Thursday, 7 February 2013

Fresh and Crisp Laundry

Charles Courtney Curran
Charles Courtney Curran 'Summer clouds' 1917

Today I would like to talk about an aspect of household laundry with which we are less familiar nowadays, and yet it can be an enjoyable and satisfying part of our regular domestic tasks.


Here is an excerpt from a popular book published in 1893

The Easiest Way in Housekeeping and Cooking
Adapted to domestic use or study in classes
By Helen Campbell

"Starch is the next consideration, and is made in two ways,—either raw or boiled. Boiled starch is made by adding cold water to raw starch in the proportion of one cup of water to three-quarters of a cup of starch, and then pouring on boiling water till it has thickened to a smooth mass, constantly stirring as you pour. A bit of butter is added by many excellent laundresses, the bit not to be larger than a filbert. Any thing starched with boiled starch must be dried and sprinkled before ironing, while with raw starch this is not necessary.
To make raw starch, allow four even tablespoonfuls to a half-pint of cold water. Dip collars, cuffs, and shirt-bosoms, or any thing which must be very stiff, into this starch, being careful to have them dry. When wet, clap them well between the hands, as this distributes the starch evenly among the fibers of the cloth. The same rule must be followed in using boiled starch. Roll the articles in a damp cloth, as this makes them iron more smoothly; and in an hour they will be ready for the iron. In using boiled starch, after the articles have been dried, and then dampened by sprinkling water lightly upon them, either by the hand, or by shaking over them a small whisk-broom which is dipped as needed in water, it is better to let them lie ten or twelve hours.
All clothes require this folding and dampening. Sheets and table-cloths should be held by two persons, shaken and "snapped," and then folded carefully, stretching the edges if necessary.
Colored clothing must be rinsed before starching, and the starch should be thin and cool.
For ironing neatly and well, there will be required, half a dozen flat-irons, steel bottoms preferred; a skirt-board and bosom-board, both covered, first with old blanket or carpet, then with thick strong cotton-cloth, and over this a cover of lighter cloth, sewed on so that it may be removed as often as may be necessary to wash it. If a bag the size of each is made, and they are hung up in this as soon as used, such washing need very seldom be. Having these, many dispense with ironing-sheet and blanket; but it is better to use a table for all large articles, and on this the ironing-sheet can be pinned, or tied by tapes, or strips of cloth, sewed to each corner. A stand on which to set the irons, a paper and coarse cloth to rub them off on, and a bit of yellow wax tied in a cloth, and used to remove any roughness from the iron, are the requirements of the ironing-table.
Once a month, while the irons are still slightly warm, wash them in warm water in which a little lard has been melted. Never let them stand day after day on the stove, and never throw cold water on them, as it makes them very rough.
If the starch clings to the irons, put a little Bristol-brick on a board, and rub them up and down till free. If they are too hot for use, put in a current of air a few moments; and in all cases try them on a piece of paper or cloth before putting them on a garment. If through carelessness or accident an article is scorched, lay it in the hottest sunshine to be found. If the fiber is not burned, this will often take the spot entirely out."

(a filbert is a small hard-shelled nut by the way) 


 If we encounter starch at all nowadays, it is likely to be the foul smelling, aerosol spray starch that makes the ironing board and the floor like a skating rink, and leaves nasty little bits over the item we are starching! It is not necessary to buy this expensive and inefficient product

But using starch on cotton pillowcases, nightdresses, blouses, shirts and nice handkerchiefs, can transform them in an instant. There is nothing so pleasant to lay your head on at night, than a beautifully starched pillowcase. Shirts and blouses look fresh and of better quality when they are lightly starched, and a Victorian style nightie doesn't look or feel authentic without it.


1896 Underskirt with 1891 Corset Cover
1896 Underskirt with 1891 Corset Cover (flickr)

Here is a quick recipe for making your own spray starch

All you need are:




Dissolve about a teaspoonful or two of cornflour/cornstarch into the water and pour into your bottle. Give it a shake just before using. Add more cornflour if you find that you need more 'crisp-ness'

You don't have to own lots of nice cottons and linens. It is a pleasure to look after the ones that you have. This is an embroidered pillow slip which is in regular use

This Victorian Style, Rosebud nightdress is my favourite

Starching and pressing the trim neatly

You can see here, that often, you cannot press things such as nighties and pillowslips flat, because there is 'ease' incorporated into the design. When you are ironing them, pull out the ease. You will find that there will be less creases ironed in. 

