Wednesday, 19 May 2021

Starching and shaping detachable ruffs


The origin of the ruff as it developed from a frill at the edge of neckwear to a deep starched figure of eight ruff-band are described in my blog post of 31 March. Those ruffs were all attached to a smock or partlet but from the 1570s onwards there was a trend for ruffs to become detachable. This made them easier to launder and starch and starching houses grew up where ruffs could be sent to be washed, starched and set. Setting, to give the ruff its figure of eight appearance, was carried out using long cylindrical ‘putting sticks’ or a ‘setting stick’ which was a forked device like a goffering iron.

This engraving of the processes involved in caring for detached ruffs shows the details of the process but also satirises the fashion as all the participants are monkeys, apeing this bizarre new fashion. The image reveals that the ruff was washed then covered in starch and dried. After that it was lightly dampened before ironing and setting. The monkey in the picture is setting the ruff over a form which can be rotated as she works. Her assistant is heating the putting sticks for her before she uses them to make the sets. This was skilled work as the laundress had to make sure the sets were all of an equal size. Starching was also a skilled job especially when coloured starches were used as they were prone to streak. The starch was generally made from grains such as wheat or bran or even from roots and could be coloured white, or pale shades of yellow, red, blue or purple. Yellow in particular was popular and was made using saffron. However all these fine preparations were of little use if the wearer went out in the rain resulting in the beautifully starched and shaped linen collapsing in a limp mess.

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