Tutorial + Tips: Using Starch to Make Piecing Your Quilts Easier

Spray Starch, Sta Flo, Best Press, Flatter, fabric, quilts

To starch or not to starch? This is a question often asked by quilters.

I always starch my fabric before cutting when I piece using these techniques:

Drunkards path curve acrylic templates, quilt
1. curved piecing

Because you need to cut across the grain when cutting curved shapes, starched fabric reduces the changes of cut pieces distorting and fraying. Starch also stiffens fabric. I find that stiffer fabric makes it easier for me to make the pieces go where I need to match up raw edges.

starching fabrics prior to strip piecing
2. strip piecing

Long thin fabric pieces have a tendency to get wavy and distorted. For shapes used in patterns like Pieces of Love or Modern Love, I starch my fabric before cutting. The starch helps me cut my fabric perfectly straight, square, and more accurate.

starching fabrics prior to needle turn applique
3. needle turn applique

Hand applique projects often take a good amount of time. It’s just the nature of handwork! Over time, our fabric has a tendency to fray as we work on our piecing and move it around. Every time a thread from our fabric comes loose, or frays, we lose a little bit of our overall fabric shape. Over time, this can make a big difference in our design. It also has a tendency to become really messy and frustrating to work with. Starch reduces the amount of fraying. Starch also stiffens our fabric, making it less floppy and easier to turn the raw edge under before we stitch.

The bottom line is that starch helps reduce fabric fraying and distortion. It also adds stiffness which often makes it easier to work with. Be sure to keep reading for my tips for how to apply starch to your fabric. 

What starch options are out there?
spray starch, fabric, quilting,

1. Niagara/Faultless Spray Starch (my favorite option!)

This is my favorite and “go-to” option. I find spray starch to works the best and is the easiest option. You can usually find Spray Starch in the laundry aisle of your local grocery store, pharmacy, or big box store. You can also find spray starch online, but the price is often way more expensive than in the store, even when purchased in bulk. I prefer to use the pump bottle, over the aerosol  can, since I can easily recycle or reuse the bottle and the spray is less airborne in my small studio. The pump version is a more difficult to find and can be a little more expensive. Recently I discovered a “Premium/Smooth Finish” version (shown in the middle in the photo above) that is labeled as fragrance free and “ideal for quilting, crafting & clothes”. I didn’t find a big difference in the performance between this version and the the others (other than a nicer pump mechanism).

Be sure to check out my tips for applying spray starch, later in this blog post.

2. Sta-Flo

After a few quilters mentioned Sta-Flo, a super-economical starch, I thought I’d give it a try. This super concentrated liquid comes in a big jug and then you mix it with water. I recently tried it out and applied it to my fabric before cutting for a Pieces of Love quilt. I don’t particularly like the way Sta-Flo smells when it is wet. After it dried, I found the fabric to be comparable to fabric that I used regular spray starch on. If you use Sta-Flo, be sure to fully shake and mix the concentrate well before using, as the starch settles to the bottom of the container. The same thing is true after you combine it with water in your spray bottle. The solution tends to separate, so you’ll need to shake and mix well before applying to fabric.

3. Homemade Starch

Some quilters make their own starch with ingredients like vodka or corn starch. If you’re going to try out your own recipes and if you use vodka, be sure to use the cheap stuff!

What about these?

Best press, spray starch, quilt, piecing
Mary Ellen’s Best Press

Found at many local quilt shops and used by lots of quilters, Best Press is a starch alternative. This spray technically sizes your fabric, removing wrinkles and creating soil resistance, but doesn’t add very much stiffness. The stiffness is what I find helps with piecing curves and applique and why I starch in the first place. For this reason, I highly recommend starch over Best Press if you want something that will make piecing easier. Best Press comes in all different sizes, from a tiny “test” bottle to gallon jugs, and scents (including unscented).

Flatter by Soak

Flatter by Soak

Flatter is a fabulous smoothing spray that relaxes wrinkles and freshens fabric and is eco-friendly. It is starch-free, so unlike starch it won’t help with fraying or stiffening fabric. It comes in lots of fantastic scents or unscented.

