The “No-Iron” and “Easy-Iron” Dress Shirt Problem

There is an epidemic spreading around the men’s wear world, specifically in the dress shirt department. Actually, it might be more accurate to describe the problem as an “imposter” situation rather than a virus. Every year, it appears that more and more nice cotton poplin dress shirts – the originals enjoyed by you, me, our fathers and every other discerning shirt-wearer – are being replaced by creepy renditions composed of some version of cotton that is technically (and legally) cotton, but looks and feels like something very different. This imposter of which I speak is known as “no-iron” or “easy-iron” cotton. And it sucks.

As age 40 loomed a few years ago, I decided to clean up my act, “up my game” and dress more like a grown-up. Part of that involved investing in good dress shirts, using the four criteria I employ for inclusion on my website and in my life. The shirts had to be 1.) handsome, 2.) well-made, 3.) affordable and 4.) workable.

Seeking nice, classic, cotton poplin shirts in solid white and sky blue with a semi-spread collar, French cuffs and a slim fit, I found three options that fit the bill. British shirtmaker Charles Tyrwhitt had a spectacular option that was often part of their now-famous “4 shirts for $199” offer. American dress shirt workhorse Brooks Brothers had an $80 option that fit that description, with a bundle offer of three shirts for $160 or $180 or something. And less known Paul Fredrick also had nicely-made, affordable shirts, but their French cuffs have rounded corners, which I don’t love as much as squared corners.

I went with the Charles Tyrwhitt shirt (4 for $199). Classic semi-spread collar, great slim fit, perfect French cuffs and a wonderful hand on the cotton. It was soft, it was breathable and it ironed well. (I do my own shirts.) And when the “sprezzatura” spirit moved me, the un-ironed cotton relaxed into a nice, appropriately wrinkled, unstructured shirt to wear by itself, with a sweater or with a casual jacket. My shirts were perfect, everything was wonderful and I was a happy customer. James Bond was a Turnbull & Asser man, my dad was a Brooks Brothers man, and I was becoming content as a Charles Tyrwitt man… until I went to get more.

When I looked for the same shirts on the Charles Tyrwhitt website, I couldn’t find them. The beautiful, regular cotton poplin shirts I had enjoyed so much had been replaced with “easy-iron” shirts. I searched and searched the site, thinking that I was maybe looking in the wrong place. Nope. The slim-fit shirts made in the regular cotton poplin weave were nowhere to be found.

Since Brooks Brothers was a bit steeper in price and Paul Fredrick had the rounded corners on the French cuffs, I was a bit stumped, especially since the 15.5″ x 35″ slim fit from Charles Tyrwhitt was an absolutely perfect fit. J.Crew wasn’t an option, since S, M, L and XL is a really inappropriate size model for dress shirts (especially at that price point). There are many other beautiful dress shirts available from different companies, but affordability is one of my four criteria. So I caved with Charles Tyrwhitt and got the same shirts, but in the “easy iron” cotton. Big mistake.

A Tale of Two Cottons: A close-up detail of the same shirts. The blue is regular cotton; the white is “easy-iron” cotton. Notice how the fabric on the easy-iron cotton doesn’t really “relax” where it folds.
I realize one should always wash a dress shirt before wearing it, since brand new shirts often have a strange hand and need to shrink to the correct size. Out of the box, the new “easy iron” shirts from Tyrwhitt felt like fine nylon. My hope was that the fabric would soften and relax after a washing and ironing, but my hope was quickly ruined. They’re not only not soft like cotton should feel, but after wearing one for about an hour, it felt like my nipples were being sanded off. To complicate matters, it was a hot day. The cotton hardly breathes.

After a little research, I learned that “no-iron” and “easy-iron” cotton is treated with a formaldehyde resin, which permanently alters the cotton fabric, putting bonds in the material where they don’t exist on natural cotton fiber. This extra bonding yields a fabric that is, yes, technically cotton, but a super-strength Frankenstein cotton that doesn’t breathe, doesn’t bend or doesn’t wrinkle like natural cotton should. Another unfortunate effect of the “easy iron” cotton is the poly-blend look of it before ironing. The collar is permanently stiff and there is no option of wearing the shirt in a relaxed, un-ironed mode. It’s just weird.

As I searched for a handsome, well-made, affordable and workable Plan B online, I saw these stiff Stepford shirts everywhere. The virus even infected staunch, stalwart Brooks Brothers. I tweeted each company separately and their respective responses alluded to the overwhelming demand of the no-iron shirts. The demand for no-iron and easy-iron cotton is apparently so overwhelming that it’s not worth it to keep the regular cotton poplin shirts in production, ignoring the preferences of cotton-loving customers like me. But Brooks Brothers was kind enough to suggest their custom shirt option, which can be made with regular cotton poplin… for $350… per shirt. No, thanks.

