February 16, 2013

How to Starch Petticoats

During this time of year my thoughts inevitably turn to starching. I began starching my Civil War petticoats for living history events about two years ago and put up a mini-tutorial on my old blog, which is now gone. Since then I've perfected my 'starching method'.  Hopefully this newly revamped tutorial will benefit from my greater experience. ;) Starching is a fun and useful activity, so let's dive right in!

What You Will Need:
*1/2 c. of cornstarch
*1 c. cold water
*2-6 quarts of water (depending on starch strength)
*a large pot
*rubber gloves (optional)
*petticoats or items to be starched
*large round garbage cans, lawn chairs, or some hangers
*iron & ironing board

1. Soak your petticoats. I like to put them on the quick wash cycle on my washer--that way they're not only wet but clean before I starch them (so I'm not sealing in dirt or stains!). Petticoats can also be dunked in the bathtub or shower and wrung out.

2. While the petticoats are washing, mix up your starching solution. Pour your 1/2 c. of cornstarch into the pot and mix it with one cup of cold water. Now you need to decide how heavy you want your starch solution to be.

Heavy--recommended for petticoats
Medium--recommended for articles of linen
Light--recommended for other unmentionables and collars

Heavy starch should look like milk once the quarts have been added.
3. Once you've decided how heavy it should be, you'll need to add more water. Pour in two quarts (eight cups) of water for heavy starch; four quarts for medium starch; or six quarts for light starch.

after boiling
4. Bring the starch solution to a boil over medium heat, stirring constantly. (This may take awhile!) Let it boil for one minute. Your starch should have now turned slightly goopy and look more translucent/less white in color. Remove from heat.

Petticoats in a pot!
5. It probably needs a few minutes to cool before you can bear to put your hands in it, so this is a good time to set up your "starching station". Pick a place where you won't mind getting it on the floor. On warm days I like to starch outside. During cooler weather I retreat to the walk-in shower. If your pot isn't big enough to submerge a petticoat you will need to get a large container. You will also need someplace to hang up your petticoats or something to drape them over. I've heard of some ladies putting their petticoats 'round a large garbage can to dry in a circular form! In warm weather I stick mine on the backs of the lawn chairs; during the winter I just put them on hangers and hang them on the shower rod. However, they take longer to dry that way and don't get as nice of a shape; you also need to be careful that starch drippings don't go down the drain.

6. Time to dunk! Be careful, your starch may still be hot. Put your items in one at a time and swish them around until they are completely submerged. When you lift them out they will be covered with a goopy solution. You can either leave this on (for stiffer petticoats that take longer to dry) or skim it off with your fingers (you might want to wear the rubber gloves for this--starch can dry out your hands). I like to skim most of it off, leaving a nice thin layer of starchy goop on.

7. Once each item is starched, hang it up using your method of choice. You can now dispose of the starch solution (remember, don't pour it down the drain!) and clean up the mess. Keep checking on the petticoats to see if they're damp yet.

A bevy of beauties!
8. Once the hems/middles of your petticoats are damp, it's time to iron! (Waistbands frought with gathers will probably still be wet but that's okay.) Your petticoats should be damp enough to emit steam when you run the iron over them. Ironing will take all of the wringing-wrinkles out, dry the petticoats, and create a 'glaze' over the fabric (similar to Scotch guard) to protect it from dirt.

You can see the difference pressing makes here--pressed on the right, unpressed on the left.
9. You now have freshly starched petticoats! You may find that your petticoats are able to stand up on their own; they will probably be a little 'crunchy' and give off a lovely rustling sound as you walk. :) Enjoy your fuller skirts--I can wear three starched petticoats and get away without a crinoline! Young girls with shorter skirts may find that they actually get a fuller, rounder shape with several stiffly starched petticoats as opposed to a cage crinoline.

After several washings/wearings you will notice that the starch will start to wear off...which means it's time to starch again! :) You can read more about starching (including different recipes, such as one using potato starch) at the Sewing Academy.


  1. Not sure why, but the picture of the pettis draped over the lawn chairs made me laugh out loud! :D

  2. It made me laugh too :P They look a bit like a granny convention. Any moment they're going to take out their needles & start knitting :P

  3. Thank you Miss Virginia for posting about starching!! I am going to try and starch my pettis tomorrow. :) May I copy your recipe and post it on my blog, once I have starched my petticoats?


  4. Thank you so much for sharing this! I've been wondering for so long how starching happened without cans of spray! Okay, that sounds ignorant... :)

  5. Not at all! I'm glad it was of help. :)