Shirts are made to be worn, not worshiped. This means they get dirty. However, with proper care, a high quality dress shirt can last for several years and continue to look great. In this post, we’re going to break down three of the most popular washing methods and detail how you can keep your dress shirts looking great for years to come. We’ll also outline how to deal with special emergencies as well as provide some other cleaning tips.
Method 1: “Wash and press” at the cleaners
Wash and press is the “normal” way to clean dress shirts when you take them to the cleaners. (Don’t be too confused by this. Even though you take your shirt to the “dry-cleaners”, they are most likely doing wash and press unless you are expressly asking them to dry clean). This is our first choice. This cleaning method is relatively inexpensive and easy and it keeps the shirts looking great. At most cleaners, here’s what the process involves:
1. They wash your shirt in a normal washing machine using water and detergent.
2. They remove most of the water from the shirt with the spin cycle in the washing machine.
3. They pull the damp shirt onto an industrial shirt press that closes over the shirt and simultaneously irons the garment while removing all of the moisture.
Pros: Convenient, (relatively) inexpensive.
Cons: Some cleaners will be too hard on the shirts. The slamming of the press over the front of the shirt can cause buttons to chip or shatter. If the shirt torso or sleeve is stretched over the press when it is steamed dry it can cause this part of the shirt to become wider in these areas. Finally, in the process of bringing the shirts from the cleaners to your closet collars will often be crushed in some way, requiring additional ironing for optimal appearance.
Method 2: Wash the shirt yourself at home
If you don’t trust your dry cleaner, or if you’d just like a little more control over how your shirts are washed, you may want to wash your dress shirts at home. We really like this option, but to do so properly requires a bit of time and care on your part. Follow these steps for optimal results:
1. Start by preparing the dress shirt. Unbutton all of the buttons, including cuff buttons and any collar buttons. Remove any collar stays if it has them and put them in a safe place.
2. Pre-treat any stains by carefully working a little detergent into them, or better yet spot-cleaning them with a stain remover pen.
3. Set up your washing machine: To minimize wear on a fine or lightweight dress shirt, use the Delicate cycle. If the shirt is made from a heavier duty fabric, or is particularly dirty you may opt for the Normal cycle. Whites and light colors can use hot water. Dark colored shirts that you don’t want to fade should be washed with cold water. Take care not to include other laundry items with bold colors that may bleed into your shirts.
4. Use a high quality detergent that is appropriate to the color of the shirt. Be sure not to use any detergents or cleaners that are chlorine based as these will cause discoloration to many shirt fabrics.
5. Wash the shirts in the washing machine, and then let the spin cycle wring most of the water out of the garment.
6. The shirts will be tightly crumpled in the washing machine so you’ll want to remove them promptly before these intense wrinkles will dry into the shirt. Hang the shirts up or lay them out so that they can air dry. Be careful about hanging the shirts on an uncoated metal hanger, a sharp hanger or with tight clothespins as this can distort the fabric or leave a mark on the shirt.
7. Next you’ll want to iron the shirts. You don’t need to wait for the shirts to be completely dry to begin this step, but they should be mostly dry.
Pros: Gives you the most control to treat stains, protect buttons, and iron collars carefully.
Cons: Takes time and attention.
Method 3: “Dry clean” at the cleaners
While we don’t really recommend dry cleaning cotton dress shirts, some folks like to take their shirts to the cleaners and have them dry cleaned. While this cleaning method will certainly not damage the shirt and minimize shrinkage, it does have some downsides. The first is that it can be expensive. Another is that water soluble stains such as perspiration are not removed. Dry cleaning solvents contain very little to no water so perspiration based dirt can be left untouched. Washing dress shirts in water is better for removing water soluble dirt and stains from sweat. That said, if your dress shirt has an oil based stain on it you may have better luck getting it cleaned by a dry cleaner than in a washing machine.
Pros: Convenient. Minimizes wear of the shirts. Removes oil-based stains.
Cons: Won’t always remove water soluble dirt or stains. Expensive. Your shirts are at the mercy of a potentially abusive shirt cleaner.
Question: Is it ok to dry shirts in the dryer?
We recommend avoiding the dryer and letting the shirt air dry on a hanger, although (depending on the size of your house) this is not always practical. If you must put the shirt in a dryer, avoid high heat or over-drying the shirt. Use the dryer to get most of the moisture out of the shirt, and then iron the shirt immediately to remove the rest of the moisture and any wrinkles at the same time. If you dry your shirts completely in the dryer you’ll find the shirt a bit harder to iron perfectly. One exception to this recommendation is heavy duty casual shirts. For example, if you’re washing a heavy oxford cloth or chambray shirt, the fabric is going to be hearty and will easily handle any wear from the washer and dryer so drying it in the dryer is no problem.
