15th and 16th c. Starching Linen

When creating 15th and 16th-century linen shirts, smocks, aprons, or ruffs, starching can be incredibly useful, if not necessary, to achieve the appropriate look. The process of dip starching involves dipping fabric in a mixture of boiled water and dissolved starch. The starch used can come from several sources such as wheat, rice, potato, or arrowroot. After dipping, the fabric is smoothed as it dries and is then ironed.

16th c. Honeycomb pleated linen shirt set with light starch.

Linen always starts out very crisp, but as soon the size is washed out, it touches the skin, picks up oil, and softens quite a bit. Starching linen fabric for constructions adds firmness, making it easier to cut and sew. Also, it provides some protection to the fibers from color transfers, especially if you are trying to use historical techniques for marking fabric like pouncing charcoal or for projects that will take a while and might be discolored from being over touched. I tend to use dip starch on cream and white linen or linen/cotton blends and wouldn’t recommend it on other colors without tests. It would likely also be suitable for cotton fabric.

The project will drive the type and amount of starch that you should use. This article will cover some background research and the methods I use when creating starch for linen garments and accessories from the 15th and 16th centuries.

For some garb or accessories, like upper-class linen European garb of the late 1500s and early 1600s, post-wash starching is essential. During that time period, these items would be laundered by laundresses or servants. On the other hand, lower-class linen shirts and shifts might benefit from pre-starching of the fabric after washing for construction, but a final starching might not be needed. Fancy veils and ruffs are good candidates for starching before and after construction.

Heavily rice starched lightweight linen ironed.
Lightweight linen heavily starched with arrowroot and ironed, ready for cutting.

Background and Historical Examples

*I went down a research rabbit hole here and geeked out a bit hard; this section is dense. I tracked down sites online with copies of original texts. If you are in a hurry, skip on to get to the actual process below.

In the mid-16th-century cereal-based starch (e.g., wheat, bran, etc.) production became popular in Northern Europe and saw the rise of elaborate linen styles, such as ruffs, that otherwise not be possible. Patterns of Fashion 4: The cut and construction of linen shirts, smocks, neckwear, headwear and accessories for men and women C. 1540-1660 by Janet Arnold has an excellent section The Art of The Laundress that elaborates on the rise of these styles (Arnold, Tiramani, & Levey, 2009).

There is evidence of starch use on linen clothing items and accessories before the rise of the ruff in the mid-16th century. The article History of Starching Fabric on the site Old and Interesting has an excellent discussion and sources (Gretton, History of Starching, 2010). Their research found that starch in the 1400s and early 1500s was probably made using cuckoo-pint flower roots (Arum maculatum or starchwort). The cuckoo-pint flower is the English name; it grows throughout Europe and is also called starchwort.

In Starch and Starch Products, the authors state “An early English reference is found in a M.S., Norwich Sacrist’s Roll of 1390,” Vestiarium: pro coole, pro starchyng Viii d” (Auden, 1922, p. 3). But the author of this work believes that the earliest English description occurs in Aungiers’ account of Syon Monastery, founded at Isleworth in 1415.

Rules of St. Briget,” we read: “The Office of Sexteyne When the sexteyne of the brether syde hath washe the corporas ones, she withe help of her susters schall wasche them, sterch them, drye them …. nor sterche hem but with sterche made of herbes only.” (Auden, 1922, p. 3).  I believe the author conveys with ‘ye ole convoluted writing style’ that the editor publishing the works thought it was later than 1390 since the monastery wasn’t founded until 1415, with the book published in 1440. However, even with the latest date being the publishing, it provides support for starching linen clothing of the 1400s. 

John Gerard, 1545-1612

Gretton cites the botanist John Gerard’s book The book Herball, or Generall Historie of Plantes, 1633, which references the cuckoo-pint root (2010).

“The most pure and white starch is made of the rootes of the Cuckoo-pint, but most hurtful for the hands of the laundresse that have the handling of it, for it chappeth, blistereth, and maketh the hands rough and rugged and with all smarting.”

This might suggest that although starch was used earlier, the prominence and complexity of starched linen clothing and accessories increased with starch manufacturing; perhaps starching became more manageable and cheaper for the laundress to provide. 

