aubreyweirdsley (aubreyweirdsley) wrote in refinement,

The Art & Science of Stiff Starching

Those dandies who wear formal shirts with detachable collars may have discovered that when you bring your detachable collars to your local Chinaman, he is NOT able to achieve the extremely starched results available to the dandies of 100 years ago.

Fear not, as there is still one launderer left in the modern world who has all the arcane equipment and craftsmanship needed to truly starch the hell out of a collar and shirt. This launderer is:

The Barker Group
29 Latimer Road

In the United States, the one remaining option is:
The French Hand Laundry
606 South Lake St.
Pasadena, CA 91106

(Not quite as good as Barker, but the best in the USA.)

Those dandies, or companions of dandies, who wish to experiment with 'do it yourself' shirt and collar starching, may find some guidance in these postings from the Yahoo StiffCollar group:


---"Michael Ryan" <mjryanjd@e...> wrote:
I am 54, a lawyer by trade and live in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA. I recently went looking for a wing collar formal shirt to wear with a double-breasted tuxedo. I think that shirts with attached wing collars are flaccid pretenders compared with the detachable collar type. So I purchased a tunic shirt and detachable Low Hamilton wing collar made by the late, lamented Frederick Theak Ltd.

I realized that the proper laundering and starching of this type of collar is not commercially available and that I would have to see to it myself. So I cut the collars off of a few cotton shirts no longer of use, bought a box of starch and began to experiment, as so many in this group have done. I began mixing granulated starch with tap water, applying it to the collar and ironing it. It didn't really seem to do anything. The starch didn't dissolve-- it just formed a slurry, and when the water evaporated I wound up with the same starch granules I had when I began. This took me to the Internet to do some research on how starch works. I'm sharing it for what it's worth. I apologize for being redundant and/or pedantic.

I submit that the key is to boil the starch. According to Dr. William Cook's Physiomedical Dispensary (1869), this is because
starch "consists of a mass of small granules, each with a membranous covering. It is not soluble in cold water, alcohol, ether, or the oils. Boiling water breaks down the membranous envelope, and then it is so effectually suspended in water as to appear as if it were dissolved."

Expressed another way, "Before starch can be used in a laundry it has to be released from its granules. This is done by cooking
it . . . Cooked starches penetrate natural fibers more effectively than uncooked starches, and also cling better to the outer
surfaces." See

There are many recipes for boiled starch on the Internet, but for a simple experiment, just take one level tablespoon of powdered laundry or corn starch, mix it with two tablespoons of cold water and then quickly add a ten tablespoon quantity of boiling water. Hopefully, you will get a viscous substance that looks like-- well, you decide what it looks like. You can thicken it further by heating it, or thin it by adding water. You can also buy liquid starch, which is
boiled starch but a bit less bother.

Boiled starch is a polymer-- a natural plastic. See "Starch:
Stabilizer Solutions," .
Permeating cotton fibers with boiled starch creates a composite material-- similar to fiberglass or bricks made of mud and straw-- with more strength than its individual constituents. See "Putting it
together - The Science and Technology of Composite Materials,"

For a wing collar, using boiled starch-- I find bottled starch to be the right consistency-- is a messy task but tactilely gratifying. I place the collar on a non-stick cookie sheet next to the sink; pour starch on the collar; using my fingertips, firmly massage the starch into both sides of the collar until thoroughly permeated; wipe off
all of the excess starch with paper towels; rinse off the cookie sheet; place the collar back on the cookie sheet and press it smooth with moistened fingers or a roller (whether to press from the inside
or outside of the collar requires experimentation); wipe off excess starch again; shape the collar by wrapping it around a one gallon bleach bottle and tie it in place with a string or pipe cleaner
through the collar button holes; let the collar dry completely; with
a finger, moisten the fold lines and fold back the wings; iron the
collar if and as needed.

