Today’s Wonder of the Day was inspired by Michael. Michael Wonders, “How does ironing work?” Thanks for WONDERing with us, Michael!
BEEEEP BEEEEP BEEEEP! Your alarm is going off, time to wake up! Wash your face, brush your teeth, and rinse. Head to the kitchen for breakfast. Clear off the table, feed the dog, and water the plants. Finally, you’re almost ready to leave. Just to get dressed—ohhh no! You forgot to iron today’s outfit, and your shirt is full of wrinkles!
Nothing ruins the morning like wrinkled clothes. Now, to warm up the iron, lay out your clothes, and press all those wrinkles away. You’ll probably miss the bus and be late for school! This is so annoying. Why do clothes get wrinkled, anyway?
Science can explain wrinkles, and it’s less complicated than you may think. The short answer is that clothes get wrinkled because of heat and water. These two factors interact with the building blocks of the clothing itself, causing it to become wrinkled. Are you ready for the long answer?
All our clothing is made of fabric. Fabric comes in lots of forms, like cotton, silk, and denim. These fabrics react to heat and water differently. That’s why silk shirts wrinkle easier than denim jeans.
Every fabric is made of fibers that contain polymers. The polymers are held together by hydrogen bonds—the same bonds that connect water molecules. When a fabric encounters heat, these bonds break. This allows the fibers to shift into new positions. Then, when the fabric cools, new bonds form. Clothes then take on whatever shape they’re left in.
That’s why letting clothes sit in the dryer too long makes them wrinkly! When we wash our clothes, absorbent fabrics allow in lots of water molecules to penetrate polymer chains. While clothes dry, the fibers’ connections loosen and let new hydrogen bonds form. Then, as water evaporates and the clothes cool, the shape of your clothes becomes locked in. The longer they sit in the dryer, the wrinklier they will be.
Have no fear! There are plenty of ways to stop wrinkles and save your morning. The best thing you can do is dry smarter. Shake your clothes out to loosen them when moving them from the washer to the dryer. You should also fold or hang up clothes as soon as they dry. This will let them take on a smooth shape instead of one full of wrinkles.
Another option is to buy wrinkle-resistant clothes. These garments use permanent press. Invented by Ruth Rogan Benerito in the 1950s, permanent press fabrics replace hydrogen bonds with water-resistant cross-linked bonds. This stops water from the fabric, so it’s less likely to wrinkle.
What if your clothes are already wrinkled? No problem! There are plenty of ways to solve that problem. You can steam your clothes or toss them back in the dryer. Spraying them with water while they hang up or using a de-wrinkling spray also works.
Perhaps the best solution for wrinkled clothes is ironing. Ironing reverses the wrinkling process. Steam ironing is even better. The steam dampens fabric and loosens bonds. Pressure from the iron then aligns molecules. Finally, the iron’s heat evaporates the water so bonds reform. The hotter the iron, the easier moisture evaporates.
But be careful! Some fabrics can’t handle heat. You should check the tag before ironing to make sure your clothes are safe to iron. And always be careful not to burn yourself! Irons get very hot, and touching the wrong end of one will ruin your morning in a different way. Now that you understand the science behind wrinkles, you can always look your best!