I have no idea how long this epidemic of formaldehyde-soaked shirting will last, but I can say that Charles Tyrwhitt and Brooks Brothers really lost me, at least for now. While the popular shirtmakers feed the wants of iron-shy mama’s boys who don’t know good cotton from bad, I’m on the hunt for a handsome, well-made, affordable and workable custom option. I’ll let you know how it goes.

44 comments

  1. Hey George,
    Have you heard of 5th and Lamar? I’m pretty sure their shirts are not easy-iron or no-iron. Unfortunately, only the plain white dress shirt is available in any neck/sleeve length combination. The rest of the colors/patterns are standard sizing. Oh, and no french cuffs. I guess we can’t have everything…

  2. Another disadvantage of the formaldehyde-resin shirt is that it doesn’t last as long. After a few washes, the fibers begin to fray along the cuffs and other edges.

  3. I stopped buying Charles Tyrwhitt shirts for the same reason. Fortunately there are quite a few made to measure websites where you can dial in a great fit with real cotton, but you have to pay a little more.

  4. Completely agree. I bought quite a few some years back from BBs. All ripped at the outer sleeve crease within days of each other. They literally disintegrated before my eyes. So much for them sliding into frayed gentility. They came apart and left me flapping in the breeze en route home. Am still wearing new ones after buying a few more whilst on your side of the Atlantic on vacation but, like you, searching for something that feels more natural.

  5. Brooks Brothers sells traditional cotton shirts in slim and extra-slim fits on their website. They are, unfortunately, rather difficult to find in stores. Unsure whether French cuffs are an option, but the barrel cuffs have been serving me well.

  6. I would also recommend T.M Lewin (http://www.tmlewin.com/), did one of their 5 shirts for just under $200 a while back and really am very happy with them. Range of materials and styles and a pretty good fit and size options. Plenty of cuff and collar options as well.

  7. Ratio Clothing. Excellent prices, fit, custom options, and customer service. I own 9 or 10 and can’t see going back to off-the-rack. And yes, I loathe non-iron shirts.

  8. May I suggest made to measure? I had a similar deal at modern tailor.com (4~$200) and the first shirt is only $20. My only caution is to make surethe fabric weight is dense enough; I didn’t have any problems as I bought mostly oxfordcloth, but a friend of mine bought some funky patterns and they were just a little on the thinner side (not necessary a bad thing, but if you’re bad at laundry like him, you have to be careful).

  9. Besides, formaldehyde finish on fabrics can cause cancer if particles amount exceeds what is approved.
    I have the same issue with shirts and this year I found on line Borreli ans Isaia shirts each average $150. Great quality and style.

    1. Hi, Samuel. No, the easy-iron shirts do exhibit some of the natural qualities of real cotton. They absolutely require ironing, and they do wrinkle somewhat like a normal shirt would, but they do lack the exquisite feel of real cotton.

  10. you tried the tyrwhitt non iron…but did you try the brooks brothers? i’ve been wearing them for years and am truly amazed at how good they are. i just have really crappy dry cleaners where i live. i AM glad you wrote about the tyrwhitt…i’ve thought of purchasing some and am now glad i didn’t. the BB wear like iron…
    yes, i agree that cotton’s better; but it’s not really an option for me.

  11. I was a Tyrwhitt fan for a while. It wore out. I am now completely nuts for the white poplin cotton Suitsupply shirt. Fabric has great hand, perfect collar, and a great slim fit. And $99, very reasonable.

    And, as for washing your new shirts before wearing, it is necessary. One quick visit to where they’re made makes it painfully clear.

  12. What about the Tyrwhitt “White texture modern luxury extra slim fit shirt” – it is not non-iron or easy iron, has the collar you like and comes with French cuffs. They also have a herringbone if you like that weave (I don’t). Not a big fan of TM Lewin. Pink has some good ones but v.pricey.

    1. Thanks, Tom. The idea is nice, but the fact that Tyrwhitt made regular poplin shirts (no texture) completely unavailable is insane to me. They argue that the no-iron/easy-iron shirts sell too well. I’d counter that crystal meth sells very well, too, but it doesn’t make it a hot idea. Younger, inexperienced guys think no-iron shirts are normal. It’s bad product, bad education and bad business.

      1. Perhaps it might be a good idea to step back and get some perspective when you find yourself comparing a non-iron shirt to crystal meth?

        1. I’m quite familiar with both and I assure you that neither can offer a genuinely worthwhile experience. So I’ll step back… All the way back to the Perspective Bar where people can enjoy Satire, served straight-up with a twist of Relax Already.

  13. Harvie and Hudson, Hilditch and Key, New and Lingwood. I got 3 Harvie and Hudsons last month on sale they came to $170 including shipping. They have an excellent poplin far superior to the all cotton poplin CT used to put out. They also make a very nice royal oxford. When not on sale Harvie and Hudson will cost about $85-90 each including shipping but they are worth every penny. They have slim fit French cuffs as well.

    1. I love Ledbury in theory, but they never seem to have what I’m looking for: 15.5 neck, 35 sleeve, slim fit, classic collar, French cuff.