Only make as much starch as you need for the day. It does not keep very well, and it is best to make a fresh batch as required. Rinse out your bottle when you have finished, so that you do not have any sediment building up inside it.

It is tempting for the home-maker to be too much of a perfectionist when ironing or pressing items. I know this because it was my problem at one time. Please do not make this mistake. Enjoy looking after your pretty linens and keeping shirts and handkerchiefs looking smart and cared for. Perfectionism leads to unnecessary stress and can make you feel like a martyr, who is no fun to be around in the family.

Happy Starching, Ladies


  1. What a good idea. I love freshly starched pillowcases, but the spray stuff just isnt the same. As a teenager we used to starch petticoats with sugar and water!

    1. I have heard of people using sugar and water below. I wonder if children licked their petticoats for the sugar!

  2. Hi sweet Lesley :) I hope you are doing well.

    I LOVED this post! I was quite fascinated as I read what you had to say. I don't like using store-bought starch for the reasons you mentioned. I had never thought about making my own.
    I will definitely have to try your recipe. Thank you so much for sharing!

    Hugs to you,

  3. Thank you Elizabeth and Stephanie for your kind comments x

    Big hugs to you both : )

  4. Thanks for the formula for spray starch. You certainly did a lot of work on this post. I did not realize it involved so much. I noticed that in the antique stores where the old doilies are sold, that they have starch in them, but when washed, they become limp. I will try this method and see if I can restore their stiffness Thanks again for all the work you did on this post.

    1. Thank you LadyLydia.

      I starch doilies regularly. It has a good effect and can also keep them cleaner longer. Linen ones starch beautifully.

  5. Here in America and Canada the box will say Corn Starch. It is used as a thickener in sauces.

  6. How lovely, I must try it! Thanks! xx

  7. Thanks so much for sharing your knowledge of starch. I didn't realize the history behind it! You've taught me something! Have a wonderful weekend! Kelly xoxo

  8. Thanks for the recipe! I will definitely give it a try. I steam iron shirts because I don't like the spray starch, but they still don't come out as nice as when starched.

  9. Thank you for sharing this. My sister and I learned to iron on handkerchiefs and pillowcases. I love the look and feel of starched fabrics. I'm anxious to try your recipe. I've used the spray starch,but like to do things without chemicals when I can. :) Thank you again!

  10. Great and informative post! Wow, women worked much harder years ago.
    I like making my own starch too! But I don't do it very often. I only use it once in a while.
    Your rose bud nightie is very pretty! It is nice to have crisp pillowcases, linens and nighties, one of those special little things you do for yourself. I also love hanging clothes to dry out doors in the fresh air. Smells so good : )

  11. I will have to try the homemade starch for my vintage doilies and linens. I have the iron that my great-great grandmother used to iron her children's clothes in the 1870's and 80's; it sits by our front door as a doorstop, as it did in my grandmother's house. It always reminds me to be grateful for my electric iron!

  12. I am reading and enjoying every one of your comments. I love to hear all your stories and experiences too. Thank you so much ladies for taking the trouble to write


  13. Thank you so much for this recipe! I don't iron much, but think I would like to try it for some things, especially pillowcases and doilies.:)

  14. Hi Dear Friend,
    Your rosebud night gown was just so pretty! Thanks for the great homemade recipe for starch. I do like it when my clothes are ironed, and I do use store bought starch,I will try this.
    Hope you are having a wonderful week-end. I wish we were getting some of that moisture they are getting back East.
    Love it when you stop by :)
    Blessings, Roxy

  15. So pretty! I love beautifully ironed items. I will definitely try your homemade starch recipe. I have fond memories of the mothers of my friends ironing bed linens.


  16. Thank you for this recipe. I am rather new to your blog. I came through Homeliving. I have looked in your archives and love your instructions on homemaking and being a lady. Thank you for taking your time to write to us. I too love being home. Sarah

  17. Brilliant blog on starch, thank you so much. Here in Perth, Western Australia, the intense heat (it's going to be 41 today! Yuk!) actually has a similar effect, but then the ironing reverses it for many garments. So as I've just grabbed a handful of newly line-dried shirts from the line, I'm going to try your starch. Will let you know how it works.

    Thanks for your blog, it's very interesting. Being English, I love hearing from Blighty, especially the Cheddar Gorge pictures!! Keep up the good blogging!