My process for applying spray starch:
Oliso iron

1. When starching my fabric, I set my Oliso iron to medium heat. Using high heat with starch, can scorch fabric or leave flaky residue on your iron, pressing surface, or fabric. Be sure to keep your steam off and don’t apply any water to your fabric until it’s all pieced and quilted. Steaming or spray water on your fabric will remove your starch.

2. Preheat fabric by ironing it BEFORE applying starch. I find the starch adheres a bit better when the fabric is warm.

3. Evenly spray your fabric with starch before cutting. I spray the starch on the correct side of the fabric.

4. WAIT for your starch to dry (or partially dry if you’re impatient like me) and then iron your fabric again to set the starch. Waiting for the starch to dry will reduce the chance of your starch flaking, especially on dark fabrics. I typically apply the iron on the correct side of the fabric.

5. Once I’m happy with the stiffness of my fabric, I’m ready to cut.

It’s always best to apply your starch before you cut, but if you find your fabric is fraying or not quite stiff enough as you’re working, you can carefully apply additional starch. Heat up your cut fabric by PRESSING (not ironing). Pressing is placing the iron on your fabric, but not moving it. Ironing, moving your iron, can distort your cut pieces. After your pieces are warm, apply your starch, let it dry, and then press with your iron again.

Final thoughts:

Using starch is a personal decision. I typically don’t like to apply extra products to my materials, unless there is a significant benefit. I find that using spray starch for some projects makes my life easier and gives me better results. If you have any allergy or just don’t like starch, you can still achieve piecing fabulous curves, strips, and applique, it may just take a little bit of extra work!

Questions or comments? Please leave them below!

To starch or not to starch? Here are some tips and a tutorial to starching to make your quilt piecing easier.

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        1. Hi Debby, I haven’t found that spray starch leaves any residue in or on machine or on my iron. I do find that if I press starched fabric with a very hot/high iron, I get staining on my pressing mat. It doesn’t feel sticky or any different, just discolors. I’m assuming that it’s just scorch marks and is a good reminder to lower the temperature on my iron! Perhaps try letting the starch dry (see my process above) before ironing, ironing on the opposite side of the fabric that you spray on, or when all else fails lower the temperature on your iron.

        1. Hi Az, I’m not entirely sure. I typically starch my fabric prior to cutting so nothing distorts before I cut. I would imagine that the shrinking would depend based up on the exact quilting cotton. Perhaps give it a try on a couple of strips before committing starch to all of the fabric?

      1. Hi Debbie, I haven’t found that starch attracts bugs in my quilts or fabric. I do live in New England, so it may be different in other climates. I have read that it’s a myth about starching attracting bugs, but I’m not an expert! I have unwashed quilts that have traveled around the world with me while I’ve taught and haven’t had any issues. You can always wash your quilt right after it’s done and the starch will come out.

      2. I worked in a museum decades ago and starch came up as a concern of some preservationists at that time because they thought it would attract bugs. The museum with whose collection I worked was in an old building in NYC and the clothing was stored in the attic.* Storage space was neither heated or cooled and it’s a miracle anything survived, but it did. We never had an issue with bugs and the conditions were perfect for them. Unless you are creating your quilt outdoors and never plan to wash it, bugs will not be a concern. Once the quilt is finished and washed the starch washes out. The is the benefit of it being water soluble. I used full strength Sta-flo on yardage for my first quilt and hung it to dip dry. It is like cutting and sewing paper once it is ironed and it makes piecing much easier. It’s probably more stiffness than is needed so since then I have diluted the starch roughly 50/50, dipped my fabric in the solution and squeegeed it out against the side of the plastic tub I use for starching and hung to dry. It is easier to iron if it is slightly damp.

        I don’t like breathing fumes from anything so dip and dry works for me.

        *The museum merged with the NYC Historical Society at some point after my departure and I can only hope the historic collections of theater costumes and clothing have a climate controlled home now!

    1. Hi Jane, I don’t use a lot of batiks, but I typically will starch for when I use the three techniques I outlined above. While the batiks don’t usually fray as much and are typically a bit stiffer than other quilting cottons, I find that the extra stiffness that the starch gives really helps.

  1. Thanks Sheri! I just started starching my fabric recently & I absolutely see a difference. But I just learned a new tip from you – iron your fabric first to warm it up, THEN spray on the starch, let it dry & press. Very helpful!

