Written by: Deb German
The answer is short and sweet: you can’t, 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?
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. But I’ll give you your 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). Here’s how to remove wrinkles from linen:
- Iron 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.
- 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.
- And 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. 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.
Tip: to quickly revitalize your linen shirt, pants, or dress without an iron, 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!
How NOT to Iron Linen
While getting wrinkles out of linen is possible—if an ephemeral condition for linen clothing—for most occasions, I say, leave the wrinkles be. Don’t even bother ironing. You can toss your just-washed linen into a hot dryer long enough to get it steaming, and then hang it up to finish. You won’t get a starched-and-pressed look, but you will get a close approximation. Here’s a low-maintenance linen manifesto that’s easy to live by:
- 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.
- Steam your linen instead of ironing it. You won’t get a pressed-to-a-crisp look, but the worst wrinkles will fall out.
- Experiment with a wrinkle-relaxing spray, but test an inconspicuous area first: some preparations leave stains.
- Store all your linens on hangers.
How to Wear Linen: Smart Style for Modern Sensibilities
It’s easy: 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 both 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.
Linen’s wrinkles possess their own appeal, and that is all. As one Southern humorist observed, wrinkles are a barometer for quality: they’re how you know it’s “the good stuff.” And those wrinkles just keep getting better; the sometimes-misunderstood linen is an evolved textile. Not only is the “good stuff” more refined these days, but the admixture of other fibers—silk, rayon, cotton, Tencel®, or viscose, for example—improves linen’s performance (read: makes it less wrinkly). So there is a bit of good news if its wrinkles make linen a wardrobe deal-breaker for the crisply starched among us.
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. Can you iron linen? Sure, but why not live dangerously? Go ahead—rock the wrinkles.