by Kyle Barraclough
Thanks to innovations in travel, packing dress shirts to prevent wrinkles is easier and more realistic than before. Sure, some of the old tried-and-true methods passed down through generations of road warrior business travelers still have value, but this article has more than just recycled tips & tricks.
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Shirt fabric is the most important wrinkle prevention factor in dress shirts. The folding and packing techniques in this guide won’t be as effective if the fabric is prone to wrinkling and difficult to care for.
The two fabric components that affect anti-wrinkle performance are:
NOTE: Preventing wrinkles means wearing a shirt longer no matter what it is made of. But, wearing longer introduces the problem of embarrassing odors. It doesn’t matter how good a shirt looks if it stinks. In each section we’ve included info on how each type of fabric addresses this problem.
Merino wool fabric tops the list because it has the best of both worlds: all the luxuriousness of natural fibers and as wrinkle resistant (or more!) as common travel fabrics like polyester.
Thanks to its microscopic structure and a natural crimp, the Merino fiber fights to return to its shape after bending.
Merino vs Odor
Merino is the only all-natural, odor free fabric in the world. It literally never stinks of body odor. Any other fabric advertising itself as odor-free or odor-resistant is treated with chemicals that wash out over time.
BONUS: Do you get sick, or completely worn out, from travel? Read how Merino wool shirts support the immune system by protecting the core body temperature when transitioning from one climate to another.
Cotton dress shirts are the worst for travel. Wear one on a plane, or pack it in a suitcase, and it looks like it was slept in a matter of minutes.
But, everyone loves a fresh cotton dress shirt. For regular wear, they look and feel great, so technologies have been developed to make them more wrinkle resistant. For that info, skip down to the “Non-Iron” and “Wrinkle Resistant” sections.
Polyester is the most common travel fabric as it can withstand a nuclear blast, not to mention a few hours packed in a suitcase. Innovations have enabled a move beyond a Crocodile Dundee travel fashion sensibility to office-friendly dress shirts that mimic the look and feel of natural fibers.
Synthetics vs Odor
“Anti-microbial,” “anti-bacterial,” “odor-free” are terms used to market the odor fighting advancements in textile technology. Whether the fabrics are dipped in a chemical treatment, or composed of special yarns with embedded chemical compounds, these solutions are not permanent. Much like synthetic athletic wear with the same capabilities, the treated dress shirts will eventually start to stink and need to be laundered. Additionally, the odor fighting treatments do get weakened with each wash and eventually become ineffective.
Yarn & Thread
A thread is composed of yarn. Most common in dress shirts is a single or double ply thread (a ply is the number of yarns twisted together to make the thread). Not accounting for exceptions, a single-ply fabric is usually lighter than a 2-ply.
Fabric weight, or thickness, is a big factor in wrinkle resistant travel shirts. Thinner shirts tend to wrinkle more easily and have less wrinkle recovery capability. However, thinner shirts are usually a little more breathable and easier to wear in multiple climates while thicker/heavier shirts wrinkle less.
The key in making the perfect travel shirt is achieving balance between things like weight and breathability while maximizing anti-wrinkle performance.
This is another advantage of a Merino wool travel shirt as the fiber itself achieves the balance regardless of the thickness. The molecular structure is the same for fine and coarse fibers. It performs the chemical processes involved in breathability as well as uses its natural structure to spring back to shape and fight wrinkles.
The type of weave used in dress shirt fabric affects anti-wrinkle performance through weight and tension. There are several types of weaves (e.g. twill, basketweave/oxford). All types can create fabric of varying weights, but travel shirts are usually lighter weight and made with a plain weave.
A plain weave can have different names (e.g. broadcloth, poplin), but it is characterized by an over-under pattern of one, single thread intersecting at right angles with another single thread as seen in the image below:
Knitted dress shirts are a recent entry into the marketplace and are normally made of synthetic fibers. Normally, knitted fabric is used to make t-shirts, polos, sweaters, etc.
