Getting Steamed

What’s the best handheld fabric steamer—and can it replace your iron?

I recently traveled many thousands of miles to attend a college roommate’s wedding in Hawaii. For several reasons—the over-the-top destination, the formal toast I was slated to give, my all-but-unprecedented approval of a friend’s choice of groom—I decided to splurge on a new dress for the occasion. The simple silk sheath that I bought was perfect: For once, I would look just right.

Except for one thing: My suitcase’s contents really did shift while in flight. I mention this because, to my mother’s lifelong anguish, I’ve never been a great believer in garment bags (or umbrellas or hair dryers). And when I opened my suitcase, I was horrified to find my beautiful dress crumpled beyond recognition.

The concierge regretted to inform me that the hotel offered no garment-freshening service, though I could pay $28 to have the dress professionally dry-cleaned by Monday—two days after the wedding. Since ironing the delicate fabric was out of the question, I saw no choice but to hang the dress in the shower and encourage fellow wedding guests to bathe at my place. By the following evening, with the dress no less wrinkled, I could hope only for a fast-setting sun.

Soon after I arrived at the reception, a relative of the bride bustled up to me with upraised eyebrows. “Oh, my,” she said, looking me up and down. “I would’ve been happy to lend you my steamer.” Her—steamer? This seemingly not-insane woman traveled with a steamer? “Well, of course,” she said. “I never go anywhere without it,” and no wonder, her expression implied.

Before that weekend, I’d assumed clothing steamers were unwieldy, industrial items. Was I ever wrong. These days, there is a range of handheld fabric steamers on the market—and they often cost less, and take up less suitcase real estate, than traditional irons. Best of all, portable steamers free you from the space constraints of an ironing board, an advantage not just for travelers but for small-apartment dwellers like me. You need only hang the garment against a wall before getting to work.

Sold and sold. Within hours of getting home, I went online in search of a fabric steamer that could rescue me from future on-the-road fashion disasters. And if a steamer could also replace the bulky iron that I am often too lazy to yank out of my closet, all the better.

I tested six handheld fabric steamers ranging in price from $24.99 to $69. I used the steamers on various types of garments: men’s dress shirts, linen pants, cashmere sweaters, pillow shams, and a profoundly ugly silk kimono. I then handed over the steamers to my kempt-to-a-fault mother for a second, more seasoned opinion.

Portability (10 points)
I considered both size and weight in determining whether a fabric steamer is really and truly a practical travel accessory. A steamer gets an extra point if it’s dual voltage and works in other countries.

Design/ease of use (10 points)
The travel clothes steamer is a simple beast. There are two types: steamers that resemble power drills and ones that look like electric teakettles. Which style is more effective? Other considerations: Is the steamer comfortable to operate for a prolonged period? Does it have an on/off button or any temperature-control options? Does it come with attachments—lint brushes, fabric combs, and the like—and are these attachments useful?

Performance (20 points)
Most critical of all: Does the steamer work, and on what types of clothing? On button-down dress shirts—the ultimate steaming challenge—does it pass the placket test? What about collars and cuffs? (Unless a shirt’s extremities are crisp, says my mother, you might as well walk around in a sweat-stained T-shirt.) How quickly does the water heat up, and how hot does the steam get?Does the steamer dribble water and/or spit out excessive steam? Any burn risk? Last but not least: Will any of these steamers ever replace the good, old-fashioned iron?

Here are the results, from slovenly to silky smooth …

Samsonite Dual Voltage Garment Steamer, $30 The sweet little Samsonite falls into the electric-teakettle category. These machines are as uncomplicated as it gets: You pour water into an opening in the steamer’s top, and once that water boils, it emerges as steam through a grill dotted with holes. This Samsonite is commendably compact, but you pay a price for portability. While I loved the design—not just the suitcase-friendly dimensions but the dual-strip fabric brush and folding handle—this 200-watt steamer just didn’t do the job. The tepid steam barely straightened out the kimono and made almost no impact on the dress shirts I tested. Recommended for emergencies only, or for those who prize traveling light above all else.

Portability: 10
Design/ease of use: 10
Performance: 1
Total: 21

Rowenta Ultra Compact Steambrush, $39.95 The 800-watt dual-voltage Rowenta is a classic “power drill” steamer. Unlike the electric teakettles, which produce a steady flow of steam until switched off or unplugged, the more sophisticated power drills eject steam only when you press a button (similar to the steam button on a traditional iron). They also produce a not-unpleasant burring sound. To use these steamers, you hold the fabric taut against a wall and press down with a brushing motion.

