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Starch: Of Collars and Queens
A staple of a dry cleaner's toolbox, starch has been keeping collars crisp for centuries. Check out our guide to this surprisingly simple stiffening agent.
Derived from a carbohydrate such as corn flour, potato, rice, or wheat, starch is composed of granules with the unique ability to stiffen fabric. In the early 20th century, people would often boil starch in water to create a rude paste, though today aerosol cans and solvents make the process much simpler. It works like this: when applied to fabric, the smaller granules—soft and swollen from the water—penetrate the fibers and remain there as the moisture evaporates, stiffening the garment. Meanwhile, the larger granules coat the exterior of the fabric, which results in a smooth, attractive texture that becomes glossy when ironed. The third benefit of starch is, ideally, invisible—the layer of starch protects the fabric from dust, dirt, and other stains, making it much easier to clean off a smudge of soot or lipstick from a dog's wet kiss.
Though now a common practice in dry cleaners and households everywhere, starching fabrics was once a privilege of the royal elite. In the mid-1500s, the method made its way from Holland to Elizabethan England, where the ruff was all the rage. Sadly, the collar—meant to dazzle with its voluminous frills—tended to droop like a turkey's wattle, and the palace might have mistakenly attempted to roast the queen if starching hadn't solved the problem. In fact, Queen Elizabeth took her stiff-collared look so seriously that she is said to have appointed a special court official to oversee the process.