Intro: What Is the Point of Ironing Your Clothes?
I spent my life being told to wear ironed clothes. Be neat. Be tidy.
My mother irons everything; towels, sheets, underwear, even flannels.
I wanted to know whether ironing did any good, and this is how I tried to find out.
Step 1: Hypothesis
Despite my mother's obsessive application of the iron, I suspect that ironing shortens the life of a garment, with the heat, moisture and friction of ironing damaging the fibres.
This should result in changes in the fibres, visible at high magnification.
Step 2: Secondary Evidence & Preliminary Research
I contacted a number of steam iron manufacturers via their websites, and asked whether ironing has any material benefit beyond improving the appearance.
Unfortunately, typing weeks after designing this experiment, no replies were forthcoming*. This leads me to suspect that my hypothesis is correct...
I did find other people who questioned the need for ironing, but nobody seems to have actively examined it.
As far as I can tell, ironing was invented as, and continues to be, a purely social contrivance.
*If I ever receive any communications from steam-iron manufacturers, I will edit them into this step.
Step 3: Starting Point
To do this experiment, I needed to find out what ironing does to clothing, and what happens when clothes are not ironed.
I started with a brand new, plain, white t-shirt, and examined it under a microscope, taking record shots through the eye-piece.
I also found that the "super macro" setting on my camera, set at the finest resolution, provided useful images.
Step 4: Fairness
One of the most important concepts in basic science investigations is "all else being equal".
In other words, the test must be fair. To be fair, you should change the value of only one variable.
So, the ironed and un-ironed fabric needs to be subjected as closely as possible to the same conditions; same number of washes, same wear and tear, same level of sweatiness and grubiness.
The easiest way to do this is to test a single garment, consistently ironing one half, but not the other.
I marked the shirt on the sleeves, "IRON" and "DO NOT IRON".
To eliminate the factor of handedness, I bought a pack of two shirts, marking them up on opposite sides.
I wore the t-shirts on a day-to-day basis, changing into one or the other when I got home, occasionally wearing them under other clothes. To make sure it saw plenty of mileage, I broke the house laundry rules, washed the t-shirt in with the normal "dark and coloureds" loads of laundry, instead of the less frequent "light and white" loads. This was not a problem for the fairness of my final results, because both sides of the t-shirt were subjected to identical treatment.
One slightly artificial factor; each shirt was subjected to at least one extra go with the iron between washes - this experiment was only carried out over a few weeks, when most items of clothing are subjected to years of [potentially-harmful] ironing.
Step 5: Results & Conclusion
After wearing and washing the t-shirts for as long as possible, within the time-constraints of the Scientific Method Contest, I again examined the fabric using super-macro photography, hoping for a visible difference between the ironed and non-ironed sides of the garment.
As you can see from the photographs, there turned out to be no obvious visible difference between the ironed and non-ironed fibres. It would seem, therefore, that the only positive effect of ironing is to smooth out creases on the gross scale.
Therefore, beyond pandering to unquantifiable ideas of "smartness", there is no actual point to ironing clothes.
Step 6: Further Work
Obviously, a single t-shirt is not a significant sample, so I would like to see this experiment extended to improve the reliability of the data;
• More shirts, on more people, to give a more significant data-set.
• A wider range of lifestyles: the relatively sedate life of a teacher may simply not subject a garment to enough stresses to reveal a difference. Maybe involve a sporting team for a season?
• Handedness may be significant, subjecting one side of the garment to more wear than the other, so involve both right- and left-handed participants, and give each two shirts (each with the "iron" side on opposite sides).
• Some fabrics may be more or less susceptible to damage by ironing than others, so a range of fabrics should be tested, with a variety of natural and man-made fibres.
It would also be interesting to research the negative effects of ironing - how much money is spent on them, the environmental damage caused by the extraction of the raw materials, the energy and money spent on running them, the cost of recycling the multi-material devices...
Fourth Prize in the
Scientific Method Contest