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The super-full 1916 petticoat: or, the wonder & magic of starch

A super-full 1916 petticoat thedreamstress.com, 1910s petticoat, starched petticoat

Remember my cheater 1916 petticoat?

A petticoat for a 1916 evening dress thedreamstress.com

I’m sure a lot of you looked at it and thought: “It’s so limp!”   And “There is no way that is going to support a skirt as big as her inspiration image!”

1916, 1910s, 1916 petticoat

Harpers Bazaar 1916

Behold the wonders of starch:

A super-full 1916 petticoat thedreamstress.com, 1910s petticoat, starched petticoat

The photograph above was taken after I starched my 1916 petticoat, let it sit around the house for a week in the Wellington damp, handled it a lot threading the ribbon through, shoved it in a suitcase, took it to LA, wore it, let it live in the hot humidity there* for 10 days, shoved it in a suitcase again, let it sit in damp, cold, humid Wellington for another 10 days, and then pressed and photographed it.**

A super-full 1916 petticoat thedreamstress.com, 1910s petticoat, starched petticoat

Plus, at some point in this process Felicity managed to conscript it as a bed for a luxurious nap…

And it’s still poofy!

A reminder of how poofy my 1916 ‘Gather Ye Rosebuds’ dress was on the night:

Gather Ye Rosebuds CoCo 2017 Gala Gown thedreamstress.com

So much poof!

So how did I do it?

Lots & lots of starch!

A super-full 1916 petticoat thedreamstress.com, 1910s petticoat, starched petticoat

How to starch a petticoat:

You will need:

  • 1/4 cup cornstarch (per large petticoat)
  • 1/2 cup + 4 cups of water (per large petticoat) (This is for a very stiff starch.  Use 8 cups of water for a moderate starch – blouses and overskirts.  Use 16 for a very light starch – as with chemises and everyday summer clothes)
  • A large pot
  • Heavy duty rubber gloves to protect your hands
  • Tongs/stirrers
  • Somewhere to dry your dripping, messy, starched petticoat – preferably somewhere you can hang it out in a circle, so it doesn’t stick to itself as it dries, and so you begin forming fullness as it dries.
  • An iron, ironing board, muslin/calico to cover the board or a sacrificial ironing board cover, a pressing cloth.

Prep:

Pre-wash your items to be starched (or just run the shower over them if you’re in a real hurry).  Fully washing is preferable, as it thoroughly wets the fabric, and cleans out any dirt or soiling so they aren’t sealed into the fabric with the starching.

Cooking the starch:

Mix your cornstarch with 1/2 cup of water in your pot.  Once it’s thoroughly mixed, add the remaining 4 cups of water.

Bring the starch mix to a boil, stirring constantly (starching is an excellent arm workout).  Once it comes to a boil, let it boil for 1-1.5 minutes.  It will turn slightly translucent, and is thick and goopy, like runny glue, rather than totally liquid.

Turn off and remove from heat.

Starching:

I wear thick rubber gloves for the next few steps, to protect my hands from the hot starch.

Take the pot somewhere where it won’t make a mess if you drip starch goop everywhere.  This is where I love that my kitchen exits right on to the cement patio, which is equally handy to our washing line.  I carry my pot out to the patio, and starch there.  Then it doesn’t matter if I drip starch all across the lawn to the line.

If you have to do this indoors in a sink/bath/shower, it’s best to plug the sink/bath/shower so that you can run a bunch of water to dilute any dripped starch when you’re done.  Thick undiluted starch can dry and clog drains, which really isn’t the best for your plumbing.

Once you are set up, dunk your damp petticoats in the starch. Stir them round using a stirrer, tongs until they are fully impregnated with starch.

Fish out the petticoat.  Use your (gloved!) hands to wring and squish out the excess starch, so you just have a nice, thin layer of starch evenly coating the fabric.

Drying:

Hang or spread your fully starched petticoats out to dry, trying to hang/spread them in as wide and circular a shape as possible.

When it’s sunny and warm outside I use my clothesline, clipping each side of the skirt to the furthest-apart parallel lines, to hold it in a wide, circular-ish shape.

