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Ironing Makes a Comeback

A million years ago, when I got my first tenure-track teaching job, I was worried about everything. I was stressed about having adequate course material for my students, I fretted over whether I was really prepared to advise the student newspaper, and I constantly felt as if I there weren't enough hours in the day to do everything I needed to do. The bottom line was that there were too many variables I couldn’t control. Anything could happen, and I knew it. One solution to this anxiety was to focus on what I could be in charge of, which mostly meant being as prepared as I could. That’s when I took up ironing.

Unlike a lot of people, I had always liked ironing—in the same way that I enjoyed washing the dishes. Both chores depend upon the act of straightening or cleaning something and putting it into some kind of order. That was exactly what I needed that early fall of 1986, when I started teaching at Sacramento City College. But I lived in a tiny apartment and I didn’t even have room for a standard-sized ironing board. So, I bought a portable one with tiny legs that I could set up on my kitchen table, and I decided that a part of every Sunday afternoon would be devoted to ironing the five outfits I would wear that week at work.

Heating up that little metal triangle and moving it across those sleek, cotton shirts is a way to bring order to madness.

The plan was just to be prepared for what was ahead of me, but it actually ended up serving a larger purpose. It made me think about the week a little, to look at my calendar and consider what clothes I needed to wear for various meetings or events. It’s not that I had a huge wardrobe, but a long day getting the newspaper ready to go to the printer meant something comfortable, while a meeting with the college president might call for something a little dressier. Plus, by ironing on Sundays, I never had to race around in the mornings to figure out what I was going to wear that day. The ironing ritual just gave me a few minutes to walk through the week ahead and kind of prepare for it mentally. I ended up doing it practically every Sunday for the next 28 years until I retired. When I “unretired,” I started it again.

But, as with most people, my routines came to a weird, creeping and then sudden halt in mid-March when the pandemic started. It was still cool outside then, so I just threw on jeans and whatever shirt I could find in the closet for my many Zoom meetings, where you can barely see what people are wearing anyway. My ironing ritual was just one of the many parts of my regular life that fell by the wayside in those early quarantine days. I felt lucky if I could get up, grab breakfast and figure out the technology and the lighting enough to seem halfway intelligent and prepared during online meetings.

In the last few weeks, though, I realize that I’ve created new routines and rituals that match this new way of life. I don’t start working quite as early as I did pre-COVID, but I answer lots of emails at night, and I have to-do lists in every room in the house. Like being able to pay your utility bill in the middle of the night if you want to, helping to operate a college remotely means there are different times and deadlines and needs to be met. All of this heightens my desire for a familiar routine. For me, ironing is one way to provide it. The funny thing now, of course, is that I just wear shorts, so my Sunday ritual consists of about 30 minutes of ironing five shirts. The result is much more valuable than one might imagine.

I don’t think I’m ever going to be able to convince anyone to take up ironing, but I think most of us are relying on habits and patterns now that provide us peace of mind and a connection to some kind of purpose. Heating up that little metal triangle and moving it across those sleek, cotton shirts is a way to bring order to madness—at least for a half hour on an early autumn Sunday afternoon.

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