QUAERITUR: starch and albs

On a lighter and more immediate note:

Is it allowed or recommended  to starch an alb? The priest that says the EF Mass for us needs help with the cleaning, mending, etc. of his albs and other liturgical garments. I would like to do things properly and am not sure where to get information on the proper care of liturgical garments.

Thank you for any input, and thank you for your blog, I visit it every time I have time to access my computer.

You are welcome. 

I am only a reluctant commenter on anything having to do with laundry. 

I will direct you first of all to consult a useful little booklet put out by our friends at Angelus Press, which I reviewed here.

I can say that I appreciate some firmness to the fabric.  There are few things in life as since as a well starched shirt.  That goes for properly starched altar linens when you are at the altar.  And an alb that is well-prepared is part of how we give glory to God.

Fabrics for albs will differ and so how you use starch will differ.  I am not sure what to do about pure linen, for example.  And I suspect you ought to avoid lace and embroidery. 

I think I better defer to the ladies of the WDTPRS Altar Guild now, and back slowly, with a big grateful smile, out of the room….




…closing the door.


About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. momoften says:

    Actually lace can be starched…at least my grandmother used to
    starch doilies and such with starch…it really made it hold very nice. Obviously embroidary is stiff enough that it doesn’t need starch. Starch is good. Be aware if you are trying to keep a new alb unwrinkled – it won’t happen unless it has been laundered first. I have used starch on old lace on a servers surplice,it works great!

  2. A Random Friar says:

    I hear you, Fr. Z. I tend to stay out of the way of the Altar Guild as well, so that I can, as our Lord did, “still count all of my bones.”

  3. jenny says:

    Use light spray starch to the BACK side of alb and altar linens; press on the back side first (there is always some visible flaking of the starch), and then press the front side. Do not use steam if spraying with starch. Lace can also be lightly spray starched, but USE CARE about the temperature of the iron! If the fabric is cotton, a higher iron temperature is required. If any synthetics are in the fabric, of course, use lower temps. Better yet, Father, call those awesome nuns at Our Lady of the Angels Monastery…their linens have always been impeccable. I think probably they have a trade secret.


  4. Romulus says:

    Would it be a rabbit hole to ask about the practicality of pure linen surplices? If starched and pressed, will linen (not necessarily including lace) resist wrinkling for an acceptable period, or is it too high-maintenance to be useful in our time? I ask because I use my own surplice where I serve Mass, and am thinking of upgrading from poly/cotton.

  5. Tim says:

    “I think I better differ to the ladies of the WDTPRS Altar Guild now”

    I think you meant “defer” rather than “differ”. Heaven help you if you differ with the Guild regarding starch and the care of clothing, fabric, and linen. Who knows how they might react? (EXTRA starch, anyone?)

  6. momoften says:

    Romulus- depends on the linen. But I would be more worried about how warm it may be with it on in the summer. That Cotton/Poly blend is easier to launder and it is not too warm for summer months–

  7. Alice says:

    We use linen albs year-round. I wash (pre-shrunk) linen albs in cold water and Woolite, and then let them hang-dry. When dry, I use spray sizing and a steam-iron to press them. The sizing can also be used on linen or cotton lace. It seems to cause to cause less wrinkling than starch, while giving a nice body and finish to the linen fabric.

  8. Sandy in Severn says:

    “Niagara” brand is widely available, both as a spray starch and spray sizing. There is another brand that is also available, but I don’t like it as well.

    Spray on the BACK SIDE of the dampen fabric ONLY.

    BTW the real reason for starching was to ease in washing out the oils from a person wearing the garment. The skin oils are attracted to the starch, not the fabric. (Chemist background)

    If you want the true “stiff” starch, you have to hunt for it (liquid), or “cook up” a batch using cornstarch.

    My grandmother+ was active in her parish’s altar guild and I remember helping her with a few of the items from when I was a child. I’ve done altar linens a few times when I was either stationed at a “remote” assignment, or deployed and the CM/CA (Chapel Manager/Chaplain’s Assistant) didn’t know how to do it.

  9. Fr. BJ says:

    The woman who offered her services as seamstress at the seminary I went to told me that it was better to use the Magic Sizing brand than to use a spray STARCH — apparently repeated use of starch contributes to the faster breakdown of the natural fibers, whereas a sizing spray made of cellulose does not cause such a breakdown to occur. Also, apparently you can spray and iron several times in a row with the stuff to get a stiffer result.

    I know none of this from experience — I merely do what I am told in matters such as these and she was a very knowledgeable and experienced source of information!

    I have ironed my own surplice on a few occasions (a poly-cotton blend one from Almy), and it has come out pretty well. I have a linen surplice which I find impossible to care for and I have not found anyone skilled enough in such things to help me. In any event, ironing is truly a penance for me so I tend to look for ways around it!

  10. Sara says:

    Ah–ironing!! As our Dear Fr Z said–there is really nothing like a well-starched shirt–or anything for that matter…although I am a humble layperson I do considerable amounts of ironing for my own personal use. The crispness and appearance of starched clothing presents in itself a well-dressed and professional appearance, which is sorely lacking in today’s casual society. And nothing says “pamper” like sleeping between crisp starched sheets :) Ten years in the military also taught me a thing or two about ironing….

