The Elizabethan Ruff, its Starch and Arum.

The Elizabethan era has already made an appearance as the high point for the medical herbals and it presents itself once again for the role Arum played in enabling one of the best known symbols of Elizabethan high fashion; the Ruff.

The ruff evolved from the ruffle. The word and the garment, hand in hand defining the fashion of an era. Ruffles begin life in the early 13th Century as simple strips of crimped trimming added to sheets as a decoration. Fittingly, the word originates from the Germanic ‘ruffelen’, meaning crumpled’. By the 15th century ruffles were used around the neckline of items of clothing such as chemises; those smock-like precursors to modern day shirts originally worn by women. They served the distinctly utilitarian purpose of saving a wearer’s ‘shirt’ or top clothing from becoming soiled around the neckline (think how modern day shirt collars suffer). Being detachable items they could be washed separately, thus avoiding the need to launder a whole smock or shirt. Very sensible those Tudors.

With the quickening of the Elizabethan Era however ruffles left their utilitarian roots far behind them. Hearing the call of their destiny, they become ever-more ornate and non-utilitarian items of fashion and status. Bedecked with jewels and sporting several distinct tiers, ruffs (as they were now called), sported different shapes, styles and colours peculiar to the wearer’s class and gender. Such was the strictness of Elizabethan society’s rules on class derived clothing that the yellows, reds and purples favoured by the upper classes gave rise to the ‘Lords and Ladies’ name for Arum. The most extreme ruffs grew to become over a foot wide, supported by internal frames to bear their weight. Such constructions could often comprise of over 5 metres of cloth. Prime describes how bearers of such ruffs could hardly walk or bend whilst wearing them. At one point it was clearly felt to be getting out of hand and Queen Elizabeth banned such wide ruffs. All jolly good fun no doubt, but such extremes of fashion were made possible only by a single discovery; starch.


Only the Finest of Starch.

In the world of laundry stiffening there is starch and there is Starch. While any old plant root containing some level of sugar cells can be processed to yield a measure of rough starch, for fine eating and the stiffest of linen stiffening, the best starch is the finest grained starch. And the finest grained starch is that made from wheat, rice and arrowroot, which provide a wonderfully white, fine grained and pure starch. Not entirely coincidentally, these are also all important food plants.

The problem with using these plants for laundry starch is that they then cannot be used for eating. This was the choice which confronted our Elizabethan ancestors. Satisfyingly stiff sheets or satisfyingly full bellies. Wheat and corn were the main native starch plants at the time but they were commonly in short supply and needed primarily for food. The desire to fulfil these competing desires led to the investigation of alternative sources of starch. We do not know how but at some point it was realised that Arum was not only a source of starch but that it produces such a very fine grained and white starch that is on a par with that derived from rice and wheat and indeed, from arrowroot itself. Arum quickly became prized for its suitability for laundry starching; giving a strong and stiff structure to the cloth. So pronounced were its gifts with the cloth that combined with the newly imported Dutch starching techniques, anything seemed possible. People began experimenting. Ruffles seemed a good place to start. And thus the ruff was born. The fashion designers of Elizabethan times embraced Arum wholeheartedly and it is no exaggeration to say that it is Arum that made the whole wonderfully outlandish extravagance of Elizabethan ruffs possible.

Starch, the Devil's Invention.

Demand for Arum was considerable for a time, but its super starch strength came with a significant cost to those who prepared it. Unlike rice or wheat, Arum contains the incessantly irritant calcium oxalate crystals. These needle shaped crystals are equally damaging whether one is handling the leaves or the roots and Arum starch soon became renowned for causing severe and painful blistering to the hands of the laundry maids who made it. Gerard stated “it choppeth, blistereth and maketh the hands (of the poor launderesses), rough and rugged and withall smarting”.

This wasn’t the only objection. Some took a dislike to ruffs because they believed that such items were the direct work of the devil. A now infamous pamphlet distributed at the time by a puritian christian by the name of Philip Stubbes gives his views on the matter, which are not kind. “The devil, in the fullness of his malice invested these ruffes” he said, before going on the describe this new-fangled substance they call starch (another invention of the devil): “the one anchor piller wherby his kingdome of great ruffes is underpropped, is a certaine kinde of liquide matter which they call Starch, wherin the devill hath willed them to wash and dive his ruffes wel, which when they be dry, wil then stand stiffe and inflexible about their necks”. Oh Arum; in trouble again… the devil’s plant indeed. Philip Stubbes need not have worried. By the end of the Elizabethan era, with the reign of James 1st, the use of Arum, along with the giant ruffs it had once supported, shrunk and diminished into the realms of history. Laundry maids across the country sighed with relief. And Arum was largely forgotten. For a while.

...more in the book....