Iron vs. Steamer: Which is Greatest for Your Menswear Wardrobe?

published on July 2, 2020

Welcome back to the Gentleman's Gazette

In today's video, we'll discuss two implements
for making your clothing look it's best: irons

and steamers, the pros and cons of each, and
which might be best for you

If you follow the Gentleman's Gazette for
any length of time, you're probably aware

that how you wear your clothing is just as
important, if not, more so than the clothing

itself

What do we mean by this?

Simply put, just because you might be able to afford designer labels, that doesn't mean that they're going

to look good on you if the fit is poor or
if the garments are improperly cared for

We've covered fit in a number of other videos
but today's video is another installment in

our long-running garment care series covering
two appliances designed to eliminate unsightly

wrinkles from your clothing — the iron, and
the garment steamer

Each of these works in a different way and
has its own advantages and disadvantages

But before we get to a head to head comparison,
let's cover a bit of history

We'll start with the clothes iron, also called
the steam iron or flat iron which is an appliance

that when heated is used to press the wrinkles
out of clothing

Metal pans, filled with hot coals were used
to smooth out fabrics as far back as the

First Century BCE in China

Fast forward to the 17th century, where handles
were attached to thick, triangular slabs of

cast iron, which were then heated in fires
or on stovetops

Other designs, instead of solid cast iron slabs
were box irons that could either be filled

with hot coals or heated iron rods

By the late 19th or early 20th centuries,
there were many irons in use that were heated using

fuels such as kerosene, ethanol, whale oil,
natural gas, or even gasoline

Some houses were equipped with a system of
pipes to distribute gases to different rooms

in order to operate different appliances such
as irons, in addition to lights in the home

And despite the fire risk, liquid-fuel irons
were sold at least in the United States and

in rural areas up to about World War II –at
which point they were largely supplanted by

newer electric-powered irons

The invention of the resistively heated electric
iron is credited to Henry W Seeley of New

York City in 1882, however

Meanwhile, credit for the invention of the
steam iron goes to Thomas Sears

The first commercially available electric steam iron
was introduced in 1926 by the Eldec company

of New York, but it wasn't initially a commercial
success

The patent for an electric steam iron was
issued to a Max Skolnik of Chicago in 1934

Four years later, in 1938, Skolnik granted
the Steam-O-Matic Corporation of New York

the exclusive right to manufacture steam-electric
irons

It was these irons that achieved popularity
and led the way to a more widespread use of

electric steam ironing during the 1940s and
'50s, which continues up to the present day

Meanwhile, commercial fabric steamers have
been available since the early 1900s; employed

early on by professional cleaners before spreading
to home usage but compact models are a fairly

modern innovation

Some sources indicate that more portable models
came about because of the popularity of men's

hats in the first half of the 20th century

At the time many people use a tea kettle to
steam out wrinkles in their hats or to re-block

them

Garment steamers made this job much easier

Today's fabric steamers come in three basic
sizes: the commercial floor models used at

dry cleaners and manufacturing plants; the
mid-sized models for home or small businesses

like tailors; and the most recent evolution
of the fabric streamer which would be the mini steamers

used for quick touch-ups and for travel

There's our historical section out of the
way

With that said then, how does each appliance
work, more specifically?

Again, starting with the iron, most domestic
irons typically range in operating temperature

between 250 °F which is 121 °C to about
360 °F or 182 °C

Ironing works by loosening the bonds between
long chains of molecules that exist in fibrous

materials like fabrics

With the heat and the weight of the ironing
plate, the fabrics are stretched and then

maintain their new shape after they cool

The hot plate or sole plate is typically made
of polished aluminum or stainless steel and

can sometimes be coated with a friction and
heat-resistant plastic

The heating element is controlled by a thermostat
that switches the current on and off at a

certain rate to maintain the desired temperature

In the case of the steamer and as the name
implies, steam is the primary agent to remove

wrinkles from garments rather than heavy pressure

The steam, sometimes along with slight pressure
from the steam's surface, relaxes the fiber

of the garment rather than flattening it

A jet of steam, (either from a wand at the
end of a hose, or a smaller, compact

unit) is generally directed at the surface
of garment which can be hung from a hanger

As we said, the steamer is generally held
a bit away from the fabric but more pressure

can be applied if necessary

To generate steam, steamers typically heat
their water to anywhere between 200 and 400

degrees Fahrenheit, though the larger stand-up
models will usually allow for a temperature control

The higher settings are typically used to
steam wrinkles out of denser, sturdier fabrics

like cotton and linen while cooler settings
are used for more fragile fabrics

Portable steamers are typically without temperature
controls and as such, they tend to run cooler

on average

Simply put then, both irons and steamers use
heat to remove wrinkles from clothing though

an iron uses the aid of pressure where a steamer
uses the aid of moisture in addition to the

force of gravity

Most modern irons now have steaming
functions as well to take advantage of using

moisture

But this doesn't mean steamers are obsolete, far
from it in fact

Those are the general mechanics of these two
appliances

Now, let's cover the pros and cons

An iron is going to provide a clean and crisp
finish overall and will be more efficient

than steaming on heavy and durable fibers
and weaves, like linen, wool, and denim

