Women who were once wedded to the ironing board have turned their backs on the weekly chore — and they’re not feeling the slightest guilt. Monique Barden asks why.

Earlier last year my grandmother died, aged 91. The granddaughter of Scottish hoteliers, raised on hot lunches and silver service, she would be turning in her grave if she were reading this dirty secret of mine: the morning of her funeral, my husband was up at 6.30am ironing outfits for two adults and two children - and he did a fine job.

The only time I have ever come close to a covetable linen cupboard was in the final month of my two pregnancies, nesting my way through cot sheets, muslin wraps and baby blankets.

Now it's an abomination. Sure, everything is clean, but it isn't ironed. It occurred to me it's actually my husband who does the ironing - mostly because he has to wear a pressed shirt five days a week. I don't think he even likes my ironing, he stopped asking me to iron his shirts years ago, I just don't get enough practice in. He points out that our ironing board is broken, did I even know? "No" I reply.

A recent bathroom renovation meant a few nights at my parents' place. Heading to bed, I noticed the pillows had no pillowcases. My mother was mortified - she hadn't ironed them. She apologised and returned with some beautifully clean linen pillowcases minus ironing, perfect I thought, though not so perfect by her standards. That night as I slipped into flawlessly pressed bed linen (apart from the pillows), feeling the same dreamy sense of luxury as I do in a hotel, it occurred to me that I never iron the sheets, pillow cases, tablecloths, napkins, tea towels, school shirts, work shirts, T-shirts, socks, and underwear (yes, some do the last two) or anything for that matter. How did this happen? Why have I abandoned the standards so clearly set by my mother? And am I alone?


I surveyed friends and family to shed light on how much ironing we do compared to previous generations. I got 34 replies. The results showed women are no longer ironing - because we either hate it, don't have the time or the inclination.

We're also choosing clothing that doesn't require ironing and we're coming up with
ingenious ways to use dryers and hang our clothes to avoid ironing altogether. Men are ironing their own clothes and we may be raising a generation of girls who now think ironing is a man's job, as they have only seen their dads do the ironing.

For our grandmothers, ironing was just part of their lives. According to Heritage Matters magazine, in colonial times ironing was hard and hot work that came with the risk of burning yourself. At least two irons were necessary to effectively get the job done, one heating on the coal range while the other was in use. Laundry day was a weekly job and nearly all items were pressed and starched.

By the 1950s and 60s, the electric iron had become a home appliance in most households, but ironing was still very much a woman's job and featured heavily in her household chores.

We now have access to laundering technology our grandmothers never got close to, but we don't iron. For many of us, ironing has been omitted from our laundry routines, and we're avoid the ironing phase altogether. The Canstar Blue Most Satisfied Customers Award for Laundry Liquids 2015 survey revealed three-quarters of Kiwis are wearing their clothes un-ironed. For Gen X (born 1965 to 1976) and Y (1977 to 1995) this is as high as 81 per cent.

So who's ironing now? It looks like men have been left holding the (well-pressed) baby. It's fair to say they have become ironers from necessity, because no one else is going to do it for them. All the male respondents in my survey say they are ironing their shirts and trousers.

Mark Enfield says he irons 10 work shirts every fortnight and adds, "I need a good film to iron in front of."

Stephen McWilliams is the ironer in his household and proud of it. He irons for himself, his wife and two daughters aged 5 and 7, including their school uniforms. He says, "Men are ironing because most men's work clothes still need it and you can't go out with an un-ironed shirt. I wonder whether women now have work clothes that don't really need ironing, but men have not been able to get away from the work shirt so easily."

His wife Deanna will ask him to iron her clothes, but he sees it as one less thing for her to do, as she works full-time and does plenty of other household chores including most of the cooking. His 5-year-old daughter Georgie once asked him when he was ironing "Are girls allowed to iron too? Or is it something only men can do?"

Kirstie Jamieson has a similar story. Her daughter saw an iron at creche and said, "Oh, there's an iron, for daddies!" Could we now be raising girls who think ironing is a man's job?

What are the reasons for this dramatic decline in women ironing? For some it's the tedium and domestic drudgery of wading your way through a pile of ironing.

Of the 34 respondents to my survey, six say they don't iron - they were all women. Their reasons ranged from "complete and utter waste of time and I hate it," to "not needed", "too much of a hassle" and "I just prefer not to".

For others it's time and the lack of inclination. One says "I use the dryer rather than the clothesline due to time constraints (both parents work full-time and have school-aged children) and the unpredictable Auckland weather (not home to bring the washing off the line when those flash rain showers pass over) and find that with the dryer's crease guard setting, clothes do not need ironing."

Monique Delpeche says "I actually like beautifully ironed cotton pillowcases ... but I just can't be bothered."

Dr Sharyn Davies, an Associate Professor in Social Science and Public Policy at AUT University has other thoughts on why women are no longer ironing.

"Maybe the casualisation of dress as a mark of status of clothing has changed. Casual dress is trendy compared to starched and ironed formal dress. We may also be outsourcing ironing and if we have more formal clothing, we send it to the drycleaners." she says. "Women now get status outside domestic chores. A lot of the rhetoric around ironing was the health benefits. A good housewife ironed her sheets twice a week to kill bacteria.

"Women no longer feel obliged to iron men's shirts as they are no longer judged by whether or not their partners and children have creases in their clothing. If a man does have a creased shirt on, it probably reflects poorly on him, not his female partner. However, women are probably still judged on the cleanliness of their house and this judgment tends to fall on the women of the house as opposed to the men. So not ironing is perhaps one of the few things a women doesn't get judged for."

Sharyn Davies notes that such a dramatic change in one generation is unusual. Most change like this happens with public policy or law change. For example, we want women to work so we need to make childcare more accessible and pay equal.

The only other change she can think of that has happened so quickly in one generation is male circumcision. And, in case you're wondering, she doesn't iron.

Maybe our standards have dropped a little. I'm certainly guilty of wearing clothes to work that needed an iron. I have even fooled myself into thinking my body heat will smooth the creases out as the day goes on or that a blazer and scarf will hide my shabbiness underneath.

Perhaps some quiet time to yourself spent ironing could, in fact, be satisfying and a way to quiet busy minds (and provide a diversion from screens). I make a mental note to give some ironing a go one evening when the kids are asleep. I visualise myself ironing in the dim light - a silent house, the repetitive motion of the iron, relaxing me into a meditative trance. I feel relaxed just thinking about it.

Even though we are no longer required to do it, perhaps the benefits of ironing will be realised again, but in a different way.

The way for a species to survive is to evolve, instead of looking at ironing as a tedious chore, it could be a metaphor for life.

A process of discipline, patience and solitude: as we smooth out the creases, we could be mentally smoothing out the wrinkles in life. (I wrote that sentence six weeks ago. My husband is still doing the ironing).