The truly wrinkle-free shirt has been the holy grail of launderers and clothing makers for decades. Permanent press -- or "perma press" -- fabrics are perhaps the most prominent example of wrinkle-resistant fabrics, an invention so popular that most washing machines feature a setting specifically designed for their maintenance. Despite their mark on the laundry lexicon, permanent press fabrics are not the end-all of wrinkle-free clothing; the search for the perpetually neat shirt continues ever onward.
History and Advantages
In clothing, permanent press textiles strive to lessen or eliminate the need for ironing, helping clothes maintain their shape, size and smoothness even after multiple wearings and washings. The term "permanent press" debuted in 1964, an invention of chemical researcher Ruth Rogan Benerito. A blend of two parts polyester and one part cotton made up early permanent press textiles, which also featured a fiber coating made of formaldehyde-impregnated resins. The latter feature helped the clothes keep their shape and resist wrinkles.
When compared to natural cotton clothing, permanent press garments tend to be thicker and do not breathe as well. Permanent press clothing may stiffen with repeated washings. Perhaps of most note, permanent press textiles derive their wrinkle-free quality from formaldehyde, which may cause dermatitis. In most cases, however, only hypersensitive or allergic people develop rashes due to the low levels of formaldehyde in permanent press fabrics. As with most products, these clothes are not perfect; most permanent press garments will need ironing at some point although they do require less ironing than non-treated clothes.
Many washing machines produced after the 1960s feature a permanent press setting designed specifically for wrinkle-free clothes, such as those made of polyester blends, nylon or acrylic. Modern washers may use the term "synthetic cycle" rather than permanent press. For washers without this setting, it is best to use warm water on permanent press fabrics. As these fabrics are generally tougher in texture than most clothes, they should not be washed with delicates. Removing permanent press clothes from the dryer, as soon as the cycle ends, helps them maintain their shape and smoothness.
Though still a common type of textile, permanent press fabrics were a little dated by the end of the 20th century. Since then, clothing manufacturers have tweaked the cotton-polyester blend in search of wrinkle-resistant garments. Some manufacturers use ammonia, as an anti-shrinking agent, in place of formaldehyde. Others have experimented with the inexpensive dihydroxy dimethylol ethylene urea, paired with a magnesium-based catalyst, in the fight against wrinkles. The term "permanent press" has gradually been usurped by the phrase "easy care," for fabric that has been treated with anti-wrinkle or anti-stain chemical agents. As of the first decade of the 21st century, garment makers still seek a solution for all-cotton clothes to resist wrinkling and shrinkage.
- USA Today: "Chemistry and nanotech work to make carefree clothing"; Andrew Kantor; December 2004
- The New York Times: "A Dream Unfolds for Cotton Shirts"; Andrew Pollack; December 1993
- Mrs. Stewart's Bluing: Mrs. Stewart's Home Washing Guide
- The New York Times; "When Wrinkle-Free Clothing Also Means Formaldehyde Fumes"; Tara Siegel Bernard; December 2010