The crisp white cotton shirt has long been an office staple – and ironing a recurring chore. So, in the 1960s, along came a saviour: the non-iron shirt. Yet many now see such garments as the clothing equivalent of a ready meal, forsaking quality for effort.
The advent of non-iron shirts was a response to a more profound threat to the cotton industry: the widespread use of synthetic fibres. Though textiles made from polyester and nylon weren’t as breathable or soft as cotton, they were hard wearing, quick to dry and slow to rumple. Cotton, however, creases because of its structure. The material is made up of chains of cellulose, which are held together by weak hydrogen bonds that slip, slide and break apart during washing. When they re-form, the shapes are kinked or wrinkly.
Early attempts to make cotton wrinkle-resistant left the fabric yellow or brittle. Mixing cotton with a synthetic textile like polyester helped. But in 1954 DuPont, a chemicals firm, patented a solution that is still used on most non-iron clothing: painting the shirt with a mix of chemicals that locked the recalcitrant cellulose chains in place even when the fabric got wet, so that it kept its form.
Such rigidity came at a price. The chemical solution that tamed cotton contained formaldehyde, a chemical that is used to embalm dead bodies – as well as being used in many household products, such as on curtains and items of furniture. During the earlier years of non-iron shirts some textile workers were exposed to high levels of the stuff. In 2009 a study by the National Cancer Institute in America found that a group of these workers had a higher risk of dying from cancer than those whose exposure was lower. Today the level of formaldehyde used in non-iron items is far lower than in decades past, but some wearers complain that it still irritates their skin.
Most non-iron products nonetheless include the chemical. And these revolutionary shirts have conquered the workplace. At Brooks Brothers, an American clothing company, non-iron shirts account for around 90% of all shirt sales.But cynics complain that wearing non-iron shirts is hot and stuffy – and that nothing beats the look and feel of a crisp-ironed, pure cotton shirt. Perhaps you still have to press to impress.•