Why does clothing crumple?

Problems begin if the shirt is thrown carelessly into the corner

[Deposit Photos]

Gen­er­al­ly, it’s chem­istry that crum­ples shirts, which are sewn from plant-based fab­rics. Cot­ton, linen, cannabis and oth­er sim­i­lar ma­te­ri­als con­sist main­ly of cel­lu­lose. Cel­lu­lose is a lin­ear poly­mer which is made up of thou­sands of glu­cose mol­e­cules, bond­ed with each oth­er into chains. Each of these mol­e­cules can form so-called hy­dro­gen bonds with its neigh­bors. In­di­vid­u­al­ly, these bonds are not par­tic­u­lar­ly strong, but to­geth­er they al­low glu­cose mol­e­cules to hold on to­geth­er quite firm­ly, and this gives fab­ric dura­bil­i­ty.


Fab­rics are hard to rip

These hy­dro­gen bonds have an­oth­er spe­cial fea­ture. They con­stant­ly break and form again. As a re­sult, cloth­ing takes the form it is left in. This is fine if this is a fresh­ly ironed shirt on a hang­er. Prob­lems be­gin if the shirt is thrown care­less­ly into the cor­ner. The hy­dro­gen bonds will con­stant­ly break and form once more, but ac­cord­ing to the shape the shirt has tak­en. And it will be crum­pled when you pick it up. Chem­i­cal­ly crum­pled!


The wash­ing

Just add wa­ter

Mat­ters get worse when wa­ter is in­volved (for ex­am­ple, in a wash­ing ma­chine). Wa­ter mol­e­cules get in be­tween the cel­lu­lose mol­e­cules, break the hy­dro­gen bonds, and act­ing as a lu­bri­cant, al­low cel­lu­lose mol­e­cules to slide over each oth­er freely. And so, when the fab­ric dries, and the mol­e­cules join to­geth­er once more, the cloth­ing pre­serves the form that the wet cel­lu­lose has tak­en. The gar­ments be­come crum­pled.

Now comes the mo­ment when an iron comes to the res­cue. The com­bi­na­tion of heat and mois­ture in­stant­ly break the hy­dro­gen bonds. And if you add pres­sure, the cel­lu­lose mol­e­cules will be forced to form into even chains, thus straight­en­ing the fab­ric. But per­haps there is a way to avoid iron­ing? You could al­ways not both­er and just wear crum­pled clothes. In fact, this of­ten looks quite stylish.


No iron­ing re­quired

Al­though some­times peo­ple re­al­ly do need to iron their shirts (if they’re get­ting mar­ried, for ex­am­ple, or go­ing to a job in­ter­view). You can re­sort to the tried and true method of starch, which saves cloth­ing from un­want­ed creas­es. And this re­al­ly does work, be­cause starch is also a poly­mer made from glu­cose, and it also forms these ad­he­sive hy­dro­gen bonds. But un­like cel­lu­lose, starch is a mul­ti­chain poly­mer. And if you add it to cel­lu­lose, it will hold the cel­lu­lose mol­e­cules in their places like a frame, not al­low­ing the fab­ric to crum­ple.

The snag is that starched cloth­ing will look and feel some­what stiff. You could put up with this, but starch also can also get washed away in the wash­ing ma­chine. In the end, it will also not save you from the need to iron shirts.

Here a more durable equiv­a­lent of starch comes to our res­cue. This is the sub­stance that is con­tained in non-creas­ing fab­rics. In or­der to bond cel­lu­lose mol­e­cules per­ma­nent­ly, and stop them slid­ing and form­ing creas­es on fab­ric, formalde­hyde was used in the past. But it is tox­ic and ir­ri­tates the skin. So it was re­cent­ly re­placed by safer (and more dif­fi­cult to pro­nounce) bond­ing agents such as 4.5-di­hy­droxy-1,3-bis(hy­drox­ymethyl)-2-im­i­da­zo­lidi­none.

Non-creas­ing shirts made of fab­ric con­tain­ing this sub­stance are con­ve­nient on some oc­ca­sions, but it would be un­pleas­ant to wear them all the time. First­ly, they feel a bit like plas­tic, and sec­ond­ly, they still se­crete mi­cro­scop­ic por­tions of formalde­hyde, which can cause ir­ri­ta­tion.


The real "Iron Man"?

So ul­ti­mate­ly, it seems that for grad­u­a­tions, wed­dings or an­niver­saries, we’ll still have to iron or­di­nary shirts with an or­di­nary iron on an or­di­nary iron­ing board. But dur­ing the process, we can imag­ine that we are gen­er­als mar­shalling an army of cel­lu­lose mol­e­cules into even rows.

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