The knit pattern involves threads twisting around each other in a variety of patterns. The most common, single-jersey knit, has a lot more stretch and is great for comfort on the move. However, it doesn’t look exactly like a traditional, woven dress shirt, so try before you buy.
Nevertheless, the natural stretch in the knit construction aids wrinkle resistance.
Look closely at a t-shirt and you'll likely see a knit pattern similar to the image below:
Non-Iron Dress Shirts
The anti-wrinkle performance of a non-iron dress shirt is superior to that of a standard dress shirt. But, it is not maintenance free. It can wrinkle a bit and could require a touch up with an iron after pulling it out of a suitcase.
To transform an ordinary button-up into the non-iron variety, the fabric is chemically treated (usually saturated in a chemical bath). Methods and chemical formulas vary from brand to brand. These processes are often considered proprietary information and the brands are under no obligation to divulge trade secrets. However, any brand should be able to state which global safety certifications the shirts qualify for and whether or not the treatments contain formaldehyde or any other chemical suspected of causing health problems.
While not all treatments are created equal, non-iron dress shirts are typically stiffer than untreated shirts. The treatments may also inhibit breathability as well as cause premature wear.
Wrinkle Resistant Dress Shirts
Like non-iron fabric, wrinkle resistant fabric is made with a chemical treatment. However, it differs in that the chemicals are applied topically rather than by being soaked in a bath. The lighter treatment preserves most of the breathability and soft handfeel of untreated fabric, but it is not as wrinkle resistant as a non-iron shirt.
Folding a dress shirt the right way before it gets packed in the suitcase will prevent frustration and fatigue after a long day on the plane. The good news is that it isn’t hard to do. It is very similar to how most people fold dress shirts with the exception being a few seconds of attention to detail.
In the image below, a folding board is recommended because it is easier to master and will produce much neater shirts thus reducing the chance of wrinkling.
As a companion to the above illustration, we've searched YouTube for the best instruction for folding dress shirts with a folding board. Here it is:
NOTE: Even though rolling is a very popular space-saving packing method, we don’t recommend rolling dress shirts. It might be easy and convenient, but it will cause wrinkling to this particular clothing item.
Improper packing can negate all the time, money & effort spent in purchasing the best travel shirts and careful folding. The good news is that effective packing is quick and easy with the plastic bag trick. (Pro tip: Use dry cleaning bags; they're free and easy to get).
The video below explains the ‘How,’ but not the, ‘Why.’ So, before watching, know that the reason this method works is that the plastic allows the dress shirts to move slightly within the suitcase without the friction that causes fabric bunching and, therefore, the dreaded wrinkles.
The next video uses a different plastic bag technique for suits, but could easily be modified for a dress shirt. The trick is obvious: use a bit of air to cushion the shirt from everything else in the bag. However, the bag could easily lose the air if punctured, or the seal is broken. Nevertheless, great idea.
If using this second technique, we recommend that either the bag isn’t so big as to allow too much movement and/or use a cardboard spine to fold the shirt around in combination with the bag to maintain the integrity of the fold as the shirt moves slightly in the extra room.
No matter what, a dress shirt may have a wrinkle or two after removing it from a suitcase. The following tips and tricks are focused on what travelers can do quickly and easily while on the road.
Ease of Un-Wrinkling Depends on Where You Stay
The type of accommodation when traveling will determine the cost, time and effectiveness of un-wrinkling methods. A fully equipped AirBnb will offer the most options at the lowest cost whereas hotels tend to offer convenience at a higher price. The main difference is a tumble dryer.
The Best Method for Getting Wrinkles Out of a Shirt Without an Iron
“The best method” is a bold claim, but despite all the aforementioned “hacks,” most travelers tend to agree that a few minutes in a tumble dryer will banish wrinkles from just about any dress shirt. To make this approach even more effective, watch this 1-min video showing how adding ice cubes will create steam to tackle the toughest creases.
A similar alternative would be to try this same approach and substitute a wet sock or small towel for the ice cubes.
WARNING: Temperature and duration matter. Even if the shirt is already dry, some natural and man-made fibers (e.g. viscose, Rayon) will shrink if the shirt stays in the dryer too long. Adding ice cubes could make those shirts even more susceptible to shrinkage.
