Starch And Your Quilts

Quilters seem to divide into two camps regarding the behavior of their quilts in progress. One camp revels in serendipitous accidents as the quilt reveals what it wants to become. The other believes the quilt should submit to the plan.

One key ingredient to quilt discipline is starch used at several stages of quilt making. Paper piecers who like to work with those sliver sized pieces starch their fabric to cardboard consistency. Jacquie Gering starches her tops and backings before quilting to ensure all the seams and surfaces are flat. And Sharon Schamber, who must be out of room for all her Best of Show ribbons, surely owns stock in a starch manufacturing company. She uses it for applique, on bindings and for blocking quilts.


If you want to see how Sharon uses starch, check out her videos. Here’s what I’ll call her introduction to starching. She uses heavy starch, sprays one side, turns the fabric over, and presses the other side. Then she does this five more times to make sure the fabric won’t fray when appliqued.

The same starching technique gets a work out in Sharon’s quilt blocking video, though she doesn’t spray five times. After watching this video I felt like such a slapdash quilter and utterly lacking in quilt discipline. No quilt would dare retreat to its pre-blocked shape after Sharon gets done with it.

Sharon emphasizes the use of starch rather than sizing. She says Best Press is actually sizing and shouldn’t be used where starch is needed. Unlike many quilters I’m not a fan of Best Press. The perfume used makes me cough (I had bought the scented kind) and the price seems high. If you’re worried about starch flaking, try using a pressing cloth or flipping the fabric over before pressing.

Diane Gaudynski, free motion quilter extraordinaire, makes her own starch. Here’s her recipe and method. She starches to prevent fabric distortion.

I gather quilters have strong opinions about whether or not to starch. Here’s a link to a discussion of pros and cons on Craftsy. I wash all my fabrics shortly after purchase, mostly because I mix old and re-purposed fabric with quilting fabric. I have come to use starch more in quilting, especially in projects that involve bias edges.

My chief worry about using starch is that over time (and I mean years) starch left in a quilt will attract bugs and even rodents that will nibble holes. I wash my quilts after they’re done to prevent this. Besides, I like the crinkly feel washing imparts. But I’m at a loss for the quilts that can’t be washed. Any ideas?

Update: According to here’s how to prevent that white stuff:

Q: Spray starch sometimes leaves a white residue on clothes and starch build-up on the iron. How can I prevent this?

A: Use two light applications rather than one heavy one. Use too much starch and it has no place to go, so it ends up on the bottom of the iron or on the fabric surface. You can also spray an entire garment before ironing, and roll it up for about 30 seconds before ironing, so the fabric has time to absorb the starch.


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29 responses to “Starch And Your Quilts

  1. Pingback: Sewing Tools of Note 2: Starch – Very Berry Handmade

  2. I checked in the old housekeeping books I collect. The most information was in the 1945 America’s Housekeeping Book. I think of starching as something you do to fabrics after washing and drying, but they put it as a step after washing and rinsing, and before extracting the water and drying. They have 3 pages of directions! But they only say to apply starch to clothing and curtains, no other linens, and they don’t give any information about insects.

    • Well, one set of directions for starching I found had you dampen your clothes and then apply starch, let the items sit a bit to absorb the starch, then iron. I think the idea was you starch an item every time you wash it, so the old starch would get washed out. I remember men’s shirts so stiff with starch they could cut your neck.

  3. Nena

    Sizing whether it is Best Press or Magic Sizing leaves chemicals in the fabric that do not wash out. Starch washes out. Over time sizing causes brittle fabric that will shred. Starch will attract bugs if you leave it in fabric. Gonna store the item? wash it and do not use starch prior to storage. That bit of info I got from a textile conservator.

    The other tidbit is from my grandmother. If you want the starch to soak into the fabric, make sure the fabric is spritzed with water first. The fabric will then absorb the starch better. Why is that important? You have almost NO flaking of the starch when you iron plus it takes less starch to get the desired stiffness.

    • OK, folks. Here’s the word from a textile conservator. As to your grandmother’s tip, I recall that back in the day one dampened one’s ironing and then rolled it up for a bit before pressing. So that would help in the starching process. Thanks for the advice.

  4. I make my own starch and starch all of my fabric before cutting. I like it almost like paper! Of course that means all of my UFOs have starch and some are very old. They haven’t attracted bugs at all.

    • So what’s your recipe? And where/how do you store your UFOs? I ask because I began this discussion to find out if my concerns about bug damage to starched fabric quilts were justified.

  5. jennyklyon

    This method of applique was first taught to me by Pearl Pereira. The starch method is just one of many applique methods that yield successful results. I don’t applique much but I prefer it over other methods.

    And to me, the thought of pulling out a quilt riddled with holes overshadows any “method” of applique. I would imagine that Sharon has some foolproof method of storage that protects her amazing creations. I’d like to know it!

