|| An Old Secret-key to Sartorial Grace ||


ironI grew up in a family, where, unlike most homes in the neighbourhood, clothes were ironed at home. Not the whole lot, these mostly consisted of father’s clothes that he wore to the office. When I was a kid, these were just a few – all cotton – drill trousers, and poplin or twill bush-shirts. Living in the hot climate of Jamshedpur (an industrial town of India, built around the famous steel mills of the Tata house), he rarely wore full-sleeved shirts, except some of flannel or cotton wool blend in winter. Invariably the trousers, and occasionally some shirts, that needed to be starched and pressed stiff to withstand a week’s wear, went to the washer man. Father pressed the rest of his clothes himself.

I remember only my new clothes stitched for the autumn festival of ‘Durga Puja’ (a religious celebration of goddess Durga, the slayer of all things evil) being pressed at home. Still, I grew up being accustomed to the idea of pressing one’s own clothes, bolstered by the sight of my father dressed so smartly, as he set off for his office Monday morning. He would take out his daily polished bicycle, attired in starched stiff clothes freshly pressed, a felt-hat (yes, a felt-hat was common in Jamshedpur summer those days), and shining shoes. Straddling the bicycle, he carefully adjusted the crease of the trousers at the back to avoid getting wrinkles, before sitting down and riding away. Until the end of the week, the trousers almost retained their sharp crease, except at the knees. Here the cloth got a little puffed and rounded from sitting in the same pair of trousers for almost ten hours a day six days a week. I learned to love those sharp creases on the trousers.

At school, I wore shorts except towards the end of high school, when most boys started wearing trousers. I still wore shorts, as they were more economical from the viewpoint of ‘cost of ownership’, as it is termed today. Shorts were as much as father could afford.

On going to college, I got my first trousers – a pair each of white, cream and khaki, which were as per the college regulation. I also got one grey and one of very light brick colour, the latter my favourite. The first thing we did after arriving at college was to buy wash-proof ink, and write our identifying number (I think it was the room number of the hall of residence) to help the washer man. So, when in residence at college I got my trousers pressed. Coming home for holidays, I had to press them. I think that is when I started ironing my clothes, and it became a part of my life.

The iron that father had, was ‘Made in England’. He must have bought it sometime around the late nineteen-forties when he came to Jamshedpur for apprenticeship in the steel plant. When I started using it around the late sixties, it was already twenty-odd years old. As father took great care of every artifact he possessed, it still looked quite new.

The iron did not have a temperature regulator. You brought it to the right temperature, and then ironed the clothes at a suitable pace, just so that the temperature remained right. For steam ironing, you sprinkled some water on the cloth, before pressing it with the iron. Ironing like this needed some preparation, and a lot of skill. Cover the ironing mat laid out on the floor with a clean bedspread; switch on the iron; lay the clothes flat, neatly arranging the creases to be pressed, and sprinkle water on the cloth – all this, while the iron heated up.

How did one know how hot the iron was? You splashed a few droplets of water on the iron face. If the droplets clung to it, hissing slowly, then the iron was not yet hot enough. If they burst with a sharp clap upon touching the surface, vaporizing immediately, then the iron was very hot. But, God forbid, if the droplets rapidly rolled down the surface, like water on a lotus leaf, then the iron was really too hot, and likely to burn a hole. If you wanted to cool the iron fast then you threw water on it.

Yes, ironing needed some skill, those days!

But, I got to do it well, except once, when I burned myself with the hot iron. My father had startled me by yelling at me for ironing too often. In his opinion, this proclivity of mine was unnecessary both from the point of view of my stage in life, and the inflating electricity bill. I got a burn, the size of a coin, on my right inner thigh, which took a long time to heal. It left a scar that I could not cite as an identifying mark because of its inconvenient location near other parts of the body not exposed in normal circumstances.

Synthetic polyester fabrics, the Nylon and the Terylene, came to India around the time I went to college. From my first installment of scholarship, I got two pairs of trousers stitched, which became my prized possession. Once ironed, the cloth remained flat and creaseless for a long time. I notice two new phenomena, though. One was that if the iron was as hot as it was needed to be for ironing cotton, then the synthetic cloth got shiny bald (and even stuck to the iron). The other was that the creases lost their sharpness at the knees, while the rest of the trousers remained creaseless. I dealt with the baldness problem by using gauze to cover the material, thus avoiding directing contact between it and the iron. I took care of the other problem by re-ironing just at the knees. This worked, except when I noticed the bagginess after putting on the trousers, and did not feel like taking them off for re-ironing. I started ironing the trousers ‘in situ’ – trying to be as deft as a trapeze artist is. Being caught in this act sometimes, fuelled my father’s anger even more. He thought I was turning out to be a fop. Though I did not, I do not think he changed his opinion.