  14. I have some ‘regular’ CT cotton poplin shirts from 2012. I hate those two shirts. You look at them funny and they wrinkle up into a ball. Moving the shirt around to iron them causes the freshly ironed part to wrinkly. Formaldehyde or not, I’m going with non-iron from here on out. Ain’t nobody got time to iron a shirt after every wear.

  15. Hugh and Crye refuses to make non-iron for this exact reason and they have a range of fits that worked for me. I’m 15.5-35 slim… which is their average slim

  16. hi George, i work for a company called T.M Lewin primarily based in the UK.A company that has been making quality shirts since 1898.We still sell a plain poplin cotton shirt that is neither non iron or easy iron.have a look!

  17. George, thanks for a great article. I have been so frustrated in the last year or two that every Lewin or Tyrwhitt shirt I bought was so sweaty and uncomfortable. I have been an ardent Tyrwhitt fan for 15 years or more but am looking elsewhere now, very sadly. At least I know now why the quality has gone downhill. I’ll follow up on some of the suggestions above for non-formaldehyde shirts.

  18. Is there anyway to remove the chemicals from non-iron shirts–heavy bleach? to soften them up and make them more breathe-able?

    Just bought 3 Traveler shirts from J.Banks and didn’t realize they were the dreaded non-iron. . .

    1. Unfortunate not. Wear them until they wear out. Or exchange them if you haven’t worn them yet. The more companies get the message that there is a demand for real cotton shirts, the better.

  19. Y’know, this is probably the wrong blog at which to leave this comment, but what I want in a dress shirt is a decent cotton-poly blend. I’m not going to iron or go to the cleaners, so 100% cotton is out. No-iron cotton is miserable, so that’s out. Cotton-poly blend is what’s left. I know, it’s never going to look or feel as good as 100% cotton, but I’m over that. I just want a moderately priced, moderately comfortable, moderately presentable dress shirt that is totally effortless to own and maintain. Sadly, shirtmakers consider cotton-poly to be suitable only for Walmart, so it’s hard to find shirts with even minimally acceptable quality.

  20. I have bought 8 of these shirts over the last several years and, while i was happy with them at first, i have found the quality of construction especially around the collar area to be poor in my opinion. i have now thrown out 3 of the shirts that i purchased due to collar fraying and it isn’t my cleaners as I have used these cleaners for all my shirts. I have custom shirts that continue to perform amazingly after 5 years as I have a lot of shirts and don’t wear them continuously.

    If you are looking for a shirt that might last 7- 10 washings then this is worth a try and plan on throwing out. if you are interested in a shirt that will last 2-5+ years, spend for better quality elsewhere or online.

    btw, I have raised the issue with the company in an email recently and they thanked me for my input and will share it internally. I can’t believe I am the first to have raised this issue.

    Poor quality

  21. I totally agree with the boycott if wrinkle free, no iron, cotton shirts and pants too. They are uncomfortable and irritable after about five minutes. I will only buy if 100% untreated cotton. Thanks for all the suggestions. PS I have even found some all cotton causal shirts, not marketed as no iron, have itchiness lately. Not sure what is happening in the clothing industry, but not all 100% cotton is the same. I have returned several items that were not soft, as advertised.

  22. The reason they do that is not only that it has the no-iron qualities, it’s also because the formaldehyde prevents mildew from developing. All cheaply-made shirts are produced in countries like Bangladesh or Pakistan, and to transport it across the tropics inside a container on a boat takes a long time, in humid conditions. They even put it in t-shirts and many kinds of clothes that really don’t need to be no-iron. It’s just cheaper for them to make shirts this way. Nobody likes the feel of the fused fabric and, like you, I don’t think it even looks good.
    Pure cotton shirts are often more expensive, but I’m also boycotting the treated “cotton”, I don’t want to sweat in my clothes

  23. You can find videos on how to iron your shirts very quickly. If you know you are not taking off your jacket you can get the ironing done even quicker. With that info and a few tries I have been able to stick with all cotton shirts. I have been very pleased with my J Hilburn made to measure shirts. It just makes it difficult to go back to off of the rack.

  24. I may be the only here, but am finding out that I am VERY sensitive to the formaldehyde. It gets hard for me to breathe, my throat gets tight, and my face gets hot and flushed. I know it’s formaldehyde because only dress shirts do this to me. I never have the same issue with regular cotton shirts.

    Anyone find formaldehyde-free dress shirts yet?

    1. Your only solution is to stop wearing non-iron/wrinkle-free dress shirts (which people shouldn’t be wearing anyway). Plus, the cotton on regular cotton shirts is much softer and more breathable.

    2. Thank you George. I was able to find a lot of alternatives that do not use formaldehyde. A great company I found was Twillory.com. A couple of others I am trying: Alara, Ledbury and Kamakura. Bought 2 at Twillory and 1 at Alara. I will be sure to let you know how I respond to them.

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