Q And Answer: Should I Wear Non-Iron Shirts?

May 11, 2011

Q and Answer: Should I Wear Non-Iron Shirts?

Shai writes to ask about non-iron shirts: I love the convenience but am not 100% sure what I’m giving up (partly because I think they’re too good to be true).  Is the quality inferior?  Do the shirt wear out sooner (if so, is it significant enough that it matters)?  Should I avoid certain colors/brands?  So far I have only purchased a couple from Brooks Brothers and have been pleased with the results, just trying to learn more.

I own a non-iron shirt. I just bought it recently, actually. It’s a point-collar blue oxford from Brooks’ slim-fit line, and I picked it up for a couple dollars from a thrift store in nearly new condition. It’s the only non-iron shirt I own.
Non-iron shirts used to be made by blending cotton with synthetic fiber (usually polyester). Some, in fact, especially on the low end, are still made this way. Synthetic fiber is cheaper than cotton (particularly since cotton prices have skyrocketed in the last year or so), and it a blend can retain some of the positive qualities of cotton, while gaining some of the non-wrinkling properties of synthetics. Polyester, though, is unnatural-looking, and wears warm and clammy, which is why blends have fallen out of favor.

These days, better non-iron shirts are made by impregnating an all-cotton shirt with a mix of chemicals, including formaldehyde. This means you get less of the stigma of polyester, but it does have downsides. The fabric often has an unnatural sheen, it can be clammy and the chemicals eventually wash out. Even when they are working, their total lack of wrinkles betrays them for what they are.

The real question in my mind is: do you want to avoid wrinkles? Completely? I think a bit of wrinkling through the day is perfectly fine. Maybe even desirable. In fact, some shirts, especially oxfords, don’t really even require ironing. I think that one of a cotton shirt’s greatest qualities is the life that’s built into it. Those non-iron chemicals kill that life.