It's ideal for any garment in need of a sharp
crease, like dress pants for instance, and

should also work well on dress shirts

An iron will also provide greater control
and precision given that you'll be able to easily

maneuver the solid plate rather than the more
random dispersal that steam will provide

In terms of drawbacks, irons are easy to use
on smooth fabrics and large expanses of fabric

but they're going to be trickier on things
like sleeves, pleats, and curved surfaces

There are workarounds for this of course,
such as using things like a tailor's ham or a sleeve board

but this is obviously going to require extra
equipment

On that note though, be sure to watch our
video on essential ironing materials, as well

as our series on how to iron different kinds
of garments

You can find our ironing playlist, here

Perhaps the biggest drawback of irons is that they
post a greater risk of burning or otherwise

marking clothes if they're left in place for too
long

Finally here, everything required for the
ironing process will take up more real estate

in your home

Not just because of the accessories we just
mentioned, but also because of the ironing

board

While you can get away by placing a towel
over a flat surface like a table in a pinch,

having a true ironing board is of course,
ideal

And while most ironing boards can be folded
and stored, the fact of the matter is that

all of your ironing equipment is still going
take up a bit of room

Meanwhile, steamers work especially well for
heat-sensitive materials like silk and synthetics

as well as delicate materials like wool, velvet,
and corduroy

With that said though, steamers do have the
ability to remove wrinkles from almost any

kind of fabric, with a minimal risk of scorching

They're ideal for freshening up items between
washes and they do well with garments where

iron would be unwieldy, like structured jackets

The newer, portable-sized steamers while not
necessarily as powerful as their stand-up

counterparts, are ideal for travel as well

Also, most steamers are easy to use

The user simply needs to hang up their garment,
fill the steamer’s water reservoir and plug

it in, wait for a few minutes, and then go
over the article with a sweeping motion, allowing

the steam from the wand to straighten out
any wrinkles

Steamers are generally faster than irons as
well, as you don’t have to lay your garments

out on a flat surface and keep re-positioning
them as you work

Whether hand-held or stand-up, steamers
typically aren't going to take up as much room as

an ironing setup either

When using a steamer with a hanging garment,
you won’t create creases as you aren’t

flattening the fabric against a hard surface
and you’ll easily be able to see how the garment

naturally hangs

This is in contrast to an iron, where if you've
got multiple layers of fabric on top of one

another, you might be wrinkling one portion
while smoothing out another

Steamers, therefore, are generally going to be more user-friendly overall

Disadvantages of steamers, meanwhile, include
having to spend more time on thicker fabrics,

not being able to set creases as exactly,
and possibly tiring out your operating arm

depending on how much time you’re spending
and how many garments you’re steaming

It is also possible to over-steam as well
at which point you might start to loosen the

seams on some garments

Before we reach our final verdict then, let’s
sum up and cover some general safety tips

for both irons and steamers

First, neither appliance is recommended for
leather, suede, waxed fabrics, or anything

that might melt when heated

It’s always a good idea then to check the
cleaning guidelines on your garment’s tags

before attempting to use an iron or a steamer
on them

When in doubt, it’s always a safer choice
to go with a cooler operating temperature especially

when using an iron

And of course, whether you’re using an iron
or a steamer, you should always be aware of

where the heated components are in relation
to your skin so you don’t burn yourself

You’ll want to avoid touching the plate
and the steam nozzle on an iron and avoid

putting your opposite hand in the path of
the steam from asteamer’s head

Monitor both appliances and always remember
to turn them off once you’ve completed your

work

Some irons and steamers do include automatic
shut off functions but you shouldn’t always

rely on these

Finally, it’s important to keep children
and pets away from either of these appliances

when they’re in use

So then, with all that’s been said, which
is the better appliance?

The iron, or the steamer?

The answer is, we recommend both

You might not be surprised to hear it, given
everything we’ve laid out in this video,

but the fact of the matter is that each appliance
has its own best uses, where the other would

be lacking

In short, an iron is better if results matter
to you

While ironing takes a bit longer and requires
a bit more expertise, it provides a level

of polish a steamer can’t

Meanwhile, a steamer is easier to use, more
versatile overall, and provides generally

good results on both delicate and average
weight fabrics

It’s ideal for touch-ups and for use while
traveling

The well-prepared gentleman then should ideally
have an iron and a steamer in his garment

care arsenal

In today’s video, I’m wearing a casual
outfit good for doing some garment care around

the house

I’m working monochromatically here within
the grayscale as you can see by my black cardigan

sweater made more casual with its two front
pockets and my gray and white stripe shirt

The shirt does have some French cuffs, but
I’m wearing a simple black links in them

and I’ve got the cuffs configured in a barrel
style so that they fit better under the sweater

sleeves

My trousers are plain gray in a medium to
charcoal gray shade and my shoes are plain

black penny loafers from Allen Edmonds

And rounding out today’s outfit are my socks, which are
from Fort Belvedere

They’re also in a dark gray color but their
burgundy and white clock pattern provides

a little bit of additional visual interest

You can find the socks as well as wide variety
of other accessories, in the Fort Belvedere shop here

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