    1. Hi Cindy, So glad it was helpful! And… I usually am too impatient to wait for it to dry, but if things start to go wrong or flake, I force myself to take a deep breathe and wait.

  2. Thank you for this! I definitely learned something. 🙂 Does the ‘correct’ side of the fabric mean the ‘right’ side?

    1. Hi Carol. Yes… I always use to say “right” side of fabric but then if I was demonstrating piecing and there was a right and left, it got confusing. So know, I trained myself to say correct side when referring to the “right” side (or printed side) of the fabric!

      1. Maybe the “Face of the fabric” vs the “Back” will help to delineate the two. I’ve always understood the usage of ‘right side’ based on the context but I can see where it might cause confusion.

  3. That’s good information, I didn’t realize that best press was that different than starch! I’ve used Niagara too and like it. I also like having starched fabric for half square triangles with their biased edges. I don’t usually starch because I can’t figure out the best way to do it—I am like you and don’t like to add stuff unless necessary, and I don’t usually use an entire cut on a single project. But you’re supposed to starch before you cut…so I just get lost and don’t starch at all, lol.

    1. Hi Becca, I completely understand. If you like the results you’re getting with piecing and not starching, stick with that! If you’re fighting with the fabric, I highly recommend starching! Keep quilting, Sheri

  4. Thanks for the informative article: not just a do or don’t starch but why it is conducive to obtaining a beautiful finished project!

  5. Thank you for this information. What are your thoughts about Magic Sizing? I took a beginner quilt class years ago and the instructor said to use that product vs. starch.

    I normally use best press, but I want to try the spray starch you recommend.

    1. Hi Stephanie, I’m not familiar with Magic Sizing. I started using Spray Starch because it’s relatively inexpensive and I can find it in most grocery stores/pharmacies. I’ve used it for years and it works for me and appears to wash out, so I’ve stuck to it!

    2. I’ve used magic but not for some time. It would be similar to Best Press, as it is sizing, not starch. I still have no clue what sizing is made from however!

  6. I recently started starching my fabrics before using,following Kimberly Jolly’s suggestion, and I did notice an improvement in my cutting accuracy and less fraying.
    Thank you for the reminder to iron first.

  7. Do you find that any of these products leave residue in your machine, or on your cutting table, and if so, what’s your advice for cleaning it out/off?

    1. Hi Mitzi! I haven’t found that spray starch leaves any residue in or on machine or on my iron. I do find that if I press starched fabric with a very hot/high iron, I get staining on my pressing mat. It doesn’t feel sticky or any different, just discolors. I’m assuming that it’s just scorch marks and is a good reminder to lower the temperature on my iron!

  8. I was so shocked to find out that June Tailor’s Quilter’s Starch Savvy has ZERO starch in it. Products do make a huge difference and I have learned that starch does help a lot with quite a few piecing tasks in quilting. Now I make sure I’m stocked up at all times!

    1. Interesting! I haven’t heard of that product. That’s unfortunately that a product that has the word “starch” in it has no starch in it.

  9. Dear Shari: Very helpful information. I sure hope I can find the Niagara somewhere nearby. I’ve been using Mary Ellen’s Best Press, and that is better than nothing at all. I’m switching over to Niagara Faultless on my next quilting project. Thank you so much, Sheri!

    1. You’re welcome Roxy! I find Best Press is good for taking out some of those stubborn wrinkles (although I prefer spray water and a hot iron—that usually does the trick for me).

  10. I have been told by many quilters that starch attracts bug that can damage your quilts. Can you explain how you overcome this. That is one reason I have use Best Press for years. I Best Press everything by spraying the back side of the fabric first and pressing and if I need more stiffness I spray the front side of the fabric. I press the fabric back, front, back and then allow to dry over night before cutting. I has worked for me. But, it doesn’t take care of the fray as you mentioned. But, I just try to carefully handle my fabric and when the quilt is done, I carefully trim the fray threads before it is quilted.

