Monday, 30th October 2017

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A pressing habit

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  • Published 3.01.04
THINK SMART: Ironists are using battery-powered as well as geothermic irons for the sport

Boring, boring Leicester!’ screamed those intriguing posters around the city centre for days. Yawn. Who doesn’t know fried chips topped with red Leicester cheese, passionate football fans (the blue army) and nasal accents do not make the English East Midlands city of Leicester the most exciting place on earth? Still, on that chilly December morning, thrill-seekers crowded over to the pedestrian shopping centre, Humberstone Gate. What greeted them was a bizarre sight: a lanky young man hanging from a crane in a transparent box and literally ironing out dirty linen in public.

Phil Shaw (who calls himself Steam) spent nearly two hours ironing inside a see-through box, dangling high above the heads of bemused onlookers. It was an attempt to break the world record for continuously ironing a 15 metre-sari (possibly the longest in the world), whilst deprived of any other stimulation. The idea for this particular challenge came from Leicester Shire Promotions as part of their recently launched campaign to promote the (otherwise dull and mundane) city.

And both efforts were successful. While Steam scored a world record, Christmas shoppers in Leicester were as confused and amazed as they would ever be. Though for all sorts of reasons. “When I grow up, I’m going to be like Steam. Yeepie,” hooted five-year-old, seriously impressed, Charlie Smith. His mother, Angie Smith, 35, was moved for a completely different reason: “I think it’s amazing to see a man ironing. It’s a shame he’s not naked though!” Debbie Shirp, 15, from Braunstone Frith, however, thought that Steam was showing off (“It's a bit stupid”). At work was a leading opinion poll company, NOP, grabbing unsuspecting souls and bombarding them with questions on the popularity levels of ‘extreme ironing’ as a sport and that of Leicester as a city.

Fair enough. For extreme ironing (possibly the most weird extreme sport on earth) is Leicester’s claim to fame in the thrill-world of adventure sports. The city gave birth to it. “It all started in the summer of 1997,” said Phil Shaw, the founder of extreme ironing after he got down from the box. “I returned home after a long day in the knitwear factory, and the last thing I wanted to do was start on a pile of ironing. The sun was shining and I preferred the idea of an evening out. Then it occurred to me to combine these activities into an extreme sport — the result: extreme ironing.” Paul Brookes, the campaign director for Leicester, waxed his views: “What can be more boring than doing your ironing? But Steam has shown how even this activity can be creative, challenging and fun. Here in Leicester we are fed up with people who know nothing about the secret success stories of the city, saying that Leicester is boring, that there is nothing to shout about. We intend to demonstrate over the coming years that Leicester is a city on the move.”

To get back to Phil’s story, before long he had recruited his housemate, Paul, and the pair took on the pseudonyms Steam and Spray (to avoid the ridicule of their peers) and started practising moves in their pokey back garden. “Extreme ironing has given me a great deal of satisfaction over the years,” said Steam. “To me, there’s no other sport that matches it for excitement, danger or skill. It combines the thrill of an extreme sport with the satisfaction of a well-pressed shirt.”

From there extreme ironing has reached a new audience. And with a hardcore group of extreme ironists led by Steam, the sport is set to expand. Currently, there are 1,000 devotees of the game in the UK alone. In the beginning, extreme ironists used (very long) extension cords, but soon realised that unless they wanted to be limited by taking a generator with them, a new solution would be needed. In the UK, battery-powered irons are popular, while Germany has developed geothermics (a method of tapping into the earth’s energy supply to power the iron). And with all that innovation, ironists are enthusiastically removing creases from their clothes halfway up cliffs, on top of mountains, in busy city streets, even underwater. In full scuba gear. The only limit, these days, is one’s imagination. In 2002 the German extreme ironists organised the highly successful World Championships near Munich. And Steam has just finished writing a book, Extreme Ironing, featuring 96 photos of the most extreme calibre (published by New Holland Publishers).

In the meantime, hopefully, the sari-ironing drive has put Leicester on the excitement trail of UK. “What better place to take on this new challenge than in the city where it all began,” said Steam. “I was particularly pleased to achieve a new record for ironing the longest garment and fight off the boredom of ironing in the perspex box for some two hours.”