Why does clothing crumple?
Problems begin if the shirt is thrown carelessly into the corner
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.
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!
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.
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.
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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