A Love Letter to Ironing: Learning and Unlearning


“...perception and memory both reveal the complicity of mind with matter…”

Elizabeth Grosz


1 Pushing mouse versus ironing a shirt 

Acquiring knowledge is a peripatetic journey, often necessitating un/learning along with learning. French philosopher Henri Bergson suggested that both analytic and intuitive ways of knowing are essential for understanding the world. In that spirit, we are bringing together our exploration of two seemingly very different kinds of processes, one that could be considered quite analytical and one that might be thought of as intuitive: the latter being the craft-based, physical 'menial' labour of ironing, and the former the digital, 'white-collar' work of coding and 3D modelling. Our purpose is to hold a mirror up to each and assess them in relation to each other. How are the skills and approaches in one environment transferable to the other, and where does unlearning and relearning occur in order to navigate their distinct differences?

We recently decided to build a virtual reality (VR) world—titled Sinking/Thinking into the folds of craft knowledge—which was our Mount Thor of a learning curve. We come from backgrounds in textile and fashion, seemingly far from the technology and game engines one uses to create VR. But, like many artists trained to be aesthetically ambitious, we wanted to create a total experience, an immersive world where we could convey discoveries drawn from a three-year research project titled Thinking Through Craft and the Digital Turn.

Once during a break in our VR work, we found ourselves engaged in a long conversation about ironing and how much we loved to do it. We realized we shared an idealized vision of ironing. We philosophized, poeticized, and made sweeping statements about it. By the end of our discussion, we were thinking deeply about the act of ironing—how we had learned the skill, its sensuality, what it meant to complete projects with a perfectly ironed finish. 

Shortly after, a conference attendee asked if the work we had done in the VR component had offered us artistic lessons/skills for our craft practices. Immediately, the conversation about ironing came to mind. This lyric essay is our answer to that question.

Working on the VR project brought a series of questions to the fore: How had we learned the artistic lessons we knew so well? How were the lessons learned in one artistic subdiscipline applicable to another? Could we bolster our confidence while working in VR by remembering our expertise in textiles? How did pushing a mouse around or creating in 3D on a 2D screen compare with ironing a cotton shirt? 

At first glance, we seem to be pairing two divergent activities. Ironing can be completely tedious, a mindful meditation or a mindless time drain. We learned to iron by watching family members do it, most often our mothers. We wanted to make ourselves clothes and quickly figured out that we needed to iron in order to sew. We learned lessons about ironing through encouragement and reprimands. We saw it in films, art, and other cultural touchstones. We quickly learned—the hard way—that ironing can be dangerous. But ironing is also useful, it is necessary, and it can be deeply satisfying. There is a physicality, materiality, and sensuality to ironing that counters what might, on the surface, be seen as something boring and mundane. 

Digital literacy, by contrast, conjures different associations. There is a late-night machismo to coding, modelling, and animating that is equal parts heroic and forlorn. The vortex of hours spent tracking down a box wrongly ticked or a comma out of place is mind-numbing. But when the box is ticked correctly and the errant comma found, the dopamine hit is undeniable. The box of digital tools known as a computer offers a sense of endless possibility that is hard to resist, though it often falls short of its promise. Most of us acquired our knowledge of digitality through that very medium—YouTube, web searches, online courses. At first glance, it can seem to be a quick fix for the myriad frustrations of making materially, but it is indeed a craft in itself: a process that is often much more time-consuming than any material-based equivalent.