Thursday, 3 January 2008

Starch: the whys and wherefores

I posted this elsewhere sometime ago now, so if you've come through Google you will have found both posts. But I thought it might be of interest here, and have updated it slightly.

Those of us of a certain age surely remember the box of Robin Starch that used to sit in the cupboard at home when we were young. And another blog I've been looking at today waxed quite nostalgic about the starching of the writer's old nursing uniform. So I thought that I'd say a little bit about it here.

Most people these days associate starch with stiffness, which it certainly does provide, but there was a far more important reason for it’s use. Starch absorbs most contaminants, particularly human detritus, that soil clothing, and this then comes away with the starch when the garment is washed. The efficiency with which it does this means people can achieve good results with their laundry without detergent washing powders, just using soap flakes. As we become increasingly environmentally aware, it is quite possible that traditional soap then starch laundering will make something of a comeback, although the use of starch does require a little effort. Because of it’s ability to absorb dirt, starch provides substantial protection for the garment, which will have a considerably extended life as a result.

Starch is only absorbed by natural fibres and is therefore normally used only for cotton or linen material. It will penetrate the cotton component of cotton/polyester blends to a degree. It has no effect whatever if used with man-made fibres

Starch comes in three forms for use with laundry: as a spray that is used when you iron, as a liquid that is added to the last rinse (where you would use fabric conditioner), or as raw powdered starch.

Spray starch doesn’t achieve the penetration of the material that provides the protection that starch offers unless one re-sprays and re-irons the garment several times. It is not possible to spray the garment heavily because of the real downside of spraying – the starch in the spray is raw and is cooked by the heat from the iron. When there is too much starch sitting on the surface of the material it can easily burn, leaving a nasty goo on the sole of the iron which will then transfer itself to anything you iron, generally requiring the item concerned be re-laundered. For the best results with spray starch, apply minimally and then iron at the very lowest temperature appropriate for the material. You can achieve excellent stiffness this way, but the financial cost and environmental impact is considerable.

I have seen Dylon liquid starch for sale in Waitrose, both with and without silicone. I have never used this but presume that it contains raw starch, which produces wonderful stiffness. I would only buy the one without the silicone, as I suspect that over a period of time the silicone would inhibit the absorption of the starch. This has to be the most user-friendly way of starching; you simply put it in the fabric-conditioner drawer if you use an automatic. It is best to let starched clothes hang to dry when they have been starched; if you must use a tumble drier you should use a minimal heat setting to avoid the clothing stiffening in the drier.

Starch powder is normally cooked before use, although it can be used raw if extreme stiffness is what you are after. You should mix 50mls of cold water with an equal volume of the powdered starch, and then stir to form a paste. If you wish to use raw you can now just dilute this to use for your final rinse. But to cook it you should add a litre of boiling water, continue boiling and stir with a wooden spoon until the mixture is thick and creamy with no remaining lumps. This does not take long. You now dilute this to use as your final rinse.

It is difficult to give precise advice on how much starch you should add to a final rinse; a bit of trial and error is necessary at first. I would expect the above mixture to see me through a full weekly wash though. Because starch takes around four wash cycles to completely wash out, you don’t need to use the same concentration when laundering clothes that are already fully starched. The very best results of all are achieved by doing a final hand-rinse with the starch, wringing out (unless it's linen, which shouldn't be wrung) and hanging to dry. You should never re-rinse after starching.

Ideally you iron at precisely the point where there is just enough dampness left to be fully dried by the heat of the iron. As with all starched garments, it is important you don’t over-heat the iron. I always put my clothes on hangers after ironing; by the next day the starch is fully ‘set’ and the clothes will not only be stiff but have a wonderful crease-resistance.

Where do you get powdered starch? Lakeland sell it, although it is relatively expensive. Dri-pak of Ilkeston sell it. Hardware stores often sell their products, and will get it if they don’t already stock it. Dri-pak do mail order too, and can be contacted on 0115 932 5165. I get mine from a Mrs Rachel Davies of Aberaeron. She trades on the internet as, and is happy to supply any amount from the very small to industrial scale quantities. She does mail-order too; you can request an order form through her website. Her prices are very reasonable.

You can make your own starch spray, by adding a tablespoon of starch to 500ml of cold water. In a refillable spray bottle, this will easily match the performance of starch aerosols providing you shake well before each use. You can stiffen moderately starched garments by using the spray of course. And the spray will cost only a few pence to refill.

