See how I made homemade laundry starch from a historical recipe for my early Victorian-era corded petticoat.
If you have been around The Cozy Cuttlefish for a while you know that I have a keen interest in history. I even volunteer at a local living history museum. This gives me a chance to work on historical sewing projects so I can look the part of someone living in 1855.
My latest project for my historical wardrobe has been an early Victorian-era style corded petticoat that I recently finished sewing. Before it is ready to wear it needs to be properly starched so it has the strength to hold up the other skirts.
My first plan was to find some modern liquid starch to use but I had some trouble finding any at my local stores. There was plenty of fabric softener though.
Before ordering some, I thought to myself how did people starch their laundry before they could just buy some in a plastic jug? A bit of internet research later and I found Approved Methods for Home Laundering by Mary Beals Vail.
This book was published in 1906. This is about 50 years after the time I am aiming for, but still provided some fascinating insight into the intricacies of laundering and provided a recipe for liquid starch.
Instead of trying to find some modern liquid starch, I made up a batch of homemade laundry starch. I always love an excuse to try some historical experimenting.
Making up the laundry starch
The recipe for thick laundry starch is pretty simple. All you need is starch, water, a little white wax or lard, and some bluing.
The first decision is which type of starch to use. Approved Methods for Home Laundering discusses the use of rice starch, corn starch, wheat starch, and potato starch. While rice, corn, and wheat starch are acceptable choices, potato starch is not recommended.
I happen to have plenty of cornstarch already on hand. According to Approved Methods for Home Laundering, “corn starch is cheap and in general use; its stiffening quality is high.” This sounds like corn starch is a perfect choice for me.
I happen to have a large amount of wax on hand leftover from my candle-making days. The recipe only calls for a quarter teaspoon of white wax, so a few shavings off an old candle would suffice. Just be sure the wax you use is white. You wouldn’t want to accidentally stain your nice white petticoats.
Bluing is a laundry aid not seen as often in modern laundering. It is added to make whites look whiter by reversing yellowing from chemicals or other staining. It can be easily found online in solid and liquid forms. Since this petticoat is brand new, won’t be touching my skin, and will not be showing, I decided against using any bluing, at least for this first starching experiment.
Let’s get cooking!
With all the ingredients assembled, cooking the homemade laundry starch was simple.
In a large pot that I don’t use for food (another remnant of candle making), I mixed ½ cup of corn starch with ¼ teaspoon of wax and ¼ cup of cold water.
Once the starch was fully mixed I added 4 cups of boiling water to the starch solution, stirring constantly over medium-high heat.
According to the Approved Methods for Home Laundering, you need to, “let it boil up several times, to be sure that the wax is melted and mixed and starch cooked.” Following these instructions, I let the mixture boil while being careful to not let the starch scorch. When it had a good boil going I turned off the heat and let it settle a bit before bringing it up to a boil for a second time.
After boiling the starch mixture twice it was quite thick and gloopy so I decided that it looked done.
I took the homemade laundry starch off of the heat to let it cool. Once it was cool enough to handle it was time to add the petticoat.
Starching the corded petticoat
Before starching my corded petticoat I needed to make sure it was perfectly clean. I didn’t want to trap any dirt under the protective layer of starch. When I finished sewing my petticoat I threw it in the washing machine it to remove the water-soluble ink I had used on it. Just before I starching, I got my petticoat damp. This wasn’t a step from the Approved Methods for Home Laundering but it seemed like it would help the starch apply evenly.
After pre-wetting my petticoat I brought it over to the pot of starch goop and got it soaked as best I could. I tried to avoid getting the waistband in the starch but in the end, the whole thing got coated.
I wrung out as much excess starch as I could. This ended up being more of a workout than I had anticipated. Laundry takes muscle!
This also helped work the starch into the fabric. When I had gotten the petticoat covered as evenly as I could and with as much excess starch my little hands could squeeze out I took the petticoat outside to dry.
Don’t clog your pipes
I had a good amount of the laundry starch left over, probably enough starch for two more petticoats. Since I only have one petticoat and none of my modern wardrobe needed starching I needed to get rid of all the excess laundry starch.
I filled the pot of leftover starch with water to dilute it then dumped the excess in my backyard to make sure I didn’t do something terrible to the plumbing by emptying it down the sink.
Remember, a wet petticoat is heavy…
A word of caution, dear reader. When you have this much fabric, plus yards and yards of cotton yarn and then you soak the whole thing in starch it gets heavy.
If you hang this item from an unstable drying rack outside and there is any kind of wind the whole thing will blow over and you will get your pristine petticoat in the dirt.
Not that I would ever make such a mistake, of course. I only want to warn you of things that can happen to other people…
It’s time to get steamy
Once the petticoat is dry, it is time to iron. You will need to use steam while ironing to activate the starch and get the petticoat to smooth out nicely. Even though I have a steam iron I used a spray bottle with water to get even more steam. The combination of a spray bottle full of water and a hot iron worked great.
Be sure to put a protective layer down underneath or you may have starch residue on your ironing board. I used an old towel.
It took a while to get the entire petticoat thoroughly ironed. I found it tricky to get the layers of fabric that sandwich the cording to lay evenly. I didn’t get all of the creases out, but overall I think I did a pretty good job getting the whole petticoat smoothed out.
Another word of warning: try to avoid ironing with this much steam on a 90-degree day. There was a lot of steam and a lot of sweat, which was altogether unpleasant.
A successful historical experiment
This was my first time trying a historical recipe and it was a success. The homemade laundry starch turned out great. It was easy to make and I didn’t have to go buy anything I didn’t already have.
Looking through the rest of the Approved methods for Home Laundering was fascinating. Only 100 years ago people took so much more care of their clothing and other fabrics than most people do today. Taking the time to starch my corded petticoat gives the garment the structure it needs to help support layers of Victorian skirts. It also adds a layer of protection to the fabric to help it last for years of wear.
I can’t wait to try out my freshly starched petticoat the next time I get to do some living history. It will be interesting to see how the starching holds up to wear.
Now all I have to do is figure out where to store it in the meantime…
Want to see more historically inspired adventures? Click here.
Have you ever used a historical household recipe? Tell me about it in the comments below!