Shirts: The Agony

 A ghastly scene at the heart of a commercial laundry.  The levers to the lower left operate an inflatable air press.  

A ghastly scene at the heart of a commercial laundry.  The levers to the lower left operate an inflatable air press.  

    People do strange things to their shirts.  I know an infrequent wearer who, when the need arrises, quickly washes one by hand then presses it while damp.  If nothing else, the effect is consistent: limp.  Another friend has his shirts heavily starched.  He resembles a sandwich-board-man with a chaffed neck.  A third dry-cleans his shirts in the false belief that doing so will help preserve his expensive collection.   At six times the cost of laundering, his collection becomes more expensive weekly.  

    Does the standard dress shirt suffer these abuses at a greater rate than other garments?  I think so.  Why, I’m not entirely certain, although I suspect some dangerous mixture of ignorance and received wisdom about garment care is to blame. 

    In order to make a worthwhile profit laundering shirts, a cleaner must process individual units very cheaply.  This means the minimum handling necessary to achieve passable results.  A typical passage looks something like this: shirts are tagged, roughly sorted according to color, and laundered in a very hot, very caustic solution with dozens of others.  They are then dried to damp and pressed using a number of devices that put efficiency before care.  The shirts are regrouped (assuming they have retained their tags) put on wire hangars, lashed together with a twist-tie, bagged in polyurethane and squeezed onto a rack.  The goal is to process as many shirts an hour as possible; fifty is competitive volume.  

    Now I don’t begrudge cleaners the right to make money laundering shirts.  The problem clearly starts with the consumer who is unwilling to pay a reasonable sum for the service.  The industry has therefore organized around value and speed rather than quality and care.  Of course, this same consumer will be upset when shirts are returned with smashed buttons or blown-out elbows.  Blame will fall on the cleaner who will be made to reimburse or suffer the wrath of some breathless online review.  Consider this though: all garments eventually fail.  If cotton shirts are commercially laundered with some frequency this will occur at an alarming rate.  The real question is who is responsible for this unhappy cycle—the consumer who requires same-day laundered and pressed shirts for peanuts, or the industry who efficiently meets that demand, damaging a fraction of a percent of the total that pass through?  

    But what other options exist?  Perhaps, out of frustration with commercial laundering, you have entrusted your shirts to a wife, or girlfriend or, heaven forbid, a family member.  This is almost as unwise as handing them over to a stranger for communal boiling.  While this arrangement might begin well, at some stage it will end poorly, either when bleach ruins a favorite tattersall, or when you say the wrong thing about how your marcella evening shirts are being pressed.  And then what?  Divorce?  An amendment to the will?  

 A so-called spotting table, for the removal of stubborn stains.  Many shirts suffered a terrible fate here.  

A so-called spotting table, for the removal of stubborn stains.  Many shirts suffered a terrible fate here.  

     Other fishy practices.  Dry cleaning, which is to say using petrochemicals to clean, will leave cotton gray, lifeless and curiously damp—not the desired result for so expensive a procedure.  As for starch, it rarely dissolves properly when re-laundered, building up and stressing the cotton fiber.  Worse, it prevents shirts from breathing, which defeats the premise of keeping things crisp.  And then there are magical bottled potions which may or may not remove stains; they will certainly be heavily perfumed and expensive.

     I’m afraid this leaves one clear solution (short of hiring a valet): the shirt-wearer must learn to tend to his/her own shirts.  The second installment in this series proposes a universal procedure for doing just that.