April 4, 2013

I love my iron! (and ironing board)

One of the most essential tools for making sewing easier, faster, and better is a good iron. There is a post on this topic over at Male Pattern Boldness right now, and I felt the need to expound robustly on the subject to such an extent that I thought I'd better make a blog post out of it rather than clogging up the comments section on Peter's site with my blather.

I learned to sew ~12 years ago while taking some excellent pattern design classes in night school at Mass. Art, and we had gravity feed irons in class. They are definitely a different animal, with their own set of pros and cons. There must be very good reasons that they are de rigueur  for people who do this for a living, and using one in class certainly opened my eyes to the inadequacy of the entirely typical garbage iron I was using at home.

It wasn't long until the dastardly home iron piddled on a sewing project of mine one too many times, and I resolved to get something better.

At the time, the gravity fed irons seemed a bit much to me. They are really most suited to being left set up in a dedicated place and run at a high duty cycle. This was not a good match to my sewing lifestyle. I want good quality equipment, but it needs to be able to get set up and broken down quickly, and stow away efficiently.

With the gravity fed iron, I was discouraged by the space and setup issues, as well as having this weird colostomy bag thing to have to elevate and have to take down to fill, or be pouring into it while standing on a chair.

I had also read about the steam generator irons and I was intrigued by the idea of decoupling the iron heat level from the steam production. Home irons and gravity fed ones vaporize the water at the iron head, so the iron itself needs to be good and hot.

In the end I bought a Rowenta Expert DG980, and have been extremely pleased. These are now out of production, but can still be found on various corners of the internet. There are two steam generator models in the current Rowenta lineup; I'm not sure which one would be more similar to the DG980.

My iron can make a tremendous quantity of steam, it almost never blows liquid water out the sole plate (usually only if I try to use it too quickly before its done heating up), and I can have independent control of steam quantity and sole plate temp. So for instance if I am working with wool I can blast it with plenty of steam, but have the iron itself a bit cooler than might be necessary if I was using the sole plate to vaporize the water. It can also steam with the iron in any orientation (which I guess is also true with the gravity fed). The steam is also very quick to respond since it it gated by an electronic solenoid. Also true with gravity fed.

Here is Millie ironing some yardage.

One annoyance is the base station, which I currently perch on the end of the ironing board, thus depriving myself of some of the usable length of the board. If I need to, I can set the board next to the dining table and put the base station on the table. My impression is also that the temperature uniformity across the sole plate is a lot better than a typical home iron; my recollection being that the tip of the home iron was obviously less effective than the middle of the main section, and this is not nearly as noticeable with the Rowenta. I would expect this to be even better with a massive gravity fed iron, with all that metal to spread the heat out well.

Along with this iron I also bought an extra wide ironing board with expanded metal construction. I think mine was from Polder or Brabantia, but I'm sure there are others.

The expanded metal construction allows steam to pass easily through your project and the board and out the back. Typical home ironing boards are solid sheet metal (maybe with a few token holes scattered about), and the board cover quickly becomes soggy as steam condenses at the solid backing of the board. Or they have an impervious cover, which just makes the water collect right in your fabric. The expanded metal also lets you put pins in the cover straight through, which can come in handy sometimes, especially when making pinhead mosaics, which the kids love to do as soon as the pins come out.

The extra width is very nice for ironing pre-washed yardage and when pressing seams and garments during construction.

Taken together, the steam generator and good ironing board revolutionized my sewing experience. My construction became quicker and higher quality (of course it still takes me like 10 times longer than I think it will to finish a project!). These tools make pressing and ironing a pleasure, and every time I use them I luxuriate in their power and effectiveness. Needless to say it also makes regular clothes ironing much more efficient and pleasant, but they really shine when used in the service of garment making.

When we have attended formal events or weddings within driving distance I have packed my iron along with my formal clothes into the car, and been happy to have it with me. At one of Becky's good friends' weddings we used it to address some minor issues on the bride's dress at the last minute!

The DG980 has started to show its age. It has a crack in the housing where it once fell out of the back of the (stationary) car when it was travelling to an event. The cleaning port for the steam chamber originally had a cover to keep you from burning yourself on it, but that fell off and its now covered with a piece of cardboard. Also the fill sensor which decides when to pump more water into the steam chamber has started to become flaky, so sometimes I have to punch the button manually to recharge the chamber.

When the Rowenta finally kicks the bucket maybe I'll reconsider gravity fed, if at that time I have a dedicated sewing space. But I have absolutely no regrets about my iron, and have really enjoyed the years of service it has rendered. I look forward to spending more quality time with it in future.

