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How Do They Make Clothes Wrinkle-Free? What’s in it that Does the Job?

A woman looks frustrated as she looks at the clothes to iron.

I hate wrinkles. Nothing makes me look more unprofessional than wrinkles. It doesn’t matter how expensive the clothes are, if there are wrinkles, I will not wear them.

This is a secret: I don’t iron my clothes anymore. If you see me leave the house wearing something with perfectly crisp edges and creases in all the right places, it’s a wrinkle-free design. 

How is this possible?

I wanted to know how they did it, so I did some research.

After about an hour of online searching, I found something interesting. It turns out it’s not new. It started in the 1940s (that explains the perfect looks in the pictures and films.) They didn’t call it wrinkle-free. It was “permanent press.” It took until the 1970s and 80s to perfect the process. 

What changed?

There were a few ways companies improved the wrinkle-resistance of cotton to compete with synthetic fabrics that were taking over for their easy care. One method is cross-linking, a chemical process containing formaldehyde, which wards off wrinkles. It also makes the cloth less breathable and more likely to catch fire.

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Oh, no. Less ironing isn’t worth wearing clothes that leech formaldehyde.

Luckily, there are other ways to make clothes wrinkle-free.

Companies began working on wrinkle-proof cotton in the early 1900s. The chemical process only made the material brittle and useless.

Noelie Bertoniere, an author and subject expert, described the problem.

“You could sit down, and your shirt would rip across the back.”

I got a good chuckle from that mental image.

Wrinkled shirts hanging outside against a whitewashed brick wall.

For cotton, we can thank American Chemist Ruth R. Benerito. She discovered the key to the perfect cotton shirt, pants, or dress is a chemical reagent that reorganizes the structure of the fabric without making it brittle.

A team of scientists found a way to ditch the harsh chemicals and reduce wrinkles. Using citric acid and xylitol, they cross-linked the citric acid to form a scaffolding that repeats throughout the cotton.

That way, it doesn’t matter if you pull or fold the fabric. It still stays smooth and crisp because the citric acid/xylitol combination forms its own internal structure, independently of other chemicals.

I don’t know about you, but I’m excited to look crisp and clean all day. And I do not want harmful chemicals touching my skin.

What about Non-Cotton Fabrics?

I do enjoy some non-cotton fabrics, like wool. These are naturally more wrinkle-resistant than cotton. 

I was surprised to learn how wool resists wrinkles: It’s all about the weave.

Woven fabric, like a knit or cotton/linen blend, pulls near the edges of the weave.

For example, if you have a shirt with a check pattern on it, each box of the design has four little corners. Every time you wear and wash it, those tiny woolen fibers get pulled in different directions. The result is that the threads are always tugged in two directions at once, making it harder for wrinkles to form.

Synthetic Fabrics

Man wearing a suit.

I find the most wrinkles in synthetic fabrics, like polyester. Clothing made 100% from polyester won’t ever go out of style, and it will always be wrinkle-proof. What is the secret?

What if I told you that every single polyester molecule contains a plastic called PET.

When the fabric is first made, it’s not wrinkle-proof at all! Manufacturers grow plastic fibers by boiling the material multiple times.

The reason your clothes stay wrinkle-free is that they infuse every single polyester fiber with plastic, which makes them highly resilient to wrinkles. It’s also resistant to water, making this a perfect fabric for outdoor clothing.

Now, I’m not thrilled about the plastic, but it’s not formaldehyde, and it can keep me wrinkle-free and dry.

We’ve covered cotton, wool, and polyester. What about other fabrics?

Linen

Linen is known for being naturally wrinkle-resistant. The secret is in the weave’s structure. Check out a linen shirt next to a cotton shirt.

The weave of a linen shirt looks like little lozenges, while the weave on a cotton shirt is looser and more open.

The fabric on a linen shirt has to be gathered tightly when the lozenges are woven together. The result is a fabric naturally resistant to being stretched or pulled.

Silk

Silk used to be the only fabric that was naturally wrinkle-resistant. I couldn’t find much to say about it other than that silk is 100% natural and has no plastic in it. However, I’ve discovered silk has some downsides in care, such as that it can’t go in the dryer and tends to lose its color.

It’s Not Wrinkle-Free, But Wrinkle-Resistant

Man irons a shirt while talking on a mobile phone.

Nothing’s perfect. I’ve found that you can discover wrinkle-resistant clothes wrinkled when you have a teenager at home! However, these shirts and pants were dirty and shoved into impossible situations.

Thanks to the quality, a quick wash and dry were all they needed to come out looking great, and I still didn’t have to iron. However, I have found some items need ironing or steaming to get out a single crease or line that’s stubborn. I’ll take once in a great while over every time any day! 

I’m still not 100% satisfied with my wardrobe, but I am getting there. I’m happy to know I can buy wrinkle-free fabrics that are also earth-friendly. No matter what, cotton is always a good choice, but new fabrics are giving it a run for its money. I’m going to keep looking for wrinkle-free clothing to make my life easier.