Question: How to remove a stain from a white shirt?
In the unfortunate event that you get spill some wine or spaghetti sauce on your shirt, some quick action could minimize any stains that result.
1. With a brush or comb, carefully swipe or lift away any large pieces such that you don’t smear them worse into the garment.
2. Immediately treat the stain with water or stain remover solvent. The sooner the better. If you can’t get your hands on a stain remover pen, we recommend a Tide Pen, try dishwashing detergent, lemon juice, vinegar, or seltzer water.
3. Dab solvents on the stain with a light touch. Pressure can force the stain deeper into the fibers of the garment.
4. Rinse and repeat.
Question: Should I use starch when the shirt is pressed?
While many people do like to have their shirts starched, our suggestion is to avoid starch completely. While starch can help a broadcloth or oxford shirt appear crisper it can also cause shirts to wear out prematurely. When the starch material gets embedded in the shirt fibers it acts like a million little knives that break down the fibers over time.
Three tips to maximize dress shirt life
1. Don’t leave dirty white shirts in the hamper for too long before washing. This can lead to premature yellowing of the collar band as any sweat and oils will have more time to set into the fabric of the shirt.
2. Always remove the collar stays from the collar before washing and ironing. If you don’t they will become warped causing the dress shirt to collar points to curve awkwardly.
3. Don’t count on your cleaner to find and remove stains. If you know there’s a spot on your placket or sleeve, point it out so that they know to spot clean it.
2. How Much Will a Dress Shirt Shrink?
Generally speaking, dress shirts are made from woven cotton, and a nice woven cotton shrinks an average of 2%. All fabrics are a bit different, but 1-3% is a good rule of thumb. 2% may not sound like much, but keep in mind that for a collar size of 15″ that translates to 0.3″ in the collar size, and for a sleeve length of 35″, it can mean a full 0.7″! Of course there are a number of caveats to this rule that should also be considered:
How the shirt is washed and dried makes a big difference
Some clients ask, “If I only dry-clean the shirt, will it still shrink?”, and unfortunately the answer is a complicated yes. Certainly, if you rarely wear the shirt and only occasionally have it spot-cleaned by the dry-cleaner it will not shrink as much as if it is washed regularly in water. And if you’re incredibly careful it may not shrink at all. However, for other reasons, we don’t suggest dry-cleaning as the optimal method to wash a dress shirt. Rather we suggest sizing the shirt such that some normal amount of shrinkage is taken into account and then washing it in water and pressing it after. Alternatively, if you wash the shirt in the washer, and then dry it on high-heat in the dryer, you will see shrinkage that is much more significant. If you wash a shirt according to our suggested methods, you should see more minimal and predictable shrinkage over time, without the costs and hassle of dry-cleaning only.
Shrinkage happens over time, not all at once
The first time a shirt is washed it usually shrinks the most, but it can still be expected to shrink more over the life of the shirt. We generally expect that the first washing gets about half the shrinkage out of it, the second gets another quarter, the third another eighth and so on in some logarithmic decreasing function although we don’t necessarily have the data to support this. The point is, it’s common for a shirt to be slightly smaller after fifty washings than it was after its first washing.
Shrinkage in length vs width
Generally speaking (though there are plenty of exceptions) dress shirt fabrics shrink more in the warp than in the weft. Another way of saying this is that dress shirts tend to shrink more in the length than in the width. Sleeve length, shirt length and collar around are where you can expect most shrinkage to occur, while generally speaking shirts won’t shrink as much in their width.
Typical dress shirt fabrics vs. some specialty casual fabrics
Generally speaking, nice dress shirt fabrics shrink in this 1-3% range. However, occasionally we come across a fun casual fabric that we think is just really cool and special for its look or feel that shrinks more than 3%. In some cases we will opt to make these fabrics available (of course we do try to account for this shrinkage specially). High shrinkage fabrics can includes some of the chambrays, oxford cloths and fine printed fabrics.
Why did my shirt become looser in the torso or sleeves?