I found much to admire in the large but lightweight Rowenta: the efficient test-tube-shaped water tank, the dial that controls steam output, the fabric brush that removes cat hair and lint (both plentiful commodities in this household), the canvas zip-up bag for travel. Too bad it was marred by some serious technical glitches. After just a few days of use, the steam-activation button overheated within seconds of my pressing it, singeing my thumb. The replacement model that I tested, while certainly safer, was still a bit on the ornery side. It clicked on and off without warning, as if disagreeing with my choice of outfit.

Portability: 5
Design/ease of use: 7
Performance: 10
Total: 22

Conair Deluxe Hand-Held Fabric Steamer, $42.99 (on sale for $27.99) The other power-drill-style steamer I tested, the Conair, bore the closest resemblance to a traditional iron. Indeed, if you remove the dual lint/fabric brush attachment, the exposed soleplate can double as an iron. But if you’re whipping out the ironing board, why not just iron?

This is not to say that this Conair was entirely without merit. I particularly liked the high-medium-low dial, the fabric brush, and the triangular shape, which outmaneuvered other steamers on corners and seams. But even though this 1,000-watt steamer is dual voltage, it’s probably the least sensible travel companion of all the models I tested. It’s bigger and heavier than the others—an issue not just at the airline check-in counter, but in medias steaming as well. My arm tired swiftest with this steamer; for my mom, the heftiness was a deal-breaker. And like the Rowenta, the Conair had its share of semi-scary moments (for example, puffing out steam for several minutes after being unplugged). I thought I’d prefer these higher-tech power-drill steamers, but the rudimentary teakettles proved more reliable in the end.

Portability: 3
Design/ease of use: 9
Performance: 12
Total: 24

Joy Mangano My Little Steamer, $29.98 My Little Steamer has the details down. It comes with—count ‘em—three fabric-brush attachments and a drawstring travel bag. I loved the Eisenhower-era mint-julep color; my mom applauded the retractable power cord (the only steamer I tested with this feature). The My Little Steamer is easy to fill, holds a fair amount of water, and was the only teakettle model I reviewed with an on/off switch. The wattage—850—surprised me, though, since the steam just didn’t get all that hot. And piping-hot steam, I’ve found, is the make-or-break test of a good steamer, way more important than a selection of attachments, which in this case were frustratingly difficult to muscle onto the steam head. It was also on the heavy side, and the five larger-than-normal steam-ejecting holes encouraged excess dribbling and sometimes left fabrics damper than desired. Single voltage.

Portability: 5
Design/ease of use: 9
Performance: 10
Total: 24

SteamFast Compact Fabric Steamer, $39.99 (on sale for $24.99) My mother’s enthusiasm for the SteamFast surprised me. A fairly primitive teakettle model, the single-voltage SteamFast has no on/off switch; you just plug in to operate. The size is certainly right—it’s the second smallest, next to the Samsonite—and my mom liked the ergonomic finger grips. This 800-watt steamer delivers a continuous flow of just-hot-enough steam through nine small holes that minimize leakage, especially compared with the My Little Steamer. The SteamFast’s water capacity could be better: Its max-fill line is much lower than on similarly proportioned steamers. And while the two attachments (a lint and fabric brush) worked pretty well, the sticky rubber head was a schmutz magnet. Even so, for the price, you can’t go wrong with this unobjectionable little machine.

Portability: 8
Design/ease of use: 8
Performance: 12
Total: 28

Jiffy Esteam Travel Steamer, $69 The Jiffy Esteam isn’t much to behold: a simple teakettle-style apparatus with no on/off button, no temperature controls, no fun brushes or lint-remover attachments. It’s not particularly small or light, and it isn’t even dual voltage. Why, then, the steep price tag? Perhaps because the steam produced by the Jiffy is really, really hot—a little mysterious, considering it’s only 600-watt. The Jiffy is the only steamer I tested that achieves anything like the power and precision of a regular iron. Whatever the explanation, merely aiming the Jiffy in the general direction of a garment conquered crinkles and creases more aggressively than any competitor.

The Jiffy is definitely coming along to my next destination wedding. Does this mean I’m ready to give up ironing for good? Not just yet. These steamers are great for travel, for straightening out delicate silk, and for freshening up cashmere. Steaming is also a good deal quicker (and less backache-inducing) than ironing. But it is also, for now, a much less exact art. For the heavy-duty jobs—or if you require a super-smooth, boardroom-ready dress shirt—you still can’t get around dragging out the old ironing board. For ultimate crispness, the iron is still king.

Portability: 6
Design/ease of use: 6
Performance: 20
Total: 32