Of Ironing Boards and Boats


It’s probably reasonably well documented that I’m not a fan of housework, feeling it takes up time I could spend doing other things such as writing. However, there is one household task I quite enjoy. One that I find meditative and soothing. It’s ironing.

I know, right? I can hear the screams from here. But there is something about taking a basket of crinkled fabric and converting it to smooth hanging clothing that I find very satisfying.

Many years ago, just out of high school, I worked for a clothing factory as a presser. I had a really cool (well, I thought it was) ironing board that had a suction pedal, so you would lay the fabric flat, press the pedal and it would be sucked tight to the board. It then only took a few moments to move the heavy steam iron across and smooth out the wrinkles. The iron was set to one temperature only – hot – and that was what we used, whether it was silk, polyester or cotton we were ironing.

The ‘we’ I refer to is myself and two Vietnamese ladies, the three of us standing in a row on our section of the factory floor, racks of newly sewn clothing next to us waiting to be smoothed and slid into plastic wrappers, ready for delivery. We would often chat as we worked, the rhythmic motion of the iron, the hiss of the suction pedal becoming second nature, freeing our minds up to discuss whatever we felt like.

I asked the ladies about their homeland, and what they missed about it. I was an immigrant myself so I could understand the yearning for home, or so I thought. It turned out these ladies were boat people, refugees who had left their native land in search of safety after the devastating war. I don’t know about you, but I think it takes a special kind of desperation to leave your home forever, entrusting yourself and your children to a rickety boat in an unforgiving sea.

Migration is part of human history since the earliest times – it’s how we colonised this planet, after all, taking our first steps out of the Rift Valley to find more. More land, more resources, more ideas. Wars have displaced people for almost as long – after the Second World War my husband’s grandparents, scarred after all they had experienced in their native Belarus, applied to leave. When they were asked where they wanted to go my husband’s grandmother chose Australia, as it was the furthest she could go from where she was. They never went back.

And now my husband is back in the Europe his ancestors left over half a century before. And that’s the other thing about migration – just as people arrive, so too do they leave. In search of more. More work, more sunshine, more money, more culture, more lifestyle. I’ve lived in a few places myself, fortunate in that my movements across the globe were as a result of work and love, rather than war and disaster. And even though I loved so much about the places I lived, eventually I came to realise that I yearned for home. The place where I was born, the flavours and scents and sounds, the way the light fell across the sky. And that’s what the Vietnamese ladies told me they missed too. Their home.

Funny what you think about when you’re ironing.

9 thoughts on “Of Ironing Boards and Boats

  1. What a beautiful post. Apart from the sense of home I got, it was, for me, a timely reminder for us here in Australia to accept more refugees, rather than putting harsher and harsher measures into place to deter them seeking asylum in this country.
    I agree, too, that ironing is one of the nicer household chores—not that I’d choose to do it when there are better things calling!—but it delivers an aesthetic satisfaction, and I love the smell that comes off the fabric as the iron presses it.
    I relate to you missing English light—it is softer, more diffuse. I assume it’s because you’re nearer the poles, and arrives at an angle after passing through the atmosphere. I was in Tasmania this July, and noticed the same thing—a softer, gentler light. The light here in Perth, Western Australia, is blindingly bright, even in winter!

    • Thanks Louise. I’m glad you got that from the post – I don’t ever wish to press my opinion on others, just sharing my thoughts. But when you see the desperation and sorrow in the faces of people who do this it breaks my heart – only people who have no other options would bring their small children on such a perilous journey. It’s happening here as well, I’m sure you’ve heard of the boats in the Mediterranean. A very sad thing.
      And as for the light, yes – I find I’m very affected by the sky and the way light moves (which sounds a bit odd, I know). But I remember the blinding sun of Sydney, the wintry glow of Melbourne, the wide blue skies of Canada. And here, where the dusk is purple and gold and seems to go on forever. I still get that fear of being out in direct sun (after years in Australia) and have to remember that, while I do need to be careful with my blonde colouring, it’s not going to fry me quite as quickly!

  2. Helen, I love the post! It grabbed me with the relaxing ironing. I hate ironing but I love watching people iron. I go into a trance. Do you watch hockey? It’s kind of the same thing. And then there’s a fight which gets you out of the trance and provides excitement! 🙂

    I also loved the European history part as I studied it myself in college. I’m glad you got to travel for work and love…I hope I get the pleasure of doing the same!

    • Thanks so much, and it’s nice to meet you too – blog parties are fun, aren’t they? And I used to love watching the ice hockey when I lived in Canada – you’re right, it goes so smoothly and then bam! a fight starts. Or, as the saying goes in Canada ‘I went to a fight and a hockey game broke out’ 😉
      I hope you get to travel as well, nothing makes you appreciate home as much as being away from it, while at the same time I’m amazed at some of the places I’ve been, with more yet to explore.

      • Yay I’ll be excited to hear all about your adventures in your blogs. I really like that Canadian hockey saying 🙂

  3. How funny! I find ironing soothing too! And I want that suction pedal…
    Jokes aside, this was a beautiful post, Helen. Migration is part of history indeed and I think on many levels, we’ve all experienced change, whether it be from one country to another or just moving houses. In a recent post of mine, I remember the nickname my gp back home in Bulgaria has for me and it made me chuckle – she calls me “citizen of the world”. I guess we all are. 🙂

    • Thanks Elissaveta – nice to know someone else enjoys ironing too. And yes, the suction pedal was amazing, I often wish I had one at home.
      And I’m glad you liked the rest of the post too – I think the current situation is so sad, caught up in political wrangling, and we forget our history as a species – that movement is part of who we are. Citizens of the world, indeed. 🙂

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