“We iron to day 64 shirts (rather uncommon so many).”
North Family Eldresses Journal, September 17, 1850
Ironing and pressing get wrinkles out of clothes. Why do we want to get wrinkles out of clothes? Historically, even though our clothing protects us from the elements, it also has been a symbol of a person’s status. Keeping clothing looking good was important to those who wanted to be respected for their station in life. Ironed cloth implies order, whereas, wrinkles – disorder. The Shakers preferred order. Also, when items are smoothed, creased, and flattened, they tend to stack and store better.
Removing wrinkles from cloth can be done in a couple of ways. Pressing – putting weight on cloth, whether with flat stones, screw presses, rollers, or irons is an effective way to flatten cloth with or without heat. Ironing – heating cloth to between 200°F and 240°F – loosens the long polymer chains that bind fibers together. Adding a little water for lubrication, straightening the fibers by pushing them around a bit, and letting them cool in their new formation will make clothes and household linens look smooth and well tended – at least until, like the back of a cotton shirt when worn by someone sitting too long in a chair on a hot day, they get wrinkled.
We use the terms “ironing” and “pressing” interchangeably. Technically, ironing – “wiggling and waggling” a hot iron over fabric provides a smooth polish to fabric – is desirable for a cotton dress shirt, whereas, pressing – repeatedly pressing and lifting a hot iron on cloth avoids the polish – is desirable for woolen pants.
Tuesday was the traditional day for ironing in the world outside the Shaker community and the Shakers appear to have adhered to that schedule.
Clothes were taken out of the drying room, brought down from the attic, or in from the drying yard and sorted for ironing or pressing. Linens and other flatwork were pressed in the screw press while sisters ironed the more complicated pieces on large cloth-covered ironing tables. Young girls supplied a steady flow of heated irons from the stove.
Shane Rothe (they/them) joined Shaker Museum in July 2023, working with independent curator Maggie Taft on an exhibition for the new museum space in Chatham. Shane is an artist as well as a curator and continues to create in the mediums of painting, sculpture, writing, and performance. Shane holds a BFA from CalArts and an MA in art history and curatorial studies from the University of Chicago.