Steaming vs Pressing
I have long been a fan of using a home steamer to remove wrinkles from my suits. It’s so much quicker and cheaper than having them professionally pressed. Apparently though, it’s also much more damaging.
I recently stumbled across a couple of posts on menswear forums by a tailor who provides a detailed explanation of how a suit’s construction can be adversely affected by steam. Even the old trick of hanging one up in a steamy bathroom for a few minutes is risky in his opinion. As with any other professional advice it’s ultimately up to the reader to weigh perfection against practicality but his arguments definitely provide food for thought.
The crux of his explanation is that individual pieces of a suit are stretched or shrunk into shapes that conform to the human body. This shaping process, known as “ironwork”, takes place before any of the pieces are sewn together and requires a lot of time and skill. It is accomplished by first using steam to relax the wool’s fibres then stretching or shrinking the piece as required. When the fabric cools it retains the desired shape.
He compares the shaping process to curling hair with a curling iron and we all know what happens when curled hair is exposed to humidity: it loses its shape and sags. Same goes for the stretched wool which relaxes as it hangs, losing the shape required to lie smoothly over the body’s contours. Furthermore, steam can cause deliberately stretched seams to pucker and puff, especially around the sleeve cap. Sometimes the original fit can be restored with a competent pressing but the more serious damage is usually permanent. (As if this weren’t enough reason to avoid steaming, the hot mist can also cause the interlining fused between the inner and outer layers of some jackets to become unglued, creating unsightly bubbles on the surface.)
The way in which ironwork shapes a garment is shown in these photos provided by the author.
The pair of pictures above show how trousers that are cut but not yet shaped have extra fabric in the back of the leg ( left). When sewn together for a first fitting that extra fabric causes the trouser legs to droop around the knee (right) instead of hanging in a straight line.
After the fitting, the trousers are taken apart again for the ironwork process that stretches and shrinks the fabric and seams to provide the desired shape. Notice that there is no longer any excess fabric in the back of the leg (left ) and that the crease is not straight but curved like the wearer’s leg as can be seen when the trousers are reassembled (right).
Should the finished trousers be steamed, they would lose their custom shape and revert back to poor fit seen in the first set of pictures.
In contrast to steaming which applies heat to a loosely hanging garment, pressing applies heat while simultaneously pushing the garment against a flat horizontal surface. Thus the wrinkles are pressed out but the overall shape of the individual pieces is not pulled out of shape by gravity. The end result is a suit that looks as good as new.
Fortunately, you can avoid the cost of professional pressing by doing it yourself with a regular iron. The following are the original poster’s detailed instructions for ironing the major trouble spots in a jacket. I have merged and reformatted them here for easier reference.
Before starting, you will need an iron, press cloth and a sleeve board.
The iron should be set to medium heat (wool setting).
The press cloth is placed between the iron and the suit fabric to avoid creating shiny spots on the latter. Any cotton rag will do but muslin or drill is best. Just wash new cloths a few times to get out all of the sizing first.
A sleeve board is preferred to a regular ironing board because it allows the shape of the jacket to be maintained. It also allows the weight of the jacket to rest on the ironing board below rather than having it hang over the side thus causing the coat to slowly slide off.
Remember that you are pressing your garment, not ironing it; press the iron down on the targeted areas rather than randomly sliding it all over the garment. Similarly, use steam sparingly so that it is limited to the creased area rather spreading to the surrounding fabric. If there is a small crease or impression in an otherwise smooth area of the garment, moisten a portion of the press cloth that is just the size of the crease and press the targeted area. This will eliminate the crease without disturbing the rest of the garment or causing new impressions.
Pressing the trousers is pretty straightforward. Place the sleeve board inside the leg and press out any creases in the crotch area. Be especially careful with the amount of steam used around the fly as it is difficult to press it well without making marks or puckers. Now place the trousers flat on a regular ironing board, lifting one leg out of the way. Press the creases first from the inside then from the outside, being careful around the seam area as the thickness can cause damage to the seam on the other side of the trouser [not to mention the silk stripe on tuxedo trousers].
Now on to the jacket:
Insert the wide end of the sleeve board into the shoulder and press the back of the jacket. Do not pull or stretch near the armhole seams or near the center back seam as they should be kept slightly shrunken.
If the jacket has vents, inserting a piece of stiff paper will prevent press marks on the layer underneath. Iron the top piece then lift it out of the way and press the piece under the vent.
Work your way around the sides of the jacket keeping the front dart at the edge of the board. If the pockets have flaps use the same process as for pressing the vents i.e. place a piece of stiff paper beneath when pressing the flap then remove it to press under the flap.
Press along the front of the jacket with the dart lined up along the outer edge of the board as shown on the left. Never press the chest flat with the dart over the board as shown on the right.
To press the lapels, align the lapel’s roll line with the edge of the board. [For tuxedo lapels, professional dry cleaners recommend pressing them from the back to avoid damaging the silk. If you press them on the silk side you will need to at least set the iron to the cooler silk setting.]
For the sleeves, insert the board into the sleeve (left) and press the elbow. Alternately, you can lie the sleeve flat to press it, keeping the seam about one inch inside the fold (right). Do not crease (unless you are Prince Charles).
Use the board to touch up the top of the sleeve. Stay away from the cap area which is very delicate.
The end result of a properly pressed jacket should look like this. (Notice in particular how the curve of the sleeve has been preserved.) Personally, I’d recommend practising on an old suit jacket before graduating to your cherished tuxedo.