The 1400s reference to starch for kerchiefs “starche, for kyrcheys” in Promptorium parvulorum sive clericorum: dictionarius anglo-latinus princeps by Galfridus Anglicus (dominican friar), c1440 (Anglicus & Way, 1843, p. 472). The English Antiunitary Albert Way (1843) that annotated and published this manuscript with further references included the bran starch recipe from the 15th c. manuscript Medical miscellany, including Arderne’s Liber medicinarum (ff. 26-99); list of herbs in Latin and English, which is part of the literary collections of Sir Hans Sloane, Bart, M.D.. 

In Sloane MS. 3548, f. 102, is the following recipe, “Ad faciendum siarching, — R. quan- titatem furfuris et bullias in aqua munda et stet per iii. dies vel plus donee sit aqua amara vel acetosa; tunc exprime aquam de furfure et.in claro ejus immerge tuum pannum, s. sindonem, bokeram, vel carde, aut aliud quod vis, et postea sicca et cum lapide leninca,, that is, polish the surface with a slekystone” (Anglicus & Way, 1843, p. 472).

Take a quantity of bran and boil it in clean water and allow it to stand for three days or longer until the water is bitter or sour: then squeeze out the water from the bran, and place in your cloth, muslin, buckram, thread or what will, in the clear liquor, and afterward dry it and smooth it with a stone ‘that is, polish the surface with a slekystone” translation suggested by Auden (Auden, 1922). SCA Baroness Ellice de Valles’ essay on starches, “Starch Recreation: Old World vs. New” 2014, discusses these findings and points out s. sindonem should be translated as linen. I cannot find an online reproduction or pdf of Slonane MS. 3548, f. 102 to verify (Valles, 2015). 

Most early examples of starch I have found thus far have been English. My future efforts will focus more on finding references for the German or Italian starching examples from the 15th and 16th centuries. Unfortunately, I do not speak either of those languages; good times.

Starch – what to buy?

My preference after trial and error is rice starch or arrowroot starch. Although arrowroot is a new world plant is likely similar to starchwort. I do not endorse any particular company; I have used Bob’s Red Mill for arrowroot and other starches. You can use any starch you prefer, search for wheat, rice, or arrowroot starch, and you will get a ton of options. Asian markets are an excellent source for wheat or rice starch. I have not tested using corn starch, and it would likely make a suitable starch. I suggest using actual starch powder when possible, not flour; although there is a lot of starch in the flour, it is not the plant’s concentrated starch. It is viable to use the actual starch source, which is historically documentable. I have used rice and bran directly by boiling the grain.

Methods

Materials: Starch, water, large boiling pot, a place to hang or lay fabric to dry

Heavy starch mix.
  • Prewash your fabric before starting; the cloth can be wet or dry going into this process.
  • Heat water in a large pot till it boils. Using boiling water allows the starch to break down into the solution; if the water is not hot enough, it does not saturate the solution. I have a large steamer pot (34 quarts (8.5 gallons or ~32 liters)) that I use as my starch and dye pot. The fabric amount will decide the amount of starch water needed; you will want the cloth fully submerged. Generally, I heat smaller batches of water in a large pot and pour the boiling water into the large pot outside until it is about half full. Safety first, use extreme caution with the boiling water and moving around boiling water; it is very easy to have an accident.
  • Mix the starch tap water and mix until dissolved. Add a small amount of starch at a time, or it will clump. If it doesn’t dissolve properly or clumps, you can heat the mix and fully dissolve.

Heavy starch – 1 cup (or more cups) of starch per 1 gallon
Medium starch – between 1/3 and 1/2 cup of starch per 1 gallon
Light starch – 1/8 cup per 1 gallon

The above amounts of mixtures are suggestions. The amount of starch you use in the mix will depend on the starch and the end-use. Potato starch is lighter than rice or arrowroot, while wheat can vary in strength. For shifts and shirts I use medium starch for pre-construction starching and light starch for a finished garment. If starching a veil or ruff, I would suggest going heavy. Sometimes the original heavy or medium starch is enough to go through the whole process, and I will dip the finished garment in hot water and reactivate/rinse some of the original starch off and proceed with drying. You may want to test various concentrations and find the mix you prefer to use for the project.

As an alternative to the powder starch method, you can vigorously boil rice, potato, or bran to infuse water with starch. The water will get more opaque as it boils indicating its strength. Decant the water or remove the rice or brain before adding the fabric. Another option is to boil and age the mix as detailed in the historical recipe for bran starch detailed in the last section. I have not tried aging the mixture yet.

