Monday, June 20, 2011

Current trend of electric steam iron leaves some cold

IN THE days when the electric iron was a luxury and the steam model had yet to arrive on our shores, clothes were pressed with the coal-powered iron.

You can see these heavy brass irons at museums, antique shops and old charm cafes, where they are spending their days in retirement as conversation pieces.

In the past, ironing was usually carried out in the evenings after cooking was done. Leftover embers from the charcoal stoves, instead of being left to burn out, were fed into the jaw-like compartment of the brass iron.

I recall it took at least 10 minutes for it to heat up to the right temperature for use.

Since, there wasn't a thermostat to control the different degrees of heat for various types of fabric, one could only rely on experience -- acquired through trial and error -- to not burn holes in the clothes.

Thick khaki trousers and shirts that required high heat were ironed first. Thinner, cotton materials were next, after the heat had dissipated. But even thick fabrics had to be given generous sprinkles of water when the iron base proved too hot.

For the iron to move smoothly, banana leaves were used. The hot iron was first applied on a banana leaf. Its organic wax enabled the iron to glide over even the stickiest of fabrics. You could always tell when a neighbour was ironing by the unmistakable whiff of singed banana leaves.

If one had lots of clothes to iron, the embers were kept burning by adding raw charcoal chips into the iron. However, the burning chips gave out sparks that sometimes escaped through the holes on the sides of the iron. On windy days, those sparks landing on new clothes could literally burn a hole in one's pockets.

White clothes had to be treated with a mild blue dye (known by its brand "Cat Blue" or "nila" in Malay) and starched before they were put out to dry.

The starched clothes, if they had been under an iron in the hands of an expert, not only had perfect fold lines, but also gave off a nice sheen.

Even in those days when coal irons were common household appliances, poor families had to borrow theirs from their neighbours. Otherwise, they made do by folding the clothes neatly and placing them under heavy wooden chests to be pressed.

Today, the electric steam iron is slowly replacing the electric iron.

The latest contraption looked like a vacuum cleaner. A salesgirl at a departmental store was demonstrating its use. The device had a T-shaped nozzle that spewed steam. No ironing board was needed -- the clothes were ironed straight on their hangers.

The teenage salesgirl showed me how easy it was to iron around buttons and other hard-to-reach places, and remove creases on the inseam of trousers without adding more on the adjacent sides.

I told her I was impressed by the new technology but I could never get used to a steam iron. The one that I won from a lucky draw is still in almost mint condition.

I used it twice but gave up the third time when I could not stop water from spilling all over the clothes I was ironing. I was also worried about the safety of an appliance which combines water and electricity in one neat package.

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