    The “body” as a result of the amount of starch I feel is indeed a personal preference. As a EM I’ve handled purificators that were starched so stiff you couldn’t bend them to clean the lip of the sub chalice–others so limp it was like holding a wet piece of kleenix..

    Several tips to consider:
    I prefer the sizing if you’re going to be in a hot, humid climate–it seems to breathe a bit more than starch.
    I NEVER use the can spray starch–I get a bottle of the blue liquid starch, mix it up according to directions, and put it in a plastic spray bottle. Shake it up a bit before use and you’re good to go.
    Long garments like albs don’t dry in the dryer completely –they will wrinkle and if they are cotton or linen they will shrink and you will end up with child altar server albs :)..you can put them in the dryer a bit to get some of the wet, but take them out when they are still damp and hang them up. If you are using real starch don’t iron them dry–you run the risk of scorching them. Either iron them when they are still a bit damp or if they have dried out sprinkle them with a little water out of a spray bottle. As stated before–iron them inside out…if there is someplace that needs a crease do that last, right side out.
    Black garments like cossacks need especial care and patience to starch, as if you are not careful the starch will flake and look like dandruff. Iron them inside out and touch up any pleats on the right side with no starch. Do not go over the buttons but iron around them if needed.

    Lace you can indeed starch, tatted lace or crochet. Wash first by hand in cold water–I use a tablespoon of Oxyclean–gets them REALLY white :) I make up a bucket or basin of water, add liquid starch according to bottle directions. Soak the lace in the starch water for 10-15 minutes..you can put in multiple small pieces just make sure they don’t get mushed up. Take each piece out one at a time and pat most of the moisture out on a towel–don’t wring. Iron on a low setting continually moving iron back and forth…this has worked great for both small doilies and large lace tablecloths..

    You CAN iron over embroidery, be very careful, don’t use steam–may make the thread bleed- and use a low setting..the small crosses on altar linens will be ok, however elaborate embroidery such as on vestments or anything with metallic (gold) thread should be taken to a dry cleaner.

    Linen and most 100 percent cotton will wrinkle to some extent (especially when sitting down) no matter what you do to it. But nothing says classy like linen.

    Most dry cleaners have an ironing service if anyone feels the least intimidated about ironing, especially a large item such as an altar cloth. The charge is usually reasonable.

  11. David Grondz says:

    I have found that ironing linen while wet will give the same stiffness as starch, without the potential “itch” factor that starch can have on sensitive skin.

  12. Canon King says:

    Pure line purificators, lavabo towels, corporals, and fair linens really should not need starching if properly made from the right weight linen (the bigger the piece the heavier) and properly laundered.
    Linen should always be ironed direct from the washer. Do not place in dryer, hang up or anything else. Iron it dry. If you can not iron immediately, place it in a plastic bag and refrigerate (or freeze if you are really backed up!). Then, iron it dry.
    The difference in finish will be remarkable.

  13. Not Getting Creaky Just Yet says:

    Re: spray starch and flaking–this is caused by not letting the starch soak into the fabric before ironing it. Spray the starch, thoroughly if desired, and then set aside while you spray the next piece. Set that aside and iron the first one. Then iron the second. (I have never used sizing and can’t contribute any observations on it.)

    Linen, while it does wrinkle fiercely, is a good fabric for hot weather. It does indeed take a lovely sheen if it’s ironed while damp. The linen will breathe, like cotton, and unlike poly. But…poly blends will still breathe some and won’t wrinkle or shrink as much. The shrink factor comes in the first few times the fabric is laundered, it’s the lengthwise threads relaxing from being stretched onto the bolt. Unlike wool, linen and cotton will stop shrinking after a few washings. (Wool will shrink and shrink until it’s felt.)

    Embroidery: put a pale towel or pad under the embroidery so the thickness of the stitches has somewhere to go. For poufy standup (thick) embroidery, iron the back instead of the front, using the aforementioned pad. Be very careful when ironing anything with elaborate embellished embroidery…Some of the fancy shiny threads are not resistant to much heat at all.

    Lace: doilies look lovely when starched. The thing that wears on lace (IMHO) is the snagging and the bending, if you minimize those things your lace should last a long time.

    If you’re worried about the decorative stitching bleeding onto the white, you could try using salt or white vinegar in the rinse water. (Vinegar does have an aroma.) If you have an influence, try to get people not to obtain embroidery that will run. Consider having them test the product sample before ordering a slew of it, to check for this problem. Running is very frustrating. And while you get “crocking” (by this I mean a temporary bleed of excess dye) at first with many dyed things, running just goes on and on.

    Best to all!

  14. Nu B says:

    Thank you all, what a wealth of information…and I will be ordering that book right away!

  15. Claire Traas says:

    If I tried to join the Rosary Altar Society, I’d probably get kicked out for absent-mindedly washing the albs with red vestments and turning everything pink. So my advice would be, get a good dry cleaner :)

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