In some cases, you may find that rather than shrinking, your shirt actually became looser around the chest, midsection and around the biceps. This is a result of a shirt being stretched out. We’ve seen this phenomenon occur when certain, aggressive cleaners clean shirts made from fabrics with a looser weave. To understand how this can happen, it helps to understand how most shirt cleaners wash/press a shirt. First the shirt is washed in water. Secondly it is put through a spin cycle to wring most of the water out of the garment. And finally, the shirt is put on some sort of rig or press where the remaining water is then steamed out, resulting in a wrinkle free and dry shirt. The problem occurs when a cleaner pulls the shirts onto the press such that the fabric is under tension in the width direction. This tension stretches the shirt out in the width direction, and then when the shirt is steamed dry the stretch is effectively locked into the shirt. This can result in the midsection width being 0.5-0.75″ larger than it should be. In most cases, washing the shirt and then drying it on low-heat in a tumble-dry will return it to its original size. With a careful cleaner you won’t have this problem. It’s also worth noting that some fabrics are more susceptible to this sort of stretching. While we’ve generally found broadcloths to be resistant to this effect, we’ve seen it happen quite severely in some imperial twills and even pinpoint oxfords.
3. How to Iron a Dress Shirt
To keep your dress shirts looking their best, you’ll need to have them pressed. We usually suggest sending them to the cleaner, but if that’s not possible you’re going to need to know how to iron a dress shirt yourself. There are many ways to do this effectively, but here we’ll break down our method step by step.
Step 1: Get the right equipment
You’re going to need an iron. Preferably the iron lets you pour water in (for steam), and better yet it has one of those slippery Teflon coated bottoms. If the iron can’t spray water out the front you will want a spray bottle of some type that can spray a fine mist. You’ll also need an ironing board.
Step 2: Get setup
Setup your ironing board in a comfortable place where you’ll be able to spread the shirt out without wrinkling it all over again. If you’re planning to iron several shirts in a row make sure you can see the television from this angle. Plug the iron in and turn the dial to point to “cotton” or whatever the hottest setting is.
Step 3: Iron the back of the shirt
We advocate starting with the back of the shirt because this is going to get wrinkled as soon as you put it on and sit down anyways. Unbutton the shirt completely, and spread it out over the ironing board. Put the dress shirt on the board so that the narrow end of the board is going into the back of the shoulder of the shirt and the edge of the ironing board is along the side of the shirt. With moderate pressure, slide the iron down the shirt top to bottom, being careful that you keep the shirt flat and don’t actually iron wrinkles into the garment. Use a little steam or spray some water on any wrinkles that aren’t going away easily. Once you’ve done one side of the back, slide the shirt over and do the other side just the same.
Step 4: Iron the sleeves
Iron the sleeves (one at a time). Lay the sleeve long ways on the ironing board and carefully flatten the sleeve with your hands such that it folds along the hem on the bottom of the sleeve. Starting from around the arm pit area, iron toward the cuff and away from the bottom hem. It’s optional to iron in a crease on the top of the sleeve, but if you do this crease should be straight. If you don’t want a crease, just iron close to the top but not over it. Repeat on the other sleeve.
Step 5: Iron the top part of the shirt front and yoke
This is the trickiest part to get right but also the most visible since its right up by your neck and head. For this area you’re going to want to use the narrow pointy side of the ironing board. Pull one shoulder of the shirt over this part of the ironing board such that you have a clear view of one side of the yoke and the front of the shirt just below the yoke. The collar should be sticking up straight and curving around. Spray this area down to be damp and iron carefully around the curve of the collar.
Step 6: Iron the collar
Now we do the collar. Take out the removable collar stays from the shirt collar (don’t lose them). Button down collars won’t have collar stays, but you’ll need to unbutton the little buttons that hold the collar down. Unfold the collar so that it is “popped” and lay it flat on the ironing board with the back facing up. Spray the collar down with a good amount of water and give it ~30 seconds to soak in. Iron from the middle of the collar outwards all the way to the tips of the collar points. Because the collar is a thicker stiffer piece of material you may need to press slightly harder than you would for the rest of the shirt. When you’re done, put the collar stays back in the collar and fold the collar down again. If you want you can also fold the collar down and iron in a bit of a crease at the front of the collar so that it will angle down sharply. You won’t be able to iron this crease all the way around since the collar is designed to curve, but a little bit of a crease at the front can make things look a bit sharper.
Step 7: Iron the shirt front
Finally, do the front of the shirt. Hopefully, by now you’ve got the hang of it. Do one side at a time. Be careful of the buttons. Make sure the front placket is not folded over in a way it shouldn’t. Use the point of the iron to get in the areas up around the front of the collar. If dress shirt has a pocket, this can be tricky. You can be trickier. As you push the iron down on one side you can pull gently on the other to keep things tight and straight.
4. Features of High Quality Dress Shirts
How can you tell a high quality dress shirt? Luckily, what distinguishes a high quality dress shirt, is more than just black magic and flashy marketing. There are a few things you can look for. These things are generally signs that the shirt took longer to produce and will help you identify a dress shirt made without shortcuts and capable of lasting you a long time.