If you are sewing with a home iron, I beg you to consider upgrading. It really does make a huge difference, and you will absolutely not regret it. I now firmly believe that one can have a very fine sewing machine for under $100 (a vintage treadle machine) with some looking, and I think spending at least $100 on an iron is perfectly reasonable if you sew more than once a year.

Sewing, like so many things, is much more about skill than gear. Still, a good tool can do one of several things: make something possible that was previously impossible, reduce the amount of time it takes to complete a task, or allow a task to be done at a lower skill level than would otherwise be the case. I think a good iron has elements of the latter two, but the contrast that was more visible to me was the difference between a poor tool and a good tool.


Alan Rhoads said...

I agree with you. I also have a Rowenta. Did you know that they make an ironing board that takes the steam away and doesn't leave the board wet. It has a fan unit on the underside that does the work.

Peter Lappin said...

I must say I'm surprised, Holly. I'd always assumed you ironed with something you forged yourself from old railroad spikes. ;)

Thanks for the post!

Holly Gates said...

I know, I know its a little embarrassing actually, to be using something so modern and consumer oriented like this. It was from before my antique equipment fetish became so intense, but it works so well it would be hard to give up at this point.

But not impossible perhaps... I was thinking about it on the bike ride to work this morning. Drat you Peter! I really don't need to start a new project to replace my perfectly functional iron!

If I could master the dry iron technique, it wouldn't be too hard to make a nice iron out of steel plate or a chunk of cast iron. Or I'm sure you can get an antique 2kg sad iron without spending much money, since there are probably more of them around than there is demand for them these days.

Anyway, it would be fairly simple (for an engineer) to make a compact and responsive hot plate to act as a cradle for the sad iron. So the iron would get heated up when it was on its cradle, and would have sufficient thermal mass to not drop in temp too much during an interval of ironing. So this potential iron would also have the benefit of being cordless! Even better than a modern iron!

Might have to have a double hot plate and two irons though, so one could be heating up while the other is being used. There would also be the safety aspect of having 2-4x the area of burn temperature metal around, half of which would be facing UP, ready to scald children, cats, or unwary hands. Could be minimized with good design and some guarding perhaps...

If you do try to go the dry iron route, please make sure to report on your experience!

Celeste Lux said...

I have this EXACT iron. Have had it for over 10 years I think....and I love it. Like you, I put it in a cupboard when it's not being used. I think it is as upscale as I will ever get with an iron in a home sewing environment.

Holly Gates said...

Hmm, maybe an induction plate to warm the sad irons... This could get a lot of energy into the iron in a short amount of time, and improve the safety aspect by taking the burn hazard out of the warming plate.

Looking on ebay there are plenty of sad irons to be had. Some of them you put burning charcoal in to keep them hot, others burn kerosene in the iron! Its amazing more people didn't burn their houses down or die of CO poisoning.

Alex Carr said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
mssewcrazy said...

Love the rowenta irons I have had through the years(a couple were abused by then teenage daughters and I bumped off one on the old ironing board that wobbled. I now have a rowenta board (not the fan variety) that has an iron holder that I love. If I ever have to resort to the two sad irons I own it will be when there's no power for the rowenta which hey it could happen. I think people used natural fiber fabrics, finger pressed and flat felled seams which is a lot easier on the old machines I find. During Easter my sil and 7 yr old gs sewed on my treadle but the machine they loved was the 99 handcrank like you have on your blog. We may be making a cone hat when he returns this summer if I dont think of something before then.

Alex Carr said...

My iron is a Euro-Pro Shark. I feel like I am ironing with a hot rock compared to what I am reading about gravity feed and steam generated irons. I think I will move on to a steam generated when my iron gasps its last breath. -
Alex in California

Anonymous said...

Hello Holly,
I'm wanting to encourage you to try dry ironing. I bought one sad iron,and turned into 2, I have 5 and a sad iron heater, so I don't have to heat up the house so much with my wood cook stove just to iron. My husband and I are preparing a area for our log cabin on 14 acres in Northern Minnesota.We have been accumulating things for living off the grid. I also found and bought an Old Homestead treadle machine too and a Franklin 1911, then from there to a 1916 Singer Red Eye 66-1 treadle,I began with a Honeymoon that is still waiting restoration cabinet and all,that has to wait until the workshop is built. Oh and I acquired a 1947 66 that can be returned back into a treadle. I also found another 66-1 made in 1908 with Lotus decal,had to replace some rusted parts and It is now sewing again Yay!! My hubby bought me a 1908 Singer 28 hand crank in wood case.I will be piecing quilt square on it soon! I also just got a White Rotary in a parlor cabinet, it's cleaned and oiled now but needs a belt to see if it will sew.
Love your blog