As I struggled to iron a pretty white blouse with tiny pleats at the wrist, I thought of the poor Elizabethan ladies with their enormous ruffs and felt pleased that I lived in the 21st century when most garments did not need ironing. Thankfully my wardrobe consists of only two items that need ironing which I hold on to simply because I like them.

But a look at any Elizabethan portrait will reveal an immaculate snowy white starched ruff fastened around the neck and edged with crisp delicate lace. How did these women manage to keep such a garment so stiff and in pristine condition at a time when modern appliances were yet to be invented, and where did the craft of starching originate?

The fashion to starch linen did not reach our English shores until about 1560, when it arrived from Flanders The ruff started life as a simple collar, but grew more elaborate through Elizabeth’s I reign. The ruff, a circular collar made from pleated material was worn by both and women. On women it covered the neck, chin, shoulders, and breast. On men it covered the neck and shoulders. A legend relates that Queen Elizabeth 1 appointed a Dutchman, William Boonan, as one of her coachmen, and his wife was a talented laundress who had mastered the art of starching. The Queen was so delighted with its introduction that, it was not long before she and her couriers had set a new fashion trend in ruffs of all descriptions – ruffs edged with lace, ruffs decorated with jewels, embroidered ruffs, and even a few sewn with gold and silver thread. Soon the ordinary peasant folk of the land were imitating their queen and courtiers, and simple stiffened collars and cuffs were worn by everyone who could afford them.

The substance of the starch was obtained from several sources, but mainly from bran, flour and sometimes from roots of plants.  A number of the laundresses complained that their hands were irritated by the starch, and it was found that this condition was caused by the poisonous roots of the starch plant they used, the wild arum lily, which grows so plentifully along the hedgerows in spring. The plant is also known by the name of Cuckoo Pint, Wake Robin or Lords and Ladies.

The quality of the ruff was a sign of status, wore by nobility and working class alike, although the material varied greatly.  The richer people would have a ruff made of lawne or cambric, both expensive fine linens, and decorated with fine lace, gold, silver or silk. The poorer people would have a ruff made of cheap fabric that most probably irritated the skin. The first ruffs measured approximately 3in wide and 2in deep, and was either known as a cartwheel ruff or a fan-shaped ruff. Later a single ruff could be 12in or more in width and made up of five metres of material.  As the ruff became bigger and more ornate, so it became necessary to use a metal wire frame at the back to hold it in place. Laces or strings were also attached to the opening of the ruff to secure it around the neck.  No doubt mealtimes would have made eating extremely difficult for these Elizabethans. Some of the ruffs became beautiful three-tiered affairs – like the one Queen Elizabeth 1 wore to the Thanksgiving service after the defeat of the Spanish Armada.

The cleaning of the ruff was not an easy task, as it was important to keep the garment in pristine condition. This was achieved by using vast amounts of starch, which helped to keep it both its shape and upright, and presented a problem for the laundress.


The ruffs were washed, starched and set into shape by ‘putting sticks’ conical irons in coals and applying to the ruff.  Therefore a red glowing fire was an essential item to heat the goffering irons, as they were called, but the scorching of a fine ruff must have been a major disaster. As the ruffs become larger and more elaborate, so they were set up on special stands to enable the laundress to use her iron more easily.  The master launderers or laundresses of the day were given large payments for their exacting work, and one of the highest paid was a Flemish lady, Mistress Dingham van de Plasse who came to London with her husband.

Ruffs became very popular, but there was one thing that threatened their elegance, and that was the rain. In a rainstorm, if the wearer was unprotected, the ruff became a sad soggy mess. These ruffs were often so large that they could not easily be covered by the cloak. The sight of these elaborate ruffs became intolerable to the Puritans, who went so far as to call the liquid starch used for stiffening the ruffs as the ‘devil’s liquor’


Legend states that the fashion went out when Mrs Anne Turner, a half-milliner, half-procuress, who also trafficked in poisons, was hanged at Tyburn in 1613 for her role in the murder of Sir Thomas Ovenbury. She appeared on the scaffold in a huge hideous ruff. This was on the orders of Lord Coke, and was the means of putting an end to a fashion that had turned to the ridiculous.

It wasn’t long before ruffs became a garment of the past, but tablecloths were still starched white and shining on all the banquet tables in the land. Instead of the elaborate ruff, the simpler neck-band was starched and this in turn became a man’s collar. The Elizabethans, besides handing us the exquisite beauty of the ruffs, coined and handed down the phrase which we use today in every day speech, ‘as stiff as starch.


Today the ruff remain part of the formal dress of bishops and ministers in the Church of Denmark and are generally worn at services, but they were discontinued by the Church of Norway in 1980, but there are still some conservative ministers who wear them.