My first encounter with temperature-controlled iron took place towards the end of my college days, when I visited my friend in Delhi (the capital city of India). He was living with his sister and brother-in-law, who had just returned from England with all their effects, which included a temperature-controlled iron, not yet available in India. One day, when pressing his clothes, my friend suddenly put the iron down and asked me to lift it. Since I was used to the iron being heavy, and he had challenged me to lift this one, I hefted it with a strong pull. The iron just flew up with my hand. It was so very astonishingly and unbelievably light!

When I started working in Bangalore in the early seventies, I naturally harbored the wish to own an iron. A year on, I could fulfill this with my meagre savings. I had by then settled myself in a mess, which I shared with a colleague, who had got the sack. He hung around, trying to get the job back, which he eventually did. During this lugubrious period, I had to financially support him, and let him use my iron. Soon it started breaking down. I had never seen father’s iron break down. However, that was an English product, and mine was made in India. On checking it, I found that the coil had burned down. I replaced it, and again it burned down. I found the reason soon. My friend, accustomed to getting his clothes pressed at the laundry, knew of the charcoal fired large and heavy cast irons used by them. Their practice was to thump the clothes by the iron. This hard knock was snapping the hot coil of my iron. Remonstrating with my friend did not help, as he had become very emotional because of his situation, and had started suspecting his only friend of not lending him support.

Most of my colleagues got their clothes pressed. An exception was Sebi, my Jewish friend from Kerala, who pressed his clothes, the same set of a single pair of trousers and a shirt. He washed them once a week, and wore them to office every weekday. His temperature-controlled iron had stopped working. So, he just heated up the iron on his hotplate. That was the first Jewish ingenuity I came across in the first person. Sebi finally settled in Israel in 1980. This was the second clever Jewish move I ever saw, considering the kind of iron Sebi would have had to put up with, in India of those days.

Moving back to Jamshedpur, in the nineteen-eighties, I bought my first temperature-controlled iron, Philips make. I still use the iron.

Around that time, with my budding family, the weekly load of ironing had really gone up. Every week, I needed one pair of trousers and a couple of shirts. My wife, a teacher, needed one set of salwar-kamiz (common Indian dress for women) for each weekday. My school-going daughter needed two skirts and five or six shirts of her school uniform per week. Then, there were dresses to wear in the evenings. Most of this ironing was done on Sundays, and my load consisting of 20 -25 items, took well over two hours. Nevertheless, we all went to work in clean freshly pressed clothes. Most of our neighbours got their clothes pressed by the neighbourhood ‘iron-man’. This fellow came and knocked every Sunday at our door, to ask whether we would like to have our clothes pressed, and we turned him away. It made me often wonder if I was doing the right thing, until I read somewhere that a famous Indian painter (was it Manjit Bawa?) got his daily workout by hand washing clothes. That was another thing, I did. In a way, this fact rather clubbed us together in the same class of life-style, if not of thinking.

In the last year of the twentieth century, I got my second Philips iron as a gift with the purchase of a washing machine. A steam-iron, it had a white and a blue plastic cover – very beautiful, that made it look much larger and less streamlined than my first Philips iron. I started using it, and gave away the old Philips iron to my daughter when she went to College. Before packing it, I cleaned its chrome plated cover to a shine. However, trying to clean its black temperature-control knob with gasoline, I nearly managed to erase the dot-marks for different temperature settings. She later told me she could rarely use the iron, because it would get too heated up. I feared that the temperature control had broken down. Nevertheless, she kept the iron with her, and brought it back when she finished college. I put it away.

After a few years, the second Philips iron broke down. I could not repair it myself, and was averse to giving it for repair. I fished out the old iron. It worked, getting really heated up – becoming too hot for use on most clothes. It was then that I noticed that the temperature control knob had been turned all the way, most certainly, when I had cleaned it for my daughter. Since the temperature-setting indicator dots had been erased (almost, but, you could still see them as pale ghosts) my daughter had had no way of knowing why the iron would get so heated up.

In her first few years in USA, my daughter retained the need to have an iron. When I visited her the first time, she asked me to buy her one. We went and bought one, preferring a small folding type from Black & Decker, because its handle could be collapsed for saving space when packing. Unfortunately, the handle would also collapse during ironing, and she could not use it much. Slowly, she got used to wearing ‘perma-press’ dried clothes from the washer-drier, that just needed to be neatly folded when still hot from the drier. She does not iron anymore.

Ten years back, my parents died, father within six months of my mother going away. Their flat remained locked up for all these years, before being put on sale. We had to first get rid of their effects. There was no taker for the old iron, which had, over all these years, acquired a gloomy pall of rust. Looking at it, I suddenly felt an acute spasm, remembering how it had once been a key to my sartorial grace.

Using my old Philips iron, I still do our ironing, and hope to celebrate its golden jubilee in a few more years.