How to Steam Delicate Garments

One unwrinkled chemise, coming right up.

woman holding lacy dress
Photo: JGI/Jamie Grill/GettyImages

If you're in the market for a crisp dress shirt, an iron is the tool for the job. But when it comes to finishing more delicate items-think silk, cashmere, and lace-a garment steamer is your best friend. Gentle on fabrics and tough on wrinkles, these handy tools are the secret behind both polished ensembles and low dry cleaning bills.

Although steamers are user-friendly, there are some things to keep in mind before tackling that pile of wrinkled laundry. Here, Gwen Whiting and Lindsey J. Boyd-cofounders of eco-friendly cleaning empire The Laundress-share their tips for steaming your most delicate garments like a seasoned pro.

Steamer Basics

First things first: You'll need a steamer.

Hand-held steamers are convenient and space efficient, and will generally get the job done. We like the Rowenta X-Cel Steam Steamer. However, if you have a large amount of delicate and dry clean-only garments, Whiting and Boyd recommend investing in a high-quality standing garment steamer.

Each time you use your steamer, make sure to fill the tank with fresh water-never overfill, never forget to fill, and never use stale water.

To Steam or Not to Steam?

Steaming is the ideal way to finish delicate fabrics such as silk and silk-like synthetics, which cannot stand up to the intense, direct heat of an iron. Similarly, wool, cashmere, and wool-like synthetics should be steamed after washing to smooth any wrinkles and fluff the yarns.

[LEARN: How to Wash and Care for Wool and Cashmere at Home]

However, not all materials can be steamed, and the method has its limits. "Avoid steaming suede, waxed fabrics, and anything plastic to prevent melting," cautions Whiting. "When an extra-crisp finish is desired for durable cotton and linen items such as sheets, dress shirts and khakis, opt for the iron instead."

How to Substitue an Iron

Don't have a steamer? Use the steam function on your iron. With the steam setting on, hover over the item without touching it, essentially using it as a steamer. or, if the garment requires a more aggressive approach, you can attempt to properly iron it.

First, check the garment's label-if it explicitly says "do not iron," don't try your luck.

If you're in the clear, set your iron to the lowest temperature and turn the garment inside out. Place a clean, white, lint-free pressing cloth between the fabric and iron to prevent any burns and move slowly accross the garment, being sure not to linger. Avoid any embellishments or hardware, as an iron could cause them to melt and damage the fabric.

[LEARN: How to Use a Steam Iron]

Preserve Delicate Fabrics

One of the best things about steaming is that it does more than smooth things over. It can also save vintage lace, delicate tulle, and temperamental silk from a potentially damaging cycle through the washer or expensive trip to the dry cleaner.

"Steaming your clothes not only removes wrinkles-it also kills odor-causing bacteria and removes allergens that attract dust mites," says Whiting. "This is why we love steaming to keep clothing fresh between washes, especially items you do not need to wash frequently or are dry clean-only."

woman looking at clothes
Getty / Sofie Delauw

Get Steaming

Once you're ready to steam, heat up your steamer and hang up your garment.

Starting from the top and working your way to the bottom, move the steamer nozzle over the fabric. Don't be afraid to get too close-touching the steamer to the garment won't cause any damage.

If you're steaming a blouse, move slowly from the shoulder to the end of each sleeve. If the garment has a lining, steam the lining first, then the shell.

For Wedding Attire

In an ideal world, you'd have a professional on hand to take care of any last-minute wrinkles in your wedding dress or veil. With tricky construction and less common fabrications, these garments aren't exactly beginner-friendly. However, if it's an emergency, you can DIY with caution.

Because wedding dresses tend to be extremely delicate-after all, they're only meant to be worn once-hold the steamer six inches away to be extra safe. Starting from the top, make your way slowly down the dress. If your skirt is layered, start with the inner layers, steaming one by one.

Follow the same process with the veil, but turn the steamer to a lower setting. Although this will take longer, veils are even more delicate, and many are embellished with glued-on rhinestones, which can melt when exposed to high heat.

Mistakes to Avoid

Like irons, steamers pack some serious heat, so you'll want to use caution.

"A common mistake is inserting your hand into the garment to hold up the material while applying steam, which can cause severe burns," cautions Boyd. "Always make sure your hand steers clear of the steamer head, and never steam while wearing the garment."

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