A super-full 1916 petticoat thedreamstress.com, 1910s petticoat, starched petticoat

It was rainy and cold when I starched the 1916 petticoat, so I dried it indoors, over my plastic-tubing hoopskirt, with rags beneath it to protect the floor, and a dehumidifier under it to dry it as efficiently as possible.

A super-full 1916 petticoat thedreamstress.com, 1910s petticoat, starched petticoat

The result:

 

A super-full 1916 petticoat thedreamstress.com, 1910s petticoat, starched petticoat

A petticoat that stands up by itself!

A super-full 1916 petticoat thedreamstress.com, 1910s petticoat, starched petticoat

Felicity could not decide if it was the best cat house ever, or a prison…

Ironing:

You have two options with ironing a starched item: before it’s dry, or after.

Ideally you iron starched items while they are still ever so slightly damp, before any creases dry in.  This makes them a lot easier to iron, and the ironing seals in the starch, creating a slightly glazed finish.   Obviously things like petticoats don’t dry evenly, so I try to iron them when the main body is just the tiniest bit damp, even if the gathers at the waist are still very wet.

If I’m travelling with a large starched item, I sometimes let it dry completely, and shove it in my suitcase.  I then iron it when I am ready to wear it – so I don’t have to iron it twice.  This does mean that I have to use a LOT of steam when I iron the totally dried item.  You’ll loose a little bit of the stiffness and fullness of the starching doing it this way, as the steam softens the crispness slightly.  However, as my skirt shows, you can still get a lot of volume.

Whether I’m ironing a starched item damp or dry, I cover my ironing board with a length of calico/muslin, or use a really old ironing board cover, to avoid getting starch on my nice ironing board cover.  I also use a pressing cloth, so I don’t get starch on the iron, and because starched fabric can scorch with a hot iron if you aren’t careful.

A super-full 1916 petticoat thedreamstress.com, 1910s petticoat, starched petticoat

Ribbons & trim:

Starching something with decorative beading ribbon, like my 1916 petticoat, is always a bit of a problem.  You can starch with the ribbon, and get starch on the ribbon, which doesn’t look that nice.  Or you can remove the ribbon, and have to re-thread it after starching.  This is what I chose to do, and it is a pain.  The starch glues the layers of fabric together, and you have to pries them apart as you thread the ribbon through.

I did a lot of muttering threading my beading ribbon.  Luckily I only had to do 1/4 of it by myself.  For another quarter I got some help from a very charming 18 month old.  I poked my bodkin through, she grabbed hold of it, pulled the ribbon through, and handed the bodkin back to me, saying “Again!”

This may be the only time I’ve ever wanted a toddler to day “Again” 30 times in a row!

For the final half of the beading, my wonderful mother in law took over, threaded it all through, twisted it all straight, and tied perfect bows in it.

A super-full 1916 petticoat thedreamstress.com, 1910s petticoat, starched petticoat

I’m showing my petticoat with the amazing embroidered Rilla corset that Madame O made, but it also matches my peach bows Rilla corset perfectly:

A super-full 1916 petticoat thedreamstress.com, 1910s petticoat, starched petticoat

For more information on starching historical garments, Retrospect and Historical Sewing have both done excellent write-ups on it.

*Yes, LA can be humid!

** And then washed the poor thing!

 

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20 Comments

  1. Susan says

    What a wonderful post, thank you! I’ve only heard of starching with starch from the grocery store and never realized you could use cornstarch! I starch doilies that my Polish grandmother crocheted and the wonders of a steam iron and lots of spray starch are delightful to see.

    Seeing Felicity in her cat house/prison made me laugh this morning, thank you!!

    • Thank you! I’m glad it was helpful! I have a can of spray starch for really small jobs & emergencies, but for anything bigger than a bit of bias tape I break out the dip starching, because it’s so much more effective, and cheaper!

      Felicity makes me laugh every day. I’m delighted I can share the love!

  2. Love this post – I’m sure it’s going to be super helpful to a lot of people.

    I had NO idea that starch for clothing is corn starch! Question – what did they use in Europe before the New World trade routes? Or was it not a thing?

