Friday, May 15, 2009

Mother meets Tom Sawyer: Old enough to ... iron

Mira Costa blogged about ironing. Ironing -- what great memories I have of ironing! I had my own little iron and ironing board when I was four or five. Can you imagine? The iron actually plugged in and warmed up. Mother set it up and plugged it in next to her when she ironed. Imagine parents today letting their kids -- um, their daughters -- have something to play with that plugged in and heated up. I thought I was so lucky. My mother kept it tucked away so I couldn't use it unless she set it up for me.

When I was eight or so, one day my mother looked at me appraisingly and muttered (as if to herself) "I wonder ... are you big enough ...? No ... you can't be old enough ..." Her voice trailed off.

"Old enough for what?" I asked eagerly.

"Oh --" (airily) "I was just wondering to myself if you're old enough to learn to iron, but --"

"I'm old enough!" I protested. "And besides, you showed me how to iron when I was little."

She seemed doubtful. "But ironing is hard ... you have to be very careful."

"I can be careful!"

"Well," Mother still hesitated. "You could burn yourself. Or you could burn the clothes!" She warned me that what was burned could not be unburned.

I begged her to let me learn to iron. So right away she started me practicing. That very day I was allowed to let the iron heat up to wool. And I ironed my father's socks. She warned me not to do any ironing when she wasn't home. The next Saturday I reminded her that I was supposed to learn more about ironing.

That second time I was allowed to heat the iron to cotton. But first I set it at wool and ironed Daddy's socks, then let it heat to cotton and ironed my own. I also ironed my underwear, of course, being careful not to iron on top of the elastic, which could burn. Mother showed me how to stretch the curves of the underpants and undershirts over the end of the ironing board so I could reach the narrow parts.

The third week, I did all that and Daddy's undershirts. And the fourth week ...

Ah, the fourth week, I was allowed to do my own dampening! I sprinkled Daddy's handkerchiefs with hot water and folded them up together so I had my own little bundle of dampening in the fridge. I ironed everything else on my list and then pulled the dampened handkerchiefs out of the fridge and turned the iron all the way up to linen. Mother showed me how to pull the edges taut so that the handkerchief stayed square, and never to iron the folds in place, because it would weaken the threads of the fabric.

Some time later she taught me to fold them differently each week so that the fabric didn't get weak, which is what would happen if they were always folded along the same lines. That was probably when I was taught to iron pillowcases. First pillowcases were dampened and held in the fridge, then they were slipped over the ironing board so that the fold would not be ironed in. You do not lay a pillowcase flat on the ironing board and iron two layers at a time because that weakens the fabric at the creases.

Mother and I had embroidered McL on all the pillowcases in a padded satin stitch. The way to make a padded satin stitch stand out is to iron it on the wrong side ("on the wrong side" sounded so grown-up, I loved saying it) face down into a thick folded cloth like a diaper. You want to use a folded diaper and not, say, a terrycloth towel because you do not want to iron the marks of the terrycloth into the pillowcase fabric. (We always had diapers because they were absorbent and lint free, great for dish towels and dust cloths, as well as tack cloths when you refinish furniture. Mother bought them by the gross.)

I had been ironing about a year when I was finally ready to iron a shirt. Mother started me on my own few shirts. Dampened, into and out of the fridge, iron on cotton. First, the collar; iron it in one piece with the collar band, pulling it taut so creases aren't ironed into it. Second, the yoke. Third, the shirt cuffs; make sure that the tip of the iron goes under the buttons. Don't iron on top of the buttons because a) plastic buttons will melt and b) it makes dents in the fabric. Fourth, one sleeve, then the other. Fifth, the front placket -- pull it tight so there are no little creases and then iron the back of it so that's smooth too. Then the button band, and don't forget to iron beneath the buttons. Then the two fronts, and finally the back. And hang it on a hanger. And button the collar so it doesn't droop.

I ironed my own shirts for months before I was allowed near my dad's. And here I met a new mystery: starch. I had really looked forward to starch because it was a pretty light blue and had to be mixed with water in a bucket. The proportions were precise. Mix the starch, get the shirt thoroughly wet, wring it out -- of course, into the bucket -- and hang to dry. Then dampen.

Shirts were really a two-day job because of the starch. But oh -- the expertise that was called on to do them right. By the time I was ironing my dad's shirts, I was about the proudest girl on Poland Center Road. And the pleasure of having all those oxford cloth shirts hanging on hangers around the kitchen! I even ironed the inside of the yoke so the labels would be flat. My dad's shirts came from Brooks Brothers, J. Press, and for some reason, Milton's Clothing Cupboard in Charlotte.

It's amazing to think of the ironing that went on. Not just the socks and the underwear and the handkerchiefs and the shirts and the pillowcases -- but hand towels, kitchen towels, and sheets. In the cellar of Grandmother Findley's College Street house was a mangle. Grandmother would sit at the mangle and do all the flats -- sheets for four beds, eight pillowcases, all the towels and dishtowels. However -- as my mother explained to me -- the folds were ironed in, which meant that the fabric got weak! Believe me, pillowcases in the McLaughlin house lasted a long, long time.

Talking heads tell us that people are going to embrace the old ways. The economy is really changing us down deep, it's claimed. Somehow -- given the invention of polyester and rayon and spandex -- I doubt that ironing will ever again be a skill to celebrate.

But -- I cannot tell a lie -- I do iron my pillowcases. There's a deep sensual pleasure in sleeping on pillows with crisp ironed cases. It's just ... delicious.

1 comment:

Mira Costa said...

see? There is something immensely satisfying about ironing. Apparently there were 4 little houses in the hollow where the Hasting A & P is now. Laundering, which of course included ironing, was done there for the big houses.