  6. Now I know why I’m still getting a bit of distortion of bias edges and frayed edges with Best Press. (Too bad I didn’t know this before I purchased 2 large refill bottles. Oh well) Anyway, for those of us who don’t intend to starch our fabric to within an inch of its life, I wonder if starch (vs sizing) impacts hand quilting? I’m a hand quilter (exclusively), so I’ll deal with instability and fraying if I have to, but I sure would like to be able to find a way to help with those two bugaboos. Thanks for this discussion!

    • I’ll defer to some of the hand quilters who follow this blog. For bias edges the best advice I’ve been given is to handle them gently and as little as possible, and to press, not iron, them. If you push the cloth with your iron it can lock in distortion. As for frayed edges, I find variations in how different brands of quilting cottons fray. Kona cotton frays a lot on me. Some Japanese imports I’ve used have had virtually no fraying.

  7. I can’t cope with perfumed laundry soaps, softeners, or starches. I do use starch sometimes, but it isn’t a regular practice. I don’t paper piece; I rarely applique. My accuracy in piecing is pretty good, good enough to satisfy me. Bias edges don’t give me trouble most of the time. So I’m most likely to starch a fabric with a very soft hand, like a lot of toiles have and older fabrics have.

    Thanks for the post. I’ll spend time with the links later.

  8. Pam

    This is a great topic for discussion. Not being and appliquér, I can’t really comment how well it works but I cannot imagine that starch would not be helpful. With the quilt I am working on now, I (accidentally) used a heavier starch recipe that I normally do when I was piecing. It’s been a happy accident – I noticed that there is less fraying on the outer edges than in the past. I make my own starch from Linit and use a pump sprayer (my bid to save the ozone layer). I was concerned that my hands would get sticky while hand-quilting, but this has not been a problem, although sometimes the sheen made by the starch makes me think I’m quilting polyester which is my own personal nightmare. I wash all of my quilts so I don’t worry about uninvited guests, but if you don’t want to wash your pieces, I bet a dry cleaner would be helpful, but that poses its own risks too.

    • Thanks for the helpful comments. What is Linit? As to the sheen left by starch, have you tried using a press cloth? My recollection is dark colors show the sheen more than light ones do.

      • I’ve never used starch before, so I’ll ask if the sheen is removed when the quilt is washed?

        This post and the comments are so helpful to me! Thanks!

      • If I recall, the sheen is removed with the starch in washing. Though the sheen is much more apparent on dark fabrics. I guess the trick is to avoid the sheen in the first place. My granny always used a press cloth on dark fabrics. Glad you’re finding this discussion helpful. So am I.

  9. Faint reminders of how a fabric was once folded seem to inevitably reappear in my blocks even after careful pressing at each stage of production, and I suspect one reason is my failure to use starch. Somehow it seems to require more domestic prowess than I actually have. I will have to go through all your links and see if I can overcome my fears. It might prove very helpful! Btw doesn’t Diane Gaudynski quilt on a domestic not longarm machine?

    • You’re right, Diane uses a domestic sewing machine. And yes, I’m familiar with those lines in the fabric. I can’t help but wonder if the lines may be due to rubbing along the folded edges while the fabric was on the bolt.

  10. I have used Best Press and the perfume makes me cough too. I usually mix it half and half with water and that helps. I don’t used spray starch for quilting, but I seldom do paper piecing or applique, mostly regular piecing.

  11. The entire time I was reading this I was wondering about the bug/rodent issue. With all the vintage linens I handle, I’ve definitely come to believe that we shouldn’t store any fabric with starch on it. So, do people like Schamber wash their quilts when they’re done? Do you know?

    • Because Schamber is quilting for shows/judging, I’ll bet she does not wash after quilting. Most of the “show” quilts I see look like boards, between the over-quilting (my humble opinion) and the starch.

    • Sharon doesn’t say, that I’ve found, how she treats her finished quilts. Most of her work is designed for quilt shows and is immensely detailed applique, so it may be she stores her stuff in temperature controlled, sealed vaults. Good to find out my suspicions about starch and fabric storage are correct. Do you make your own starch or do use something else on your vintage linens?

      • I don’t use starch on them. I mean I might on something I’m about ready to put on my own table but then I wash it out after. For the linens I sell, I don’t use starch. I can get them looking pretty enough without it.

      • I wish my MIL had left off the starch on her linens. I found lots of damask rigidly starched, but with gravy stains still quite visible. I’ve washed all those pieces, and plan to dye or paint them to cover up those stains. I don’t think any stain treatment in the world will remove 30 year old food stains yet not destroy the fabric.

      • You might be surprised! When I get to wit’s end, I use Biz detergent (you can get it at Target) and Cascade dishwasher powder. I put a goodly amount in a tub or the washer and add the hottest water my tap will give me. The I leave it to soak for a long time, overnight or longer. I’ve had some pretty amazing results!

      • Thanks for the secret recipe. I recall using Biz back in my college days.

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