Other non-iron methods work to varying degrees with some being more travel myths than useful tips. NOTE: Some methods may work better in some destinations than others. Variables to be aware of include: fabric construction & composition, temperature, humidity, altitude...the list goes on.
This is probably the most cited unwrinkling method cited in the travel world. Many think it doesn’t work, but to increase the chances of it relaxing fabric, make sure:
If your hotel kettle gets hot enough to emit steam it might generate enough to spot reduce creases. NOTE: There are travel sized steamers. Grab one and don’t risk getting caught unprepared.
A Hair Dryer
Instead of tumble drying, try directing the heat of a hair dryer to trouble spots. Use mist for tough creases. The big advantage of this method as opposed to a tumble dryer is not risking shirt shrinkage (as long as you don’t dry the whole shirt).
Just as pressure created the wrinkles in the first place, a heavy book or mattress can flatten them out in some cases. Be careful with the mattress though. Getting on and off the bed could cause more wrinkles than what the shirt had to begin with.
There is no shortage of towels in a hotel. Grab a couple and lightly dampen them. Place the wrinkled shirt between them on a flat surface. The water and weight of the towel can be a big help.
Fabric Softener Trick
Pack a small spray bottle of diluted fabric softener. Spritz a bit on the trouble spots and either let them relax on their own or hit the area with a blast from the blow dryer. Plain water also does very well and may be the safe option.
NOTE: Some care labels will warn against using fabric softeners as it could degrade the fabric over time. Know your fabric.
A Word About Ironing
The first step in ironing any dress shirt is to read the care label. When dealing with travel shirts there is a greater likelihood of wearing a fabric different than cotton, so don’t just turn the iron on and go for it. Match the temperature to the fabric otherwise there is a risk of burning. Also, “non-iron” dress shirts can be ironed. The label “non-iron” just means that you shouldn’t have to iron it if cared for properly.
Michael Dell, CEO of Dell Computers, once said, “You know you’re rich when you don’t have to pack a bag.” He was referring to the fact that he owned residences everywhere he traveled, so he didn’t need to take anything on his private jet.
Today, that same VIP experience is available to everyone.
Wardrobe Management Companies
Have professionals do all the folding, packing, washing & ironing for you. Enter your travel plans on the easy to use apps and find your clothes waiting at the hotel for you. That’s right, they deliver the bag as well. When your trip is over, they pick it up; clean the clothes; and store the same items until the next trip. Could it be any easier?
Check out Dufl’s video featuring dress shirt folding machines and valet’s in rubber gloves packing suitcases with tissue paper. How much is it worth to never hassle with luggage again?
Hotel Butler, Valet, Concierge & Laundry
Sound expensive? Butler, valet & concierge services are often complimentary (although tipping is expected) and they will handle all the folding, packing/unpacking and ironing.
In many places across the globe, hotel employees are trained how to make folding and packing of travel clothes a luxurious experience with attention to detail. So, if you like what a chocolate on the pillow does for your mood, allow the staff to prepare your clothing so you always look sharp. You'll feel like a million bucks.
NOTE: The line between a butler, personal valet and concierge is increasingly fuzzy and the described responsibilities may fall to a different staff member depending on the hotel.
Remember, every hotel has a laundry and pressing service. Such are not complimentary, but after hours on a plane, even extortionate prices for ironing a dress shirt might become worth the expense if it saves energy for an important meeting.
Luggage Free Travel Service
After the butler packs your bag, have him/her give it to a luggage handling company. They will pick it up; check it in at the airport; and deliver it to your destination. This combination of services allows you to completely forget about about all the tips and tricks of preventing wrinkles and makes travel stress free.
Many hotels will unpack the bags for you, so your clothes are fresh and crisp when you arrive.
There are a lot of tips and tricks in this article as well as other methods to never need to use said tips and tricks yourself. In my experience, choosing wrinkle resistant dress shirts combined with the plastic bag folding trick will make the biggest difference aside from hiring people to do the work for you.