A tablespoon of borax (get this from a hardware store) added to your diluted starch (about a teaspoonful in your spray) reduces the tendency of starch to burn when ironed too hot. If the clothing is already dry when you want to iron it you should spray it with a little warm water (or just sprinkle the water on) rather than steam ironing.

Whites can be starched hot; colours cold though.

It all sounds like a lot of trouble, but it isn't nearly as bad as it sounds. And you wouldn't believe how easy it makes ironing!


Kristen said...

I've got a starching question for you. I have a 100% cotton hat that is semi-stiff, but I'd like it to be rigidly stiff. I was thinking of spraying starch on the hat and that would be that. However, must an iron be used after using a spray starch? Or is there another kind of starch that would do the trick without the use of an iron? It'd be pretty darn hard to iron a hat...

Thanks for your time.

Stephen said...

Kristen, I find it hard to visualise what sort of hat you could be talking about here. The first question is what is it that is providing the existing degree of stiffness? If the cotton has already been treated with a synthetic stiffener this will unfortunately inhibit the absorption of starch, and may even itself be affected by the soaking that would be required to achieve the very best result with starch.

Ironing is certainly not essential for achieving stiffness with starch unless you require the flat crease-free result that an iron offers.

If there's a problem with starch sprays it is that the starch tends to separate from the liquid component of the spray producing visible powdery splatter over the surface of the material. Although that will brush away with a bit of effort, it means that starch absorption is pretty poor.

Soaking in a fairly strong solution of starch made from traditional powder would produce by far the best result, providing the hat is kept in shape while it dries, and that this is done somewhere that is sufficiently warm to take the hat a little bit beyond 'only just dry'. Raw starch is fine, providing it is well dissolved in reasonably hot water before use (although I'd probably use cooked, at least for the first soak). The stronger the concentration of starch, the greater the stiffness that will result.

You could try a spray first (make sure it has no silicone additive) but it will never even begin to approach the result a traditional starch soak will achieve. Make sure you shake the can really well immediately before spraying. Once again, allow plenty of drying time. A second spray and dry cycle will improve the stiffness beyond that of the first.

Anonymous said...


I have never starched before and just want to check that you can use this on any natural material.

I have a dress made from hand-woven Thai silk. The skirt of the dress in pinne a various parts giving it a puffy effect and I was thinkin of starching this area to keep the shape. Would a spray starch achieve this?

I wouldn't want to try washing the dress as it is a delicate material.



Stephen said...


Yes, you can starch any natural material including silk; indeed the Chinese use rice starch for silk quite as a matter of routine. If it is practical to do so, it is best to iron the silk after spraying using your iron's 'silk' setting.

It is most important to make sure that the spray starch doesn't contain silicone. While this might make the ironing easier(!) your silk would never be quite the same again.

I see you're from London. Larger Sainsbury's stores tend to stock a range of starch aerosols, including at least one that is silicone-free. I'd get one of those, and just test it in a fairly discrete area first. Shake the aerosol well, and spray away from the silk first just to make sure you are not getting any splatter.

The stiffness starch provides is cumulative over several cycles; applying repeatedly at one session does not have quite the same effect.

I hope that helps.

Stephen said...

It's worth adding that (as I say in the original post) you will achieve maximum stiffness using starch powder, particularly as it will provide full stiffness without ironing so long as the starch is 'cooked' before use (particularly useful with silk as heat is problemmatic).

Rachel Davies Starch Supplies offers ideal starch, check the link in the sidebar and her FAQ for instructions.

Anonymous said...

can you starch wool pants?

Nugbug said...

I accidentally washed a raw silk dress. It used to be nice and stiff, but now it is all floppy.

It is pretty much ruined - so I thought I would try one last thing to salvage it.

Could I starch it? What would the best way to do it?

It is a simple strapless dress that has a sherred top (is that the right word for rows of material gathered on elastic?) and a full skirt.

It is navy blue in colour?

Any advise would be much appreciated!!!!

Anonymous said...

I sent a blouse to the cleaners and they starched it so much it is like a board... how can I get the starch out.. I sent it back to the cleaners and it came back still stiff.. I washed it and it turned out stiff.. I am going crazy.. can you help me get the fabric to soften up??? thanks in advance

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Anonymous said...

This was a fantastically helpful block of information! I am preparing some sample squares of cotton for local museum's 'laundry' display, to demonstrate the different effects of starching. Though well old enough to remember many starched garments in childhood and youth, I had not realised the way it helped cleanliness when washing too! Big thank you, Stephen!
Cherry Ann

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