I haven't experimented with a fold-over collar because I don't have one, although it obviously would be a greatly more difficult task. However, I have used boiled starch on the attached collars of dress shirts, with good results. The nice thing about boiled starch is that you can put it where you want it, and you can use different
viscosities on different parts of the collar. So I urge you to experiment with boiled starch, trying varied viscosities, in that
quest for the perfectly-starched collar.

I also have not experimented with polishing collars, but want to comment on the members' efforts, with mixed success, to do so. There are at least three reasons why it is difficult to emulate Victorian results:

1. They added something to their starch: candle wax (see ); spermaceti-- fat from the heads of sperm whales, no doubt easily acquired from your local whalemonger; sugar with butter, tallow or lard; and kerosene
(see "Starching & Ironing," ).
2. They used specialized polishing irons (see ); see
also "Chinese Polishing Techniques," ).
They may also have used shaping blocks.

3. They knew what they were doing. Polishing was a skilled craft,
and a head polisher (typically male) was much better paid than most
other laundry workers. (See "Laundering a Century Ago," ).

I fear that the technique for polishing shirt collars, cuffs and
bosoms is probably a dead art in the US, but it may have some breath
left in the England-- the Internet lists several Victorian laundry museums and detachable collars are still manufactured and apparently laundered there. So hopefully someone in England (recognizing that nothing is impossible for the one who doesn't have to do it) can poke around and get some answers before they can no longer be gotten at

If you have gotten this far, congratulations. I apologize for having exhausted both the topic and the reader.


--- TheMagnificentGinzo <jzepp423@...> wrote:
For those of you wondering whether antique stiff collars can be brought back to life, I'm happy to report that the answer is a definite "yes!"

I bought four 1930s vintage Arrow Hempstead collars on ebay (the elusive size 15 3/4, so I snapped 'em up), and they were about as yellowed as you'd expect. This is a really good collar style, so I was determined to make it work. This is what I did:
1. Soaked the collars overnight in clean water to get the old starch out;
2. Soaked the collars in Whink Yellow Out overnight. This is foul-smelling stuff (sodium hydrosulfite) and it can cause serious sking irritation. Be careful with it.
3. Laundered the collars in ordinary detergent.
4. Soaked them in Whink again;
5. Laundered them again, this time with a small amount of bleach.
6. Let them dry in full sunlight. (Sunlight does wonders to re-whiten cotton.)
7. Shaped them.
And finally--sent them off to Barker Collar Laundry in Bournemouth. Barker's won me over instantly. Matthew Barker attended to my order (one dozen collars) personally, they accepted an overseas CC payment, and had the collars returned to me, carefull wrapped for shipping, in about four weeks. The results were gorgeous. I wore one of the Hepstead collars today. Not only did it look William Powell perfect, it was more comfortable even than most soft collars, and it held the necktie knot exactly where it belonged all day. So if you spot good antique collars, grab 'em, clean 'em, send 'em to Barker and wear 'em. Just remember to put a strip of adhesive tape inside to keep 'em clean for several wearings.


From: tjholt2
Subject: glossing iron - data 2

Regarding polishing irons and collar laundering, I've been able to obtain the following information.

First, another member of this discussion group gave me the suggestion to explore nunneries or a congregation that may launder clergy apparel. I had previously disregarded naval launderers in my country after discovering that they don't use stiff collars (even though their uniforms abide by a long British tradition).

The clergy option also failed. The Paulist congregation that are their main suppliers all through Latin America (Hermanas Pías Discípulas del Divino Maestro ) carry only plastic collars and don't market nor care for a more traditional wardrobe. My conversation with the nun in charge was almost surrealistic. She seemed more money oriented than a bank clerk. A blunt stern Spanish nun : "No market, no stiff collars".

Other alternatives, like Chinese launderers are not available in countries were there isn't a large oriental immigration. Old laundermats have been replaced by laundry chains without the skills or equipment to manage detachable collars.

But I think I've discovered two good options for convex polishing irons.

