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The Fedora Lounge Guide to Stiffly Starched Shirts, Grandma's Way

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Head Bartender
Staff member
Small Town Ohio, USA
Here is one of many threads at The Fedora Lounge bringing you step-by-step instructions to complete a task we may all find interesting. I encourage you to share knowledge of some task at which you may feel competent.

We're going to starch and iron shirts in the Golden Era way. We want to achieve a level of stiffness unobtainable with spray starch. We need to use a solution of starch and water, submerge the shirts, wring them out, then press them after they have dried to an alarming level of crispness.
You can also use this method for lighter starching. The difference is to use cold, rather than boiling water in the mix, and 2 quarts of it rather than one.
The advantage to starching this way is that the shirt is evenly starched all over. Spray starch gets starch just where you spray it. And spraying, on darker colors, can leave stains where the starch is applied (you see this as dried dots where the fabric is a slightly different color). Sprayed starch can also flake off while pressing.
The disadvantages to doing it this way are that it is time consuming, and is quite hard on your shirts. Even with the gentlest treatment, you have to tug, shake and wrench the daylights out of them. If you want your shirts to last a very long time, don't do this.
I don't do this very often. It's just too much work.
I am not a pro - I can only share my own experiences. Many of you are professionals and all of us no doubt have our own way of ironing clothing. Please share what works for you. Military folks will find my methods lacking - but I don't have to pass a tough inspection.
Disclaimer: We will be working with hot water, hot steam, hot surfaces. I take no responsibility if you burn yourself or scorch and ruin a valuable garment. As always, your mileage may vary.

Let's get started.
As with any project, begin by washing your hands. You don't want to get oils from your hands on just-washed shirts.
We need to find some dry starch; it's the same stuff you use for cooking, in larger boxes. Mine is Argo brand, about $3 for a 1 lb box. We need starch powder, water, a vessel for mixing, in this case a kitchen sink, and something to agitate the solution. You can use a scrupulously clean plastic bucket, if you like, or a big enamel wash basin. I would avoid aluminum as it tends to discolor things.


Mix 1/2 Cup starch and 1 Cup cold water.


You need something large enough to soak the shirts in solution. I used my kitchen sink, scrubbed completely clean first. Pour in the solution you just made.


Mix well. Then add 1 qt boiling water and mix carefully.



We're looking for a bit of translucency.


When the starch & water solution has cooled to warm (you can stick your finger in it without burning it), we're ready to add a shirt. Begin with a freshly laundered shirt, with all the buttons undone, collar stays removed.


Holding the shirt by the shoulders, slide the shirt tail end into the starching solution.


Continue until the entire shirt is submerged. Press out air bubbles and make sure the shirt gets thoroughly soaked.


Next: Wringing out the excess solution.


Head Bartender
Staff member
Small Town Ohio, USA

No need for soaking. Just press the shirt around in the solution, then lift it out. Starting at the collar, press downward, squeezing out excess solution as you go. Here's where your own judgment comes into play: If you are starching heavy, sturdy cloth, then you can get away with twistng and squeezing. If you are starching a vintage shirt you cannot replace, go easy. Just squeeze out water as you can.
Set the wrung out shirts aside on a towel.


Starch is glue. Your shirt will feel like it has been dipped into paper mache' and will be stuck to itself. You need to remedy this now.


Pull and tug, and slip your hand into the sleeves, separating the cloth until nothing is stuck together. You can do this now, when it's easy, or later, after it's all dry.



The box directions say that the shirts should be ironed while damp. I find this is a good way to gum up the sole plate of your iron. We'll let them air dry and moisten them as we press them out later. Hang the shirt on a hanger, and hang it somewhere to dry. I used the shower curtain rod. Three shirts, ready to go:


Once dry, they can be stuffed into a laundry basket, hung somewhere out of the way, or stood in a corner until you're ready to press them.

Next: Ironing.


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Head Bartender
Staff member
Small Town Ohio, USA
Hot Work

Getting ready to iron the shirts. They will be quite stiff. You can stand them up on their own. This is a Paul Frederick shirt in 100% Cotton.


The pictures to follow will demonstrate several techniques on various shirts. I used a J. Peterman Military Shirt, (like canvas), a Paul Frederick French cuff, a casual shirt from GAP, and a Land's End button down.

We need an iron, an ironing board with clean, padded cover, a spray bottle capable of producing a mist spray, a clothes brush, some collar stays and... the TV remote. Because if we're gonna be strapped to an ironing board for a couple of hours, we may as well watch a movie.


My iron is a $20 Rowenta from Odd Lots. No need to spend $100 for an iron. You need two features: HOT and STEAM. Add water to the iron, then turn it on to the proper setting. For cotton, we want the hottest setting. My iron holds about 1/2 cup of water; it must be refilled after each shirt. We need a lot of steam.


Let's watch William Powell as Philo Vance. :)


In spite of our efforts, this shirt has stuck to itself. Grab the shirt by the shoulders and shake it out, and pull such spots apart.


Set the iron to produce the maximum amount of steam possible. First, we'll iron a few places quickly on the back of the showing surface: The backs of the front plackets, the back of the pocket(s), inside the cuffs. Don't fuss here; this is just to make things easier later. A quick pressing on the backs of those areas is all you need.


Then we'll set the shirt on the board so as to iron the collar. We'll iron the back of the collar, not the front. Don't fold it over and press it down. Leave the collar sticking up. This will help to get a nice roll over your necktie, without sharp creases that are not aligned with the collar seams.



Then insert any collar stays; it's easier now than when you're rushing around in the morning. The slots for the stays may be stuck together. Be patient, and use something stout, like an old, pointy metal nail file, to get the slot apart if you must.


Next: Sleeves.


Head Bartender
Staff member
Small Town Ohio, USA

Spread a sleeve out on the ironing board. Beginning at the shoulder end, begin pressing it flat. As you press with the iron, hold the cuff and pull gently, creating a flat surface over which the iron will glide. Stop at the cuff.



Note that as we're pressing toward the cuff, we're holding onto the cuff and tugging a bit to keep everything straight.


Turn the cuff end upside down, exposing the underside of the cuff. Press the back, underside of the cuff. DO NOT simply press the cuff flat from the top.
Iron the inside of the cuff. Rolling the cuff back and forth as you go with the other hand. It is called a "Barrel cuff," so let's make the barrel.
Caution: Hot Steam!


Move the iron back and forth across the inside of the cuff while holding one side, then the other. This will quickly create a rounded "barrel" end.
The barrel cuff.


Catch the sleeve button placket now. Pulling from the top or bottom as you press the iron down, straighten the placket as you go. This is one of the chief benefits of ironing your shirt this way, as it gives a good, stiff front, as in a formal shirt.

{Image forever lost due to Photobucket policy revision}

Tomorrow: The rest of the shirt, how to properly iron Frenchies, spritzing the problem areas.
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