    • Yay! Awesome! Lots of things have a starch content: starch from potatoes, corn, rice and wheat are the most common. Wheat (and to a lesser extent, rice) was the main starch up until very recently, which doubled the status-symbol-y ness of starched clothes. Not only did you have the time (your own, or a servants) to launder, starch, and iron them, but you had the money to waste a food item on clothing. There were times during the Renaissance/Elizabethan era, when heavily starched ruffs were fashionable, where the government officially tried to discourage them because there was a wheat shortage & famine.

      I believe potato starch is better for the longevity of your textiles than corn, but much more expensive and harder to get. Super-authentic pre-1800s reenactors use wheat & rice starch. I just use corn starch because it’s so cheap and readily available! It will yellow over time, unlike the rice and wheat starch, so you have to be careful to wash it out.

  3. Jessie says

    Gorgeous! I remember costume shop starching umpteen numbers of men’s shirt collars for Christmas Carol runs and reruns as my first iron wench job.

    Question? Could you use a placeholder drawstring instead of the ribbon and get starch on that but use it to pull the ribbon through as you pull the drawstring out? Save some tediousness for those of us without toddlers?

  4. This is very helpful, I’ve thought of trying starching sometime, but didn’t know where to start! I’ve never seen a recipe for really stiff starch before.

    BTW, I’ve noticed that recipes for potato starch tend to contain salt as well, do you have any idea of why?

    • Excellent! Glad it is helpful! You make your starch even stiffer than this, with 1/4 as much water, for ruffs.

      No idea why potato starch recipes have salt. I’ll have to look into that.

  5. Becca G says

    What a beautiful petticoat. I can remember my meme starching a petticoat for one of my dresses (that she made) when I was very very young. It took a long time & was hung in the basement with some other unmentionables. Thank you for the memories, showing your beautiful work & useful information

  6. Bonnie says

    An older friend said back in the 1950s girls threw their wet starched petticoats over the trimmed rounded bushes in the front yard to dry!

  7. Wendi says

    Memories – I recall starching my Hungarian folk petticoats(you wear all three of them at the same time) and hanging them off the trees to dry. I’ve pulled out my box of “Argo Gloss Laundry Starch” – no ingredients listed but it does offer this gem: “To soothe sunburned skin, prepare a soothing bath by adding 1 cup starch to a tub of warm water. Be careful getting in and out of the tub.”

  8. Debrah says

    Great article! I’ve yet to complete my first petticoat. I’d like to give startching a try. Asian grocery stores carry many types of starch, I’m going to look there.

  9. Pamela says

    This is fantastic! Thank you so much!!

    Question: Where did you source your decorative beading ribbon?? All the cluny lace and beading ribbon I can find has its ribbon sewn in permanently, and it’s driving me nuts!!

    • You’re welcome! Glad I could help! I’m afraid I won’t be much help re: the beading. I find all of mine as vintage pieces at op shops and fabric fairs. I’m sure I have seen regular beading lace at shops, but I couldn’t tell you which ones. Ebay and Etsy are probably good places to look (much as I prefer shopping locally!).

  10. Petticat. 😉

    The fullness to be achieved by starch is pretty amazing; I have, of course, seen it before with folk costume petticoats, although, to be honest, I’ve never seen the transformation itself. And I’m intrigued by the different starching properties of different starches…

  11. LA was VERY humid for this land-locked prairie girl! (All the east coasters were so nice in agreeing that it was hot/humid… for me. lol) Not quite as bad as San Antonio, Texas in August, but close.

    Thanks for this post! I’ve been meaning to get my corded petticoat starched, and lucky me I have an ancient jar of wheat starch in my cupboard. I need to save some of it to make hair powder, but I’m sure I can spare enough for the petticoat 🙂

  12. What a beautiful petticoat! The starch really makes it stand out – pun intended 😉

    Also, that was one of my absolute favorite outfits from CoCo this year. Divine!

    • Awww, thank you! I’m so chuffed people liked it so much, especially when it’s one of those cases when I struggle to see anything but the flaws.

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