High Quality Collar
A close inspection of the shirt’s collar will often give a sense for the quality of the shirt. A quality collar will be cut perfectly symmetrical, with straight and clean stitching along the edges. If the collar is a fused collar, then it should have a nice crispness to it, with sharp, clean edges along the bottom. Bending the collar, it should feel flexible and resilient. It should not feel like paper or board that can be creased. The collar should naturally curve in a circle when buttoned and not be prone to hold some unnatural shape. The stiffness and weight of the collar is not necessarily a sign of poor quality, but rather an element of design. If the collar is an unfused collar style, this is not necessarily a sight of poor or high quality. Often unfused collars are softer and a bit more casual, or in the case of the handmade Saville Row shirts, a stiff unfused collar is certainly dressy, but shows more personality and can be very beautiful. Unfused collars generally require a bit more skill to finish perfectly, so a high quality one can be fantastic, a poorly made knockoff will be terrible.
A sure fire sign of a high quality shirt construction is the split yoke. The shirt yoke is the panel of fabric that runs across the shoulders, just behind the collar. A “split” yoke is where the yoke is made of two different pieces of fabrics. A true split yoke will have the two pieces of fabric cut at an angle or “on the bias”. The stylistic benefit of cutting the fabric like this is that if the shirt has stripes or some kind of pattern, this pattern will run parallel to the front seam of the yoke, producing a neater look to the front of the shirt. In the back below the collar the stripes will meet in a chevron pattern. The functional benefit is that when a fabric is cut at this angle (also referred to as “cut on the bias”), the fabric stretches more length wise. This means you’ll have a greater range of motion when you’re reaching forward. Generally speaking, a split yoke requires more sewing and more expertise on the part of the shirtmaker and is a great sign of a high quality dress shirt.
Removable Collar Stays
Going back to the collar, if the shirt has a dressy style business collar, then it will almost require collar stays (little pieces of metal or plastic that are inserted into the points of the collar) – they keep the collar points pointing straight and looking sharp. A high quality dress shirt will come with removable collar stays. Some shirts may come with sewn-in collar stays that you can never remove, or no collar stays at all. Both of these options are a sign of a poor quality dress shirt.
Premium Cotton Fabric
We won’t go into this too much in this post, because dress shirt fabrics is a deep subject with varying opinions on thread count, ply, country of origin, mill, type of weave, yarn treatment, materials, etc. But suffice to say, the quality of the fabric is very, very important to the quality of the shirt. Generally speaking, fabrics with thread count of 80s two-ply or greater are a great quality, though there are many exceptions on both sides of this rule. We’re generally a bit skeptical of 50s single-ply fabrics, very skeptical of 40s single-ply fabric, and very, very skeptical of anything with a polyester blend. That said, how the fabric looks, feels and performs is ultimately what really matters. If the dress shirt’s fabric is at all rough to the touch, wrinkles particularly easy, or shrinks a large amount with normal washing then you likely have a poor quality fabric.
Mother of Pearl Buttons
The quality of the buttons is certainly a way to get a sense for the quality of the dress shirt. We generally favor high-quality Mother of Pearl buttons for their depth of color and shine. Mother of Pearl buttons are also very resilient to degradation caused by cleaners and heat, and as such can last a long time. Thicker or “Tall Mother of Pearl” buttons are quite expensive and are a sure sign of a high quality dress shirt. That said, mother of pearl buttons are not the only nice buttons there are. Some plastic/resin buttons can be very attractive and last a long time and other materials such as horn or Tagua nut can also work really well. Dress shirts can come with a variety of button sizes and the size and shape of the buttons is more a matter of style or design, than it is quality. Thicker or thinner, bigger or smaller buttons can be found on both poor or high quality dress shirts alike so be sure not to draw conclusions based simply on this parameter.
Cleanly Finished Button Holes
If there are loose threads around the button hole, or any sign of fraying, this is the sign of a low quality shirt. Premium quality dress shirts will have more stitches on the buttonhole and very clean openings with no sign of fraying.
Hand Sewn Cuffs
It doesn’t really matter if we’re talking about French cuffs or barrel cuffs. Like collars, you can get either fused or unfused construction–the appeal of each is the same as it is with collars: fused for a clean, professional look and unfused for a relaxed, casual vibe. They should be hand sewn and this is where experience, skill, and patience makes a difference. It takes a lot of focus, practice and time to get the details on the cuffs right and it will show the most in the pointedness of the corners and the straightness of the stitching.
