Once you have chosen a good steam iron, make sure that you choose the heat setting appropriate for your fabric. Generally, cotton & linen require the highest heat setting. Make sure that your steam iron is filled with an adequate supply of water (follow the manufacturers’ instruction on using distilled or tap water), and allow the iron time to reach the proper heat before (usually, the iron will have a light that signals when the proper temperature is reached for your fabric setting).
It’s All About that Steam!
This is the 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! Look for a steam iron that offers 1500-1800 watts of power. Keep in mind that these are irons that you should not allow children to use. 1500 watts of steam can scald your skin pretty quickly if you’re careless. Now that you got the right steam iron, let’s move on to the next step in ironing a cotton dress shirt:
Spray the entire shirt lightly with water and wrap it in a plastic bag for 15 minutes before ironing to allow the moisture to spread through the cotton fabric and relax the fibers.
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. Spray the entire shirt lightly with water and wrap it in a plastic bag for 15 minutes before ironing to allow the moisture to spread through the fabric and relax the fibers. This will give you a smoother, wrinkle-free result than misting the shirt just before ironing.
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.
Spray Starch For Extra Crispness
I like a crisp starched look in my cotton shirts. I find that the Faultless Heavy Hold Spray Starch (purchased at Walmart, about $1.00 per can) has been the best way for me to get a good approximation of a ‘light starch’ finish from a professional dry cleaner. A light spray of canned spray starch combined with your iron’s steam and a slightly dampened shirt adds a crisp finish and body to your cotton shirt. You won’t be able to mimic a ‘heavy starch’ finish from professional dry cleaners with any canned spray starch.
Shirt Ironing Technique
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 shirts for personal use the steam irons mentioned earlier in this article will do just fine.
Some final tips: The heel or widest part of the iron produces the greatest amount of heat and steam. It does the best job of flattening wrinkles. Also, make sure that you have a smooth, well-padded ironing board cover. If the ironing board cover is worn and wrinkled it will hinder your efforts to get a smooth finish as you iron cotton shirts. Ironing board covers are inexpensive to replace.
A good steam iron, a slightly damp shirt (let it soak in the moisture for 15 minutes in a tightly wrapped plastic bag for best results) and an iron board with a smooth cover … you will be spoiled by the results!
That’s it! These easy-to-follow tips will help you to get better results from ironing your cotton dress shirts!