Friday, May 4, 2012

Ironing Clothes with a Wood Cookstove

Now that we have Marjorie the Margin Gem up and running, we are trying to take full advantage of her.  Just as in the days of old when the woodburning cookstove functioned as the main energy center of the home, we are using our cookstove for more than just cooking.  Marjorie is also busy heating our water, warming our house (though parts of March were awfully warm), and providing heat for ironing our clothes.

I wear a dress shirt to school every day, so the ironing pile is always quite large around here, and because time is always an issue, the process of ironing with heat from the cookstove needs to be made as efficient as possible for it to be a viable alternative to using an electric iron.  Thus, even though I have a collection of traditional sadirons and they would work just fine for this process, they remain hidden in a box somewhere. 

Instead, I heard somewhere that what some Amish do is to buy old electric irons, remove the cords, and then heat these atop the cookstove.  I have to say that even though I'm pro-old fashioned method in most areas of my life, I completely understand why the Amish would have adopted this approach.  The surface area on the bottom of an electric iron is much larger than the bottom of the traditional sadiron, and thus the process of pressing a garment is expedited.  Also, because the traditional sadiron is pointed at both ends, you cannot rest the iron on its heal while you adjust the article that is being ironed.

The pictures below show the two irons that I use.  I use two so that one can be reheating while I'm using the other.  The one on the left used to belong to my grandmother on my dad's side.  She and my grandfather married in 1939, and I suspicion that this iron was purchased not too long afterward.  It was the type that took a detachable electrical cord like those which used to be connected to waffle irons and coffee percolators.  This iron is quite heavy (in fact, when my grandparents lived in our house, I remember Granny using it as a doorstop for the kitchen door that you see in some of the kitchen pictures here on the blog), and it has a unique thumb rest which is attached to the top of the wooden handle.

The iron on the right was purchased from a thrift store simply to be used on the woodstove.  I chose an older style of iron which had the larger metal skirt above the soleplate because I was afraid that I might melt the new, mostly plastic style of iron. I paid a dollar for this iron several years ago, brought it home, and disconnected its electrical cord.  Truthfully, I still feel a little guilty about that because the iron did still work at the time that I purchased it.  It seemed wrong to ruin something that worked just fine.  I have saved the cord, though, and keep it in the basement.  I did that to assuage my guilt, telling myself that I could reconnect it if my contrition got out of control. 

Back to the point of this post:

You can see from the pictures that I put the irons on a piece of aluminum foil while they are heating on the cooktop.  I could just place them directly on the cast iron, but any food spills or other soil which doesn't get completely cleaned off the stove could travel via the soleplate of the iron to my white shirts, and that could be an unhappy and expensive event.  I have been using the piece of foil in the pictures for almost two months now.

Former electric irons heating on the wood cookstove.

The door of the firebox of the Margin Gem cookstove is open to show
the fire heating the clothes irons.

Naturally, the most "pressing" question that anyone would have about this whole process is "How do you control the heat?"  --Sorry, I just couldn't resist the play on words.

First of all, you'd be surprised at how little heat is actually needed to iron clothes.  It is very easy to get the irons too hot.  However, an iron that is not hot enough doesn't remove any wrinkles, either.  What I've learned is that an iron that is too cool or too hot does not glide smoothly over the cloth being ironed.  The "just right" window is pretty narrow, and it is the temperature at which the iron is easy to push along the fabric.

When I first learned to iron with wood heat several years ago, I turned on my electric iron, set it to the temperature that I used on my clothes, and let it heat up.  After it reached ironing temperature, I held the bottom of the iron about four inches away from my cheek to see what the heat felt like.  Then, I placed the other irons on the stove and waited until holding them up to my cheek at an equal distance showed that they had reached the same heat.  I've memorized what that felt like, and now this method is what I use to see whether the irons are at the appropriate temperature.

Some people might be able to accomplish this task by just placing their hands near the bottom of the iron, but I seem to have asbestos fingertips--convenient for taste-testing gravies and sliding hot pots and pans around on a wood cookstove, but no longer sensitive enough to tell whether it is time to strike while the iron is hot.

A cold iron is only ineffective.  An iron that is too hot can be a problem of epic proportions, so I must advise caution in the beginning.  If you do manage to scorch fabric enough that some of it sticks to the bottom of the iron, you'll have to let the iron cool completely and then rub it with steel wool until the soleplate is smooth again.

The clothing will have to be either sprayed with a little bit of water before ironing, or one could go through the process of sprinkling and rolling that our grandmothers witnessed during their childhoods.

Some who are reading this are shaking their heads and muttering that I'm crazy.  I'll not argue about my craziness, but it really isn't as inconvenient as one might think.  Plus, you'd be surprised at how nice it is to have a cordless iron that heats up for free! 

1 comment:

  1. I really like this idea. I like multi-tasking and saving money to boot. I have my grandmother's sad iron from around 1900 and before she died she used it as a door stop. It never occurred to me to repurpose old electric irons! I do a lot of sewing and one of the steps in getting the fabric ready to cut is washing, drying and ironing it. I have one of those annoying irons that times out after so many minutes of inactivity, necessitating restarting it. Plus there's that long cord that is always in the way. If and when I ever get the wood cook stove I dream of, I will try this! Thanks for the tips!