Linen clothing is known for wrinkling—you can’t keep it from happening, but why would you want to in the first place? If you hoped the smooth, crisp linen shirt you chose to wear this morning would stay unrumpled all day while it continued to do your bidding, it’s time to iron out your thinking: Linen’s wrinkles are not character flaws, but instead add interest to this cool and breathable ancient textile.
The Benefits of Wearing Linen: The Coolness Quotient
Linen truly is a wrinkle in time, keeping us cool now—arguably better than any other textile—just as it kept people cool thousands of years ago. But we tend to get hung up on rules and regulations even in this day and age (to wit: when to wear linen), and all the more in the American South, whence I came, and where people cling to tradition like kudzu vines to, well, everything. Being properly dressed has always had a tacit “crispness” imperative: Wrinkles and neatness are mutually exclusive.
Ever tried to stay crisp in 85% humidity with a triple-digit heat index?
That, in a nutshell, is why linen is so appealing in the tropics, and generally in hot climes the world over, and why it continues to insinuate itself into closets now just as it did 35,000 years ago: Linen is quite possibly the coolest, most breathable natural fiber on the planet. Pair those affable qualities with its quick-drying and superior wicking properties, and some insist it’s almost like you’re not wearing clothing at all.
But the other truth about linen is it wrinkles, copiously, and there is exactly nothing you can do about it. Sure, you can starch and steam iron the bejesus out of it, but it stays pressed only until you exhale. And if you’re driving somewhere? Forget about it. Your linen pants will wrinkle at the hips, knees, and tush, and the front of your linen shirt or jacket will betray where the seatbelt was cinched across it. It’s the nature of the beast: Linen’s stiff, crisscrossing yarns tend to bend and stay bent.
I ask you, why oh why is this such a big deal?
Why Does Linen Wrinkle?
What is it about linen that makes it so prone to creases and wrinkles? Chemistry.
Plant-based fabrics—think linen, cotton, and hemp—are made of cellulose, a polymer of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen. The polymer’s hydrogen bonds give linen its strength, but the chains constantly break down and re-form. Water molecules slip through these broken links and block the reforming bonds. But plucky hydrogen finds a way around the water molecules and creates new bonds. When the moisture evaporates, the hydrogen bonds remain—resulting in wrinkles.
Ironing releases wrinkles with heat and steam by breaking down the bonds quickly, evaporating the moisture before it can set in, and pressing the newly formed bonds flat.
Does Linen-Blend Clothing Wrinkle?
Linen blends are often better at casting off creases than pure linen alone. The sometimes-misunderstood linen is an evolved textile. The admixture of other fibers—silk, rayon, cotton, Tencel®, or viscose, for example—improves linen’s performance (read: makes it less wrinkly). But if linen is in the mix, wrinkles are inevitable.
Nor will simply opting for a different fabric rid you of wrinkles: Summertime-favorite madras is a lightweight option, but you won’t escape its rumpled look. Cool poplin resists wrinkles better than many natural fabrics thanks to its substantial weave, but it’ll still need ironing.
Weave and fabric quality can affect how much your linen garments wrinkle. As one Southern humorist observed, wrinkles are how you know it’s “the good stuff.” Linen’s wrinkly personality is a foregone conclusion—it’s even applauded—which is a bit of good news if its wrinkles make linen a wardrobe deal-breaker for the crisply starched among us. If it’s going to wrinkle anyway, save yourself the effort and embrace linen’s casual, tousled vibe.
How to Iron Linen: When Wrinkles Simply Won’t Do
When you’re wearing your slouchy, summery linen blouse over a tank top for a coffee date with friends, skip the iron. For an outdoor wedding or any dressy occasion that insists on a tad more decorum, go ahead and press the dress (or pants or shirt or jacket).
Remove wrinkles from linen by ironing it while it’s still damp.
- Spritz it with water, roll it loosely and give it five minutes or so for the moisture to penetrate the linen’s fibers.
- Fill your steam iron with water and use its highest heat setting to help shed the most stubborn wrinkles.
- Are the pad and cover on your ironing board in good shape? If they’re not, place an old terry cloth towel on the ironing board, under your garment.
