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 or broadcloth 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 “wrinkle-free,” “no-iron” or “easy-iron” cotton. And it sucks.
Around the time I turned 40, 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.
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.
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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…
Ah, bless you for the suggestion. I do love my French cuffs.
My husband must be your long lost brother. Your story is his story. After buying the last TEN! button down Supima cotton untreated shirts from Lands End….. Fast forward, they’re all worn out and a crisis is looming. I searched, Googled and ended up calling Lands End directly. After a long pause and chat with the supervisor we find that they do have untreated, long sleeve, button down supima. They’re called School Boys uniform shirts! Whatever. I ordered 5 and if they’re good I might get more. Loved your article. We don’t feel so alone in a no iron universe.
Fantastic! I love it! Thank you, Sarah!
So that’s what’s going on! I just can’t seem to find the old fashion “soft” cotton shirts anymore! Looks like a marketing/business opportunity if I’ve ever seen one 😉
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.
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.
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.
I experienced the same problem with my BB shirts. Switching to Kamakura.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
do the easy-to-iron shirts maintain the wrinkle free look all day like the non-iron charles tyrwhitt shirts?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
quite simply the best response ever
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.
Surprised you all haven’t got onto Ledburry
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.
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.
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
Found any solutions yet, George
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!
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.
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. . .
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.
Try to send the shirts back for an exchange.
I am sure they want you to remain a satisfied customer.
An update may be in order: Tyrwhitt now does have a regular, ironable, white poplin shirt: http://www.ctshirts.com/mens-shirts/mens-dress-shirts/White-poplin-slim-fit-shirt?q=usddefault||fp038wht|||||4800,||||||||.
Perhaps they received complaints and decided to re-introduce it? But It does seem to be available now.
Seems I messed up the link. Try again:
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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?
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.
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.
I hope someone mentioned that it’s not only clothing this applies to, but bedding and other items as well. I am a selected reviewer for a national chain (I love doing it!) and get free items to review (yay!) The cotton sheets I received this week were absolutely gorgeous, but unfortunately had that “wrinkle-free” finish. And smelled like it (totally horrendous!) I washed them three times, twice in cold water and once in hot, but I still don’t trust them enough to sleep on them. Too bad, because even after all that laundering, they were extremely soft. Which surprised me, as cotton sheets, no matter how expensive, are normally too rough for me. Hopefully manufacturers are listening and will finally wake up to the fact that many of us consumers care about our health and our planet and their gross misuse of chemicals is nothing but bad news. In the meantime, read labels and shop carefully!
Thanks for the reminder of the various types of shirts and their look. With a lot of “dress up” events coming up with various levels of dressiness I’ll know the right shirt to choose for the occasion.
For years I wore cotton/poly dress shirts, accepting their disadvantages because they’re so easy to care for. Now that plasticky, formaldehyde treated “100% cotton” has mostly replaced cotton/poly (going from bad to worse) I’ve decided it’s time to get real with traditional UNtreated 100% cotton. Ok, it needs ironing, which takes a few minutes (I don’t take dress shirts to the cleaners because they wear out too quickly that way). But what’s 5-6 minutes ironing time compared to looking better and feeling more comfortable all day?
Don’t let a cheap looking shirt undermine the quality of your suit, tie and shoes. That goes double if you’re trying to close a deal with someone who’s dressed better than you are. Trust me: it’s the power guys wearing ironed shirts who are most likely to spot an easy care shirt on some wannabe.
Paul Fredrick has become my new go-to. I tried their 3 shirts/$99 special and have become a regular customer. Their monogramming ($10.99) is impeccable. Between that and French cuffs, I can get uncompromised elegance without undue damage to my credit card.
Another thing that makes a difference (believe it or not) is buying a premium-quality iron. They cost more for a reason. Compared to my old “bargain iron”, it takes about 1/3 less time to iron a shirt… and you only get faster with practice.
If you still insist on easy care, the Traveler shirts from Jos. A. Bank aren’t as plastic feeling as most… but after getting used to the comfort and elegance of traditional cotton, anything “easy care” is a step down.
If you don’t believe that your shirt makes a statement about your status, someone wearing an ironed shirt is after your sale… or your job!
I really appreciate your experience, keen observations and terrific contribution to the conversation. You are absolutely right about shirts and what they say. And I actually enjoy ironing. I listen to podcasts while I do it, and I find it very therapeutic. As for the iron, one of the best investments I’ve made is with a Rowenta. It will be taken from my cold, dead hands. Thanks, Mick.
Yeah, Proper Cloth has hundreds of fabrics, and make it easy to avoid the non-iron conspiracy. Also, they make shirts that fit a guy like me with a slight build but a 16.25” neck. They changed my life.
I´ve the same problem… I can’t find comfortable shirts to work, they all have the treatment you mentioned. Additionally I sensitive skin so it´s really hard to cope with this. Since article has 7 years, have you find any solution to this problem? Any brand? thank you very much!
While I’m very late to this post, I felt compelled to comment with my thanks to you, George, for reminding me about Charles Thywhitt. I recently purchased six shirts: four Egyptian cotton and two sea island cotton, for approximately $300. To this point, I couldn’t be happier with the fit and feel. I’m not under any illusion that they will compare long-term with my custom-fit Robert Talbot (RIP) dress shirts, but at a six for one value, I’m not expecting them too. Kudos as well, George, for your evangelism for the dressing-up of mens’ culture. Too many of us have seemingly given up. I applaud your activism.
Thank you, Robert!