One of the benefits of living close to the people who make one's clothing is the easier access to the ancillary services most provide. As Will has noted here before, finding firms capable of a sponge and press or alterations is perilous, sartorially and psychologically, and life is better without those particular worries. Shirts are no different, of course, as most cleaners return the things looking ravaged. And even if one has them laundered at home, ironing is an entirely different matter, involving skill and time, considerable amounts of time, for to iron a single shirt properly requires about twenty-five minutes, or so my shirtmaker, Madrid's Camiseria Burgos, tells me (I’d go wrinkled without them). For evening shirts it is even longer, an hour or so, at least as Burgos does it, using a process unchanged in the century they’ve been in business. The process is too complex to perform at home and too long to detail here, but just a few highlights are sufficient to suggest that the people who make one’s clothes are often the people best able to care for them.
To press an evening shirt, Burgos uses two cast iron irons (pictured above). These are heated over a flame. They are rather heavy, which allows them to punch a bit of extra crispness into the shirting, and quite small, with a surface area perhaps half the size of a standard iron. Most importantly, they get very hot, hotter than all the irons Burgos sampled in hopes of replacing them.
Before ironing, Santa, who does all of the ironing at Burgos, mixes Borax with water and starch in a bowl. She then plunges the shirt’s collar into the mixture and works it in with her hands. She does this repeatedly before soaking the collar in a bowl of fresh water and wringing out the mixture. The same is done to the cuffs and bib. The purpose of this step is to add stiffness, but the addition of Borax helps keep the interlining from pulling away in these three areas during ironing. This is an issue because Burgos’ evening shirts are not fused, and unfused interlinings can be easily damaged by inexpert ironing.
Since the irons have no steaming device, Santa can go over any of the hand-stitched seams without fear of loosening or weakening them, consequences more likely to occur with handstitches because they aren’t quite so close as machine-stitches.
When Santa sets to the cuffs, she lays them lengthwise on her workbench, and pulls them taut so that the interlining stays smooth inside. Then she begins to work the requisite roundness into the cuffs. She does this by moving the length of the iron over the cuff slowly and, once the bottom of the iron passes the buttonhole, by curling the cuff away from her and toward the iron, so that it looks almost the way a pencil shaving might coming out of a sharpener. The technique leaves the cuff looking fully round, not just like two halves of a circle welded together.
The collar is worked much in the same way the cuffs are, except before rolling some roundness into it she uses a separate wood board covered with a thin cloth to press it flat. This creates even more rigidity, desirable here because the wingtip of the collar needs to remain in place after it is bent and pressed.
Viewed as a series of steps, the process seems simple enough, but considerably more complicated is what resides in Santa’s fingers, smoothing, curling, and pulling just so whenever such manipulations are needed. This kind of muscle memory is bestowed by time and has been passed on slowly over the generations at Burgos. It is not likely to be gleaned from a training video. One pays for such attention, there is no doubt, but caring for one’s clothes is not as expensive as replacing them. It only takes one ruined shirt, after all (and frankly if there is one there are likely to be six), to incite regret and make one turn over the care of his clothes to (real) professionals. More often than not a man need look no further than the people who made them.
-Text and photos by Anthony Eletherion