Lightweight linen in a vat of starch.
  • Add the dissolved starch mix into the boiled water pot and mix well. I have a big wooden stick I use as a mixer. Make sure you strain out any clumps of starch to avoid it ending up in your starch vat.
  • Add the fabric or garment to the starch vat and mix well. I usually allow the cloth to rest in the solution for 15-30 minutes, stirring occasionally. I have not extensively tested timing and usually go by the amount of time I have to work with and allow it to cool to the touch.
  • Once it is cool enough, pull the fabric from the vat. If needed, add cold water to the vat and mix to ensure the water is now cooler and safe to touch. If you are concerned the mix was too concentrated or if you have blotches on the cloth, you can dip the item into a clean vat of water, warm or cold, to rinse off some of the starch and then hang it up to dry.
  • Allow to air dry. Hang the fabric up on a clothesline or drying rack. The amount of mess will depend on the concentration of the mixture.
Making a huge mess with rice starch on my porch.

For pre-construction fabric, leave it hanging and smooth the fabric out with your hand, squeezing the excess starch water and smoothing the fabric. Leave it on the line and allow it to dry.

For finished garments or accessories, such as shirts or aprons, or ruffs, gently squeeze out the excess water and leave it hanging for 10-15 minutes. Then transfer the item to a towel or drying mat lying flat or some shaping form. I have seen people employ padding or forms inside the cells of ruffs to maintain the shape as dries. As the cloth dries, continually shape the fabric with your hands to achieve the desired outcome.

Starched honeycomb smocked linen items drying flat.

Pressing

Once dry or almost dry, the raw linen fabric or garb can be pressed to shape. The iron heat and steam set the starch.

For pre-construction, press the fabric using an iron or steam, then continue with your construction plans. If you are doing intricate pleating or smocking, you can always repeat the above process to reset your pleats or reshape the item if needed during the process. Once finished with the construction, repeat the above procedure after washing the finished linen item.

For finished linen items like an apron, shirt, shift, and ruffs, press with an iron and use steam. Also, you can use curling irons and flat irons for hard-to-reach spaces or complex shapes. Although these are mundane tools, a variety of tools were used by a laundress and could be very useful for achieving the desired shape.

16th c. Honeycomb smocked and pleated apron
Medium weight linen apron closeup, photo by Lady Melodie de Ryes

Get starching!

Anyone who sews can tell you the actual sewing part is a tiny percentage of the process. Starching is an essential step for creating historical linen garments and accessories; I was not a believer until I tried it. My next project may involve some aged starch, like the recipe described in the background section. I hope this article will help you get started. I am not an expert, and for me, testing was the way to go; I started with swatches and changed up methods each time until I figured out what worked best for me. There are many great sites and resources on the internet to help you out. If you are working on ruffs definitely look at Patterns of Fashion 4: The cut and construction of linen shirts, smocks, neckwear, headwear and accessories for men and women C. 1540-1660 by Janet Arnold, there is a whole section at the end. Additionally, if you have research to add to the info, I have presented in this article, feel free to contact me!

References

Anglicus, G. A., & Way, A. (1843). Promptorium parvulorum sive clericorum: dictionarius anglo-latinus princeps, 1440.(A. Way, Ed.) https://archive.org/details/promptoriumparv00galf/page/472/mode/2up?q=starche%2C+for+kyrcheys Digital Accessed Feb. 21, 2021.

Arnold, J., Tiramani, J., & Levey, S. (2009). Patterns of Fashion 4 : the cut and construction of linen shirts, smocks, neckwear, headwear and accessories for men and women c.1540-1660. New York: MacMillan. Print.

Auden, H. A. (1922). Starch and Starch Products. London: Sir Isaac Pitman & Sons, LTD. https://archive.org/details/starchstarchprod00audeuoft/page/xiv/mode/2up Digital Accessed Feb. 21, 2021. 

Gretton, L. (2010, July 21). History of Starching. Retrieved from Old and Interesting: http://www.oldandinteresting.com/laundry-starch-history.aspx Digital Accessed Feb. 2, 2021.

Valles, E. d. (2015, March 6). Starch Recreation: Old World Vs. New. Retrieved from https://ellicesblog.wordpress.com/2015/03/06/starch-recreation-old-world-vs-new/ Digital Accessed Mar. 1, 2021.

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