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Illustration by Chelsea O'Byrne

I have shunned ironing for my entire adult life. What exactly is the purpose? I mean, why not just take the stuff out of the dryer, smooth it with your hands and fold it?

It’s not like I’ve never ironed before. I was born in the early 1950s to a superstar homemaker, one I have never been able to hold a candle to in the homemaking department. My mother emigrated from Italy before I was born and brought with her well-honed skills for running a household. Monday was for laundry, Tuesday ironing, Wednesday sewing, both mending and new projects, Thursday cleaning, and Friday called for big jobs such as washing floors or canning vegetables. Of course, part of her duties was to teach me all of these jobs, of which I had my fill during the summer months. During the school year, I was grateful for homework and, as soon as I was old enough, summer jobs as these were instant get-out-of-chores cards I could play.

Today, ironing is often unnecessary. Many modern fabrics can look like cotton, hang well and don’t wrinkle. And I have never understood the rationale behind ironing sheets – you just lie on them and wrinkle them up! I’d rather free up that time used in ironing to do something I really want to do.

But then along came the pandemic lockdowns. Suddenly, I had lots of extra time on my hands along with a little extra money as I wasn’t spending it on going out or travelling.

At the beginning of the pandemic, I sewed cotton masks and a friend gave me a set of old, high-end cotton sheets to make them with. The fabric was smooth to the touch and better than any new sheets I’d ever owned! It got me thinking – maybe it was time to splurge on fancy sheets for myself.

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I waited for a sale as I researched cotton types. When I could get them for half price, I finally order two sets of $600 sheets: both Egyptian cotton, the white ones at a 450 thread count and a taupe set with a 600 thread count.

I carried my attractive bag home from the store’s curbside pickup and felt quite excited about my new purchase. When I got home I immediately opened the packages. I know you should wash them first, but I couldn’t wait. The sheets felt as smooth and silky as I imagined. I unfolded the top sheet of the white set and raised it to cover the bed, it was so light that it billowed like a cloud in the light. The taupe set had a different feel, firm and crisp like a luxurious hotel sheet.

That first night when I got into bed was the height of luxury, the sheet falling over my body, the silky pillow case on my face. I had entered pandemic heaven.

Eventually I had to wash the sheets, but when I pulled my nice new sheets out of the dryer they were a mass of wrinkled fabric, like a tissue that’s been sitting in a jacket pocket for months.

“Oh no,” I thought, “I’m going to have to iron these sheets.”

So, for the first time in my life, I had to figure out how to iron a set of sheets.

Queen sheets are pretty big and an ironing board is quite small. And forget the fitted sheet… who knows how you’re supposed to iron that! But the internet is a helpful tool and I discovered some very clever videos on the topic.

It made me think of my family and friends in Italy, where I see firsthand where some of my mother’s homemaking skills developed. Many Italians like to iron. Everything is pressed, from the tea towel to all pieces of clothing and everything in between. My cousin has an ironing and sewing room with a rack to hang all the freshly ironed shirts. The iron is attached by a long hose to a massive water tank, I assume so as not to run out of steam. (My simple, 30-year-old steam iron rarely goes through half a cup of water!) In Italy, with so few dryers in homes, much of washing day is spent moving clothing around outside so that it dries in the direct sun. One of my Italian friends once told me that she gets such joy when she opens up her linen cabinet and sees all the sheets and towels perfectly ironed and evenly stacked on the shelves. When she said this, I stood there shaking my head.

But now I, too, am starting to iron my sheets. The first time I didn’t do a good job – I thought I could get away with just ironing the top part of the flat sheet and the pillowcases, but then I heard my mother’s voice telling me to do the job as it should be done.

Rule No. 1, the sheets need to be damp in order to iron them well, ie. they need to come out of the dryer early. (The washing instructions for my sheets did say this, but I didn’t pay attention.) Then I remembered a few tricks that my mother used. There were no steam irons or dryers in her day. She had a little glass bottle filled with water which she would sprinkle over clothes that needed to be ironed. She’d then roll the clothing up and let them sit for 20 minutes. Then, she ironed them. I tried it the other day on a shirt that wrinkles terribly and it worked like a charm. That top has never looked better.

I’ve even been inspired to change my sheet drawer. No more tangled piles of folded sheets. I now stack my freshly ironed sheets neatly in the drawer and admire how nice they look. Plus, ironed sheets take up a lot less space, so there is room to buy more sheets. I actually enjoy making the bed now and seeing a freshly ironed sheet stretched across the bed.

I’ve discovered it’s worth the time it takes to iron, if only for the experience of folding the duvet cover down and sliding under those smooth sheets into bed. It may have taken a pandemic for me to appreciate the art of ironing, but my mother would be proud.

Liz D’Andrea lives in Toronto

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