Last week I was starching and pressing a dinner shirt that had a bib made up of tiny little pintucks running down the front and just as I was thinking that this must be the worst possible item to press an Elizabethan ruff popped into my mind.
The quality of the ruff was a sign of status, worn by both the nobility and lower classes. The rich would have a ruff made of lawne or cambric, and decorated with fine lace, gold, silver or silk. The first ruffs were about 3 inches wide and 2 inches deep but a later single ruff could be 12 inches or more in width and made up of five yards of material.
As the ruff became bigger and more ornate a metal wire frame was used to hold it in place. Vast amounts of starch, were needed to help retain its shape and keep it upright. If it rained ruffs literally collapsed, becoming a soggy mess.
When ruffs first became fashionable the use of starch was not in wide use in England, Flanders was one of the earliest centres for starch manufacturing. Clear-starching allowed delicate fabrics from being clogged with starch granules in the loose weave, thereby avoiding thickening caused by visible traces of starch clinging to the threads. The technique was popularized in England by Madame Dinghen van der Plasse who came with her husband to London from Flanders “for their better safeties,” escaping from the bonfires of the Duke of Alva. Puritans called the liquid starch used for stiffening the ruffs as the ‘devil’s liquor’
Starch was obtained from bran, flour and sometimes from roots of plants. The laundresses’ hands were irritated by the poisonous roots of the starch plant they used, the wild arum lily.
The ruffs were originally shaped with unheated setting sticks that fixed pleats in damp, heavily-starched ruffs while they dried – a bit like setting hair. Poking sticks, also known as poting and putting sticks, came into use around 1570. They were like an ordinary fireplace poker.
As ruffs, cuffs, collars and ruffles came in and out of vogue through the centuries different tools were designed for shaping and pressing them.
The goffering iron, also called an Italian or tally iron was a hollow tube set horizontally on a stand. The tube was heated by inserting a metal poker-like rod, fresh from stove or hearth. Then frilled cuffs and collars could be curled round the cylinder, and other trimmings, like ribbons, were moved across it. Some Victorians took pride in a display of expertly-ironed ruffles, and the well-dressed baby often had a bonnet trimmed with “Italian-ironed double frills”, as mentioned by Charlotte Brontë in 1849.
For rows of frilled trimming, crimping or goffering tongs could be used. These were applied to starched lace edging or ruffles, once they were arranged ready in a suitable position. In 1863 Isabella Beeton, the Victorian “household management” expert, advised that the tongs should be “placed in a clear fire for a minute, then withdrawn, wiped with a coarse rubber cloth, and the heat of them tried on a piece of paper.”
By the mid-19th century crimping machines, fluted rollers turned by a handle, were in use. Also called fluting irons, or fluters, many slightly different models were designed for creating rows of narrow, neat and even frilling.
19th century inventors thought of more and more ways of tackling specialist ironing tasks. and a combined fluting and sad-iron was patented in the USA in 1870. As well as the two ridged rollers way of making frills, fluting could be done between hinged sections, which would swing shut to create a general-purpose iron for pressing the flatter parts of garments.
Irons had to be kept immaculately clean and polished, and regularly greased to avoid rusting. The temperature had to be constantly checked otherwise the fabric could be scorched.
The task of crimping or goffering Victorian clothes was made easier by the fact that collars, cuffs and ruffles were detachable. I say “easier” but the thought of having to do so without an automatic washing machine, tumble dryer and a modern steam iron is enough to bring on a fit of “Victorian Vapours”.
Incidentally, a quilter’s applique iron is a very useful tool for pressing pin tucks.
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