ool lilac. Pistachio green. Buttery yellow. Picking a shade from piles of chikankari shalwar kameez confections is as soothing to the soul as choosing from an array of flavors in an ice cream parlor.

Toward the middle of spring in New Delhi, when the mercury in thermometers was already creeping up to 30 degrees Celsius (86 degrees Fahrenheit), I’d often find myself standing in the middle of a cramped clothing store in Shankar Market.

Outside, buses, scooters, autos and bicycles careened around the circumference of Connaught Place—their honks, horns and trills, a spinning, never-ending vinyl, the occasional tire screech a needle scratching the record.

Inside, the water cooler was turned on, and you had to talk above its curious din—the buzzing motor, the whirring fan and the water trickling Zen-fountain-like onto the straw mats lining the cooler.

Just watching the salesman unfurl the shalwar kameez fabrics, the sky-blue cotton duppata‘s slow, cheek-brushing descent, was enough to suggest a northerly wind, cooled by the snow-topped mountains of the Himalayas before hitting the concrete desert of New Delhi.

The Art of Starch

The stiffness wanted is a matter of personal preference. I (pictured above in a chikan top) prefer my chikankari clothes lightly starched, while my handloom saris should be fairly stiff. For light starching, I use ¼ cup arrowroot powder with 1 cup water to make the paste. For more stiffness, I use ½ cup arrowroot powder with 1 cup of water.

To avoid lumps, use a sieve to sift the arrowroot powder into water, stirring the mixture at the same time. (You can also substitute arrowroot powder with maida [all-purpose flour] or corn starch.) Put the mixture on high heat, stirring continuously. As the mixture starts to thicken, reduce heat to medium. The mixture will turn into a translucent, goopy paste. Turn heat off.

Scoop the paste into a small bucket filled with 4 liters (about 1 gallon or Coke bottles worth) of warm water. Giving it a few minutes to cool, dissolve the paste into the water. (Using your fingers to agitate the water is the best way.)

Soak your washed clothes in the water, lightly wring out excess water and hang to dry. Hang clothes as smoothly as possible, to avoid the starch lumping on your clothes.

Once the clothes are dry, carefully open the folded ones such as dupattas, especially if they are very stiff, to avoid tearing. Steam iron.

It was, and still is, the perfect outfit to battle a sweat-beading summer.

But chikankari is charming only when crisp. All its poetry is nought if the garment is not starched. The light and airy dress, delicate cotton intricately embroidered with white thread by a kaarigar‘s nimble fingers, hangs limp without it.

And so, with the summer clothes comes the summer starch. Starching has always been a popular way to make clothes look sharp. A few centuries ago, Western nobility starched assorted clothing such as cuffs, ruffs, collars and petticoats. And even as recently as a few decades ago, starched cotton shirts—with taut collars and cuffs—commanded authority. Besides, dirt and sweat clung to the starch instead of the collars and cuffs. Getting rid of the grime was as easy as washing the starch away.

Banishing grime is important when you’re facing a steamy Subcontinental summer. Getting clothes starched in New Delhi was a cinch. It was just a matter of an added instruction to the dhobi or the dry cleaner. Chikan shalwar kameezes, cotton shirts and handloom saris needed a heavy dose of charak, while silk saris got just the slightest touch. In a day or two, the clothes would arrive. Neatly ironed, starched as stiff as a piece of paper, enabling creases as sharp as a knife.

But starching in Toronto—or anywhere in North America—is another matter altogether. With the popularity of no-wrinkle, wash-and-wear clothes, the idea of starching has practically gone the way of the dodo. Now it’s mostly heard of in DIY, craft-making circles, where it’s used to finish off crocheted doilies, wallpaper fabric or quilting projects.

So when I arrived here nine years ago, lugging two bulging suitcases a quarter full of chikan shalwar kameezes, I was unaware of the education my starchless new home would provide.

My first summer here was easy, breezy. My clothes had arrived, starched and ironed, tighly packed in neat bundles. But after a few washes, my favorite lilac shalwar kameez was losing its glory and my white churidaar-pajama was wilting away.

Quite by chance, I found my savior in a spray can. There it was, sitting in the laundry aisle of the supermarket, next to the detergent powders, fabric softener liquid and sheets—a can of starch. Just spray and iron, the instructions said. It sounded simple enough. (I eventually also discovered a liquid starch, but it was hard to find in most grocery stores.)

At first, I was satisfied with the results. Even the heavy duty starch—meant for table napkins—was a little light for my chikan shalwar kameezes, but my regular cotton shalwar kameezes looked good. However, the gunk around the nozzle, small wisps of dried-out starch on the clothes and the back-breaking work involved in spraying and ironing saris made me turn to my fountain of knowledge of all things practical: my mother.

The exchange went something like this:

“Why don’t you starch your clothes?” she asked.

“I am. It’s not working.”

“Not that silly spray thing. Like the dhobis do it in India.”

“Oh! How do you do it?”

“Add some maida (all-purpose flour) to water and boil it. That’s starch … ”

“How much maida?”

“Oh, just put it andaaze se, a tablespoon or two. If you want it to be really stiff, add more maida. But don’t put too much or it will become all white.”

The conversation was cut short by my mother running off to complete some errands. So I called up India and spoke to my nani, one of the most elegant women I know. She swore by arrowroot powder, saying it gives a finer starched look than the coarser maida. Her description of the process sounded so simple; I got off the phone, made some starch and dunked all my chikan.

It was a glorious summer day when I hung my lilac, white, baby pink, pistachio green and cream shalwar kameezes to dry. They dried stiff in a few hours. A quick iron later, I was ready to dazzle.n

Aparita Bhandari is a Toronto-based freelance journalist.
Published on May 21, 2007.
Photography: Courtesy of Aparita Bhandari.
Comments are closed.
  1. August 18, 2007, 11:40 am Michele Sokol

    I don’t know if you can help or not. i take my husband’s shirts to the dry cleaners. The ones made from oxford cloth I have starched. LIGHT starch. Someone goofed and made three of them heavy starch. They can stand by themselves they are so hard. Is there anything I might use to remove the starch so that he could wear them again. The cleaner has washed them about six times. Two have almost become wearable. The last one is still impossible. If you have any suggestions Iwould be very appreciative.

  2. September 12, 2007, 2:49 pm Deana Kilgore

    According to:

    Soak stiff starchy new cottons in a solution of 1/2 cup milk to 7 water. Soak for at least 1 or 2 hours. Wash off with regular detergents. This will soften the cloth removing undesired stiffness of the starch.