One is J. Hewit & Sons, tanners stationed in Edinburgh ( They carry both a small (£ 32) and large (£ 50.63) polishing iron that follow the same design as other polishing irons regularly used at the end of the 19 century - curiously, most of them patented by them themselves. Both models may – today – be used for bookbinding and on vegetable leather, but have the same size, weight and shape customary for collar polishing. Their large convex iron is a 5 x 4 in. The small one is 4 x 3 in. Both are directly heated on a stove and their manufacturers guarantee a durable heat. If interested, please refer to their Tool Department at their shop (+44 (0) 131 449 2206).

Option 2 is, a network dedicated to iron collectors and the best place to find vintage irons on the web. Here, you'll find a variety of collectors, bibliography, auctions, search databases and –last but not least – a large display of pressing irons and trivets from sad irons, flat, box, charcoal, fuel, detachable and non detachable – to fluters, sleeve, polishers, hat irons, etc….). Regarding polishers, the variety is large, but try their search engine to track available pieces.

An auction piece can be obtained for no more than £ 40. The most expensive ones are the combination irons with pivotal handles, which in good condition, can reach up to £ 500. But there are a large array of polishers that can be tracked for more reasonable prices. Models vary in shape and sizes (according to Dutch, Danish, French, Belgium or British prototypes) and are either heated directly on a stove or carry a pre-heated slug inserted into the iron.

Vintage irons can also be restored and a chapter on the subject can be found at the website.

I've just acquired yesterday an 1870 English polisher from a German
collector in Frankfurt for US$ 75 plus shipping and handling, which
I hope to receive next week (probably even before I receive my
collars from Budd).

If anyone is interested in bibliography, I've been suggested "The
Polishing Iron" by Julia C. Morgan, from Somerset (19 Churchill
Road, Frome BA11 4ED, Somerset, United Kingdom. Phone: 01373-46-49-
11/ noridas@... ), who has a number of publications on the subject.

If anyone has any more information or has already tested some of these options, I'd appreciate their feedback.




Wash collars in normal way and leave damp. Mix 2 tablespoons of starch powder with a pint of COLD
water.Stir and leave for a few mins. Put damp collars in one at a time and knead the starch mixture into the
collar. Squeeze out lightly and put to dry- top of radiator or similiar. The collars MUST dry completely. Now roll the collars into a fairly damp towel and allow to dampen all the way through. On a well padded surface put the collar face down having sprayed with 'Easiron' or similiar. Press firmly with a hot iron until almost dry. Turn it over and repeat being careful not to scorch.
The collar can now be folded into shape, held with a peg and put somewhere warm to harden off. If you want a polished surface this can be acheived by wiping over the surface of the collar with a damp cloth lightly rubbed onto a bar of soap and the collar polished with the tip of a hot iron before folding into shape. Practice makes perfect but some failures are inevitable.


I have also experimented with bringing antique collars back to life and am also happy to say that I have had good results. Here is the method that I have used:

1. In a good-sized pot, bring to a boil a mixture of a couple cups of water, a small amount (maybe a tbsp) of liquid laundry detergent and a scoop of OxyClean. For the laundry detergent I prefer All Free and Clear because it has no dyes.

2. After the pot comes to a boil (watch it because it can easily boil over, creating a sudsy mess), TURN OFF
THE HEAT and then add your collars (not too many at a time). Use a wooden spoon and just give it a good stir every now and then.

3. Let sit maybe 30 minutes, agitating with the spoon every now and then.

4. Remove from the pot and rinse. If they're not white enough, you can soak them longer.

5. For the final step, I put the collars in the rinse cycle of the washer set at the smallest load possible with about 8-10 drops of Mrs. Stewart's bluing (available at Let the washer fill with water before adding the bluing. The water should be a sky blue color.

6. Hang to dry.

7. If you're going to try to starch the collar yourself, add the starch while the collar is still wet, then hang to dry.

Anyway, give this method a try, you may find it to be a little less stressful. Alas, my home starching has resulted in less than perfect results so I may also have to resort to Mr. Barker's skill.


  • Post a new comment


    Anonymous comments are disabled in this journal

    default userpic