If the shirt fabric has a noticeable stripe or check pattern, then you’ll want to see how well the pattern matches where different pieces of the fabric come together. A high quality shirt will certainly have perfect pattern matching at the center back of the split yoke, as well as along the front of the shirt and at the pocket (if the shirt has a pocket). If the pattern matching is not precise, the stripes or checks will not align and look sloppy. Down the front of the shirt. Horizontal lines should run seamlessly from the left to right side of the shirt and vertical stripes should be spaced such that there is no stripe missing at either sides of the shirt placket. The stripes on one side of a collar should be identical in elevation to the stripes on the opposite side of the collar. A really good sign of a high quality dress shirt is when the pattern at the end of the yoke matches perfectly with the pattern at the top of the sleeves. This is a really great detail that is difficult to accomplish consistently. Keep in mind that, the way the curves and angles of a shirt pattern go, it will be impossible to match all of the patterns perfectly. It’s normal for patterns to not align where the sleeves meet the cuffs, at the side seams and in many other parts of the shirt.
Clean, Tight Stitching
In general, the stitching throughout the shirt should be straight or smoothly curved in the curves. A high quality dress shirt should have at least 18 stitches per inch around the cuffs and collars. Some casual shirts may be sewn with thicker thread and less stitches per inch, which is certainly acceptable, although these shirts would not be acceptable for most business or evening wear.
Single Needle Side Seam Stitching
Another way to tell a high quality dress shirt is to check if it has single needle side seam stitching along the sides of the shirt and bottom of the sleeves. This will produce an incredibly tight seam that is very narrow and elegant. Only one line of thread will be visible on the outside of the shirt and the tightness of the seam will make it such that no puckering can show when the shirt is washed and dried. The way to check for single needle stitching is to look at the front and back of this seam along the sides of the shirt and check if you can see one or two lines of sewing. Sewing the side seams in this tight way is more difficult for the shirtmaker. It’s also less forgiving if a mistake is made and correspondingly more expensive. If two lines of stitching are visible here it makes for a less elegant shirt and a side seam that shows more puckering after washing. One exception to this rule of thumb is if the side seam is sewn such that only one line of stitching is visible from the outside, but two lines are visible from the inside. Technically not “single needle” stitching, this is a bit of a compromise that is also a sign of good quality. It produces a clean look and a tight seam without the cost and difficulty of the classic single needle side seam.
Tightly Sewn Buttons
Check closely to see how the buttons are attached to the shirt. The buttons should be firmly attached to the shirt. Ideally the stitching should go in a criss-cross “X” shape which makes for a stronger button attachment. If the button is attached with two stitches in parallel that don’t criss-cross each other it is a sign of a poor quality shirt. Attaching buttons this way is cheaper and faster for the shirt maker and generally not as secure as the crisscross method. Furthermore, another nice detail that is a sign of a high quality shirt is if the buttons are “shanked”. Generally this is not necessary for finer dress shirt fabrics, but the attention to detail that it implies should be appreciated. A shanked button will have another thread wrapped around the threads that hold the button to the shirt behind the button. This can cause the buttons to stand out ever so slightly and makes for an elegant look.
Small Button at Sleeve Placket
Below the opening of the shirt is what is called the shirt sleeve placket. This is the part of the shirt sleeve that opens up when the cuff is unbuttoned. This area is necessary so that you can get your hand through the opening of the sleeve or roll your sleeves up your arm. A high quality dress shirt will feature an extra button in the center of this placket that prevents this part of the sleeve from gaping open. Some lower quality shirts will try to skip this detail to save a few pennies, resulting in either a large gaping opening just below the cuff, or a sleeve placket so short that the sleeves cannot be rolled up the forearm without feeling uncomfortably tight.
A high quality dress shirt will come with some spare buttons attached somewhere on the shirt. A high quality shirtmaker will expect your shirt to last you for years, and be aware that, inevitably, a button or two will be lost and need replacing. High quality shirts will come with a spare large button as well as a spare small button so that you’re prepared for the worst. Typically these will be sewn on the front shirt tail, but they also may be found on a tag at the side seam.
Reinforced Side Seam Gussets
Another sign of a high quality dress shirt can be found at the bottom of the side seams. Premium shirts will have some sort of reinforcing here that is called a gusset. This extra piece of fabric will prevent the shirt from ripping at the seam that can be caused by aggressive tucking/untucking or an overzealous cleaner. It also adds just a bit of minimal, practical design to the shirt. The extra time and effort that it takes to add details like this is a good sign of a high quality dress shirt.
C.K. Thomas | How to Care for Cotton Dress Shirts | C.K. Thomas