- Keep the iron moving to prevent scorching the linen. If the linen is embroidered, iron the ‘wrong’ side, and iron the embroidered area first.
- If you iron the ‘right’ side of the fabric, a pressing cloth will prevent shiny spots from coming on the garment.
Can You Use Starch on Linen?
If you insist on a truly stiff look to your linen, go ahead and spritz it with starch or fabric sizing. This is also a good strategy if you wish to press creases into your linen trousers or keep collars and cuffs looking crisp. Just be advised that even this action will not forestall wrinkles in your linen—the creases will still be there, but they’ll soften a bit around the edges.
Reduce or Remove Wrinkles From Linen Without Ironing
If you don’t have access to an iron while traveling—or just don’t have time to iron linen—there are plenty of iron-free options to help your linen clothing shed wrinkles. You won’t get a starched-and-pressed look, but you will achieve a close approximation. Wash your linen and wear it often. It improves with age, like wine or cheese. The exception is a lined linen jacket with a ‘dry clean only’ label: Heed the label, or ruin the jacket.
Just follow some simple tips for washing, drying, and refreshing your linen garments to keep wrinkles at a minimum, even without an iron:
Wash Your Linen Clothing Properly for Fewer Wrinkles
When washing your linen clothing, don’t over-stuff the machine: Give your linen plenty of space while laundering and remove it from the washer promptly to reduce wrinkling. Opt for handwashing to reduce the amount of balling, twisting, and tugging the fabric must endure.
Toss your just-washed linen into a hot dryer only long enough to get it steaming, and then remove, smooth, and hang it up or lay flat to finish drying. Always allow linen clothing to dry completely before you wear it—the wrinkles set in more easily when the fabric is damp. This goes for swelteringly muggy days, too—the more damp you feel, the more likely wrinkles will emerge in your clothing.
Tips to Prevent Wrinkles After Washing Linen Garments
If you’re short on time or can’t bear the futile task of ironing linen, use a fabric steamer instead—the linen won’t be perfectly pressed, but the worst wrinkles will fall out.
For on-the-go solutions, experiment with a wrinkle-relaxing spray, but test an inconspicuous area first: Some preparations leave stains. Alternatively, a couple of light spritzes of water and a gentle tug can help release any creases trying to set.
To quickly revitalize your linen shirt, pants, or dress without ironing, toss the garment into the dryer on low with a single ice cube for 10 minutes. The ice melts and gives off steam, which in turn de-wrinkles your clothing—et, voilà! Alternatively, a quick blast from your hairdryer (set on high) can smooth new creases as they appear throughout the day. Heat, tug, smooth, then follow up with a shot of cool air to help it set.
To keep your linen clothing free of wrinkles (more or less), store it on hangers after pressing.
How to Wear Linen: Smart Style for Modern Sensibilities
The easiest way to wear linen is to flaunt the wrinkles. Linen has been described by people in the know as both “gorgeously relaxed” and “unexpectedly sophisticated.” Give me gorgeous and sophisticated, and I’m in. And if you are wedded to crispness, try pairing your wrinkled linen shirt with extra crisp chinos or khakis for visual interest: Think of it as sweet is to savory, or yin to yang, if you prefer.
There is no time like the present to get out your linen shirts (and shorts and pants and dresses, too). A sleeved linen top keeps you cool and covered, wherever you are in the world. And if you opt for a knit or hybrid linen shirt, you can expect an even better, more forgiving drape. But even a pure linen shirt will improve with each washing, achieving more softness with time—and it is cooler than cotton. In which guise you choose your linen wardrobe really boils down to your own sensibilities.
Historically linen has been used for everything from mail sacks to roof thatching. But the blue flowering flax plant—an unassuming Old World annual—can be refined into exquisite linen with a beautiful, wrinkled drape. To gorgeous and sophisticated add versatile, exotic, and exquisite. Iron it if you must, but I defy you to tell the difference a few minutes later: Either way, there will be wrinkles upon wrinkles—some even call them “rich,” but I prefer gorgeous and sophisticated.
While getting wrinkles out of linen is possible—if an ephemeral condition for linen clothing—for most occasions, I say, leave them be. Can you iron linen? Sure, but why not live dangerously? Don’t even bother ironing. Go ahead—rock the wrinkles.