I won't bore you with details of what I've been doing for the past 3 months of not posting to my blog. I will say though, that several things have inspired me to pick up the detail work on this dress again. I have applied for a (paying) stitcher job at a local theater, and they have actually called me back, so I would like to have something impressive to show them if I get that far. The second is that I've met a few of the actors and volunteers in social situations. So I guess I want my outfit to look good because they might actually know something about period clothing (hey, everyone's got a hobby). Also, other people connected with the local Ren Faire are coming into the fabric store where I work and buying cloth to make their outfits, and some of them definately know what they're doing. So it might be fun to show up in a big, fancy outfit and talk shop.
So, the main reason why I stopped for so long last time was that I was having problems starching my ruffs. I had made up one of the sleeve ruffs just to see what I was supposed to be doing. I made the wrist band of two pieces of the finest handkercheif linen I could find with a piece of Irish linen sandwiched in between as interfacing. The pieces were eight and a half inches long by one and one quarter inches wide. The ruffle was cut from the same handkercheif linen; the piece was 1 3/4 inches wide by 45 inches long. Because I wanted to follow Janet Arnold's instructions from her book, Patterns of Fashion 4, I knew I had to make the entire thing out of linen (the instructions on the traditional starching of ruffs include baking them in the oven until they are dry and hard--linen will withstand high temperatures that will scorch other fabrics). Since the only linen thread I could get was a hand embroidery thread, I had to construct the ruff by hand. After finishing the edges of the ruffle, I cartridge pleated it into the wrist band with the help of some tiger tape (9 stitches per inch). I sewed the wrist band facing in place, turned it out, and whipped the band shut. I then took a stitch through the base of each pleat where it meets the band and whipped it into the band so that the ruffles would tend perpendicular to the band. This was the easy part.
The hard part was getting the proportions of starch right, and then getting the starched ruff to set right. I started off making half a batch of starch as outlined in the book, using potato starch, but the product was much too thick for me to work with, and tended to lump up. I ended up adding more than 3 times the amount of boiling water the original recipe called for. I then duely swished the ruff in the gloop, squeezed out the excess, pinned it to an oven rack and baked it with the oven door full open (good thing it was cold outside). The instructions don't say what temperature to set the oven at, so I started at 250 degrees F. It took upwards of 20 minutes for it to dry hard enough to make me think it was done. When I took it out, I was disappointed to see that the starch had clumped, forming hard lumps in places that instantly wanted to glue themselves to my steam iron. Since I had no poking sticks from the 16th century, I tried shaping the sets with my iron and the handle of a wooden spoon. This was very cumbersome, as the iron was so large as compared with the ruff, and the sets were not very satisfactory because they were not smooth. It was very difficult to heat the handle of the spoon hot enough to give the sets a good shape. So, discouraged, I put the project away to rethink my methods.
Several months and a lot of pondering later, I had worked a couple of things out. The main problems to work out were the starch solution and what to use for a suitable poking stick. The starch solution was much too strong and gloppy, so I watered it down quite a bit on my next batch. I started out with about 2 tablespoons of potato starch in a pot on the stove. I kept adding boiling water from a kettle, cooking and stirring it until it was a smooth, fairly runny consistancy, quite a bit runnier than the lemon base of a homemade lemon merangue pie. I put my first ruff attempt in a pot of boiling water to try to remove the previous starch, and added my second sleeve ruff, and let them boil together. Then I dunked both of them in the new starch solution and proceeded as before. This time I put the oven up to 350 degrees and closed the door, watching carefully through the window. The ruffs were dry in less than 10 minutes. The first one that had been starched and then boiled was still harder than my second, but with no large patches of starch to gum up my iron. The second ruff was a slightly softer set, but still acceptable.
The poking stick problem vexed me greatly for a while until I stumbled across the solution at work. While putting away some shipment, I passed by the display of clover Mini Irons and had to stop to take a closer look. I realized that the wand-shaped original clover Mini Iron was just the right size for the tiny sets I wanted. To use it, I simply had to remove the sole plate with a screwdriver. In doing so, I discovered that there were 2 screws on the end of the metal cylendar, only one of which came off, but I was still able to maneuver it enough to be able to use it to iron the sets. I found that if I set the iron on high the starch would scorch brown, but medium still provided enough heat. Getting the sets even was still challenging, but after some practice I was able to get a halfway decent result.
You can just barely see in this photo the scorched starch on this sleeve ruff.
With the ruffs set, I sewed a snap onto the band of each and thread basted them into the cuffs of the bodice sleeves.
For the neck ruff, I knew I wanted to have the sets very even. I also knew I wanted to have a deeper ruff than the 1.5 inches set out in the original pattern. I eventually cut my linen to end up with a 14 foot strip 3 inches wide, hemmed with a hand-sewn narrow hem. I cartridge pleated it as for the sleeve ruffs, at every other dash on the tiger tape (9 dashes per inch). Instead of putting it together and then dunking it in starch, I starched the frill before setting it into the band, using Mary Ellen's Best Press. This is a light starch alternative. I found it kept the frill quite soft (softer than I wanted for this application), but it was easier to use than the potato starch, and doesn't leave gick all over the underside of the iron. After I starched the frill, I chalked out a mark every 3 inches on the hemmed edge, then drew a thread through them as if in a long basting stitch. When that thread was drawn up, I had very evenly sized sets. After setting the frill into the band, which took a long time in this state, I pinned the sets where I wanted them to lie and sewed a seed pearl at the intersections with a waxed linen thread. These pearls would have to be removed if the ruff was ever restarched, so I didn't knot the threads. The beeswax is sticky enough to keep the threads in place. After storing the ruff for a few months in a box, I discovered that the Best Press wasn't holding the ruff sets securely enough, and I didn't want to wash it all out, cook it in gloop and try to get all the little pearls back in the right spots (because they would surely need to be removed to launder and bake the ruff). So, after purchasing a 3/4 inch curling iron and a can of Niagra Extra Strong starch, this is what I ended up with (4 coats of starch, letting the starch dry between sprayings):
So, using the traditional method of potato starch takes practice to get it right. If I was to do it again, I might perhaps brush potato starch onto a wet ruff with a paintbrush to see if that kept it from glopping up and burning my fingers. Marking the sets and drawing them up with a thread seems to work nicely, as does setting the smaller sets with the wand of a mini iron. A stronger spray starch will do in a pinch as a substitute to potato starch, but I will save the rest of the Mary Ellen's for a different purpose.