Generally, a steam cleaner turns regular tap water -- or perhaps Evian or Fiji in some ridiculous, over-the-top boutique in SoHo, Milan or Paris -- into steam, allowing you to blow it onto wrinkled material. The steam works by loosening the bonds between the long-chain polymer molecules in the fabric which reduces the appearance of wrinkles.
A typical large or medium steamer consists of a water tank, heating element and long metal rod, as well as a rubber hose with a brush attached to remove hair and lint. The water is added to the tank and heated until it boils and becomes vapor. You apply the steam to a garment via the rubber hose, using soft, sweeping motions. Garments can be hung on the metal rod or on a regular clothes hanger. Travel-sized steamers are compact, hand-held versions of these machines, in which a small water tank is connected directly to the steam blower, without a hose or rod.
The time it takes for a steamer to remove wrinkles -- and how well it does the job -- depends on a variety of factors, including the type of material and just how wrinkled it is. The more dense the fabric, the longer it takes to smooth out. Light, porous materials like jersey cotton and linen can be steamed in a matter of minutes, while polyester and other compact fabrics require additional time.
The machine's steam power (which refers to both steam strength and heat) also plays a role in how long it takes to do its job. Steamers' electricity use is measured in watts, and can range from 200 to more than 1,000 watts. Smaller, lighter steamers are generally less powerful than their larger cousins' [sources: Fabric Steamer, Moser]. The size of the steamer's water tank also determines how much steam the machine can produce without being refilled.
How do these machines compare to the standard-bearer of clothes de-wrinkling technology? Read on to determine if you're ready to ditch the iron for a steamer.