    1. Hi Deb, I haven’t found that starch attracts bugs in my quilts or fabric. I do live in New England, so it may be different in other climates. I have read that it’s a myth about starching attracting bugs, but I’m not an expert! I have unwashed quilts that have traveled around the world with me while I’ve taught and haven’t had any issues. You can always wash your quilt right after it’s done and the starch will come out. Best Press is great for some things, but I’ve found that for fraying and stiffness, starch works best for me!

  11. I have recently been doing a lot of curved piecing and love it, but it would not have occurred to me to starch my fabrics because I thought I needed a little give when manipulating the pieces. I definitely need to starch and compare the results! Thank you.

  12. Have you ever had starch cause the dye in the fabric to run or bleed? I used Stay Flo liquid starch mixed with water and dunked the fabric in it and hung it to dry and to my dismay some of the darker colors in the fabric bled. I quit using it and now use Niagra spray but wondered if anyone else had that experience.

    1. Hi Diane, I’m sorry you experienced that! I’ve only used Sta Flo a couple of times and didn’t have any issues with running or bleeding. I know some fabric lines are more likely to run than others. I wonder if the same thing would have happened in the wash with that particular fabric or if it was the Sta Flo?

  13. What do you lay your fabric on to starch? Does overspray hurt the surfaceof a table, etc.? Do I need to put a protective layer beneath the fabric before spraying?

    1. Hi Barbara, I’m not terribly precious about my pressing surface. I have a pressing board that I made out of a piece of plywood with canvas wrapped around it. It’s definitely stained from the 8+ years I’ve been using it but I don’t find it affects my new fabric. I usually have a wool pressing mat on top of it and to tell the truth, I’m usually lazy about moving it and spray right on that. It is discolored a bit, but again I don’t find the residue affects anything (other than the way it looks!)

  14. In the old days, we always sprayed the starch on the wrong side and ironed it on the right side. Lately, I have resorted to the 50’s method of soaking in a bucket and letting the fabric drip. Then Iron when dry. My Grandmother would be happy. We always had a freezer full of shirts wrapped up waiting for the iron day. Almost always it was a Saturday.

    1. We didn’t have a freezer big enough for more than ice cubes, but we did refrigerate any dampened clothes overnight if the ironing didn’t get done! Those were the bad parts of the good ol’ days. I’m a Sta-flo soaker myself. Love how it stops the fraying on all this loose weave fabric out there for quilters. I love AGF because it is a much better weave than some other brands. Very happy that the #aroundtheworld_bom is using them!

  15. CORRECT side of fabric ? I can make that applicable to right side and wrong side so … exactly what is the correct side? I more often apply spray starch to “wrong” side (or backside) because of the flaking— especially on dark colors. Of course this doesn’t matter if your project will be laundered.
    Thanks for the tip about letting the starch dry before ironing.
    Also, I use Sta-Flo and add scented water which I also make.

  16. If I spray starch the fabric I am using for the front of the quilt, should I also spray starch the backing fabric and the binding fabric or is this not necessary? I quilt on a longarm, but always wash my finished quilt so did not know if there would be uneven shrinkage if the backing and binding is not starched.

    1. Hi Mary, I can only talk from my experience (and I quilt my own quilts on a domestic machine, not a longarm). I’ve never starched my backing fabric or binding and have never had any experience with uneven shrinkage. My understanding is that starch doesn’t affect shrinkage, it just washes out. I also typically don’t pre-wash my fabric and haven’t had any issues with uneven shrinkage. If you are concerned shrinkage, I would recommend prewashing all of your fabrics (quilt top, binding, and backing). That said, I’ve found if I use good quality fabrics (typically found in a local quilt shop), I’ve had no issues with shrinking. Thanks for reading the blog and keep quilting!

  17. I was just at the store looking at the difference between Niagra Spray Starch (aeorsol can) and the non-aerosal Niagra product. The latter does not produce the same degree of stiffness and actually does not contain starch. It does contain an acid-sodium-zinc-salt.

    Do you have any idea how long that zinc-salt compound can stay in the fabric before it starts to degrade the fabric threads? I have a 125 year old crazy quilt with ‘shattered silk’ due to the fact that they used to treat silk fabric with salts to make them stiff and rustle nicely when you walked. According to the quilt appraiser, the microscopic salt crystals are ‘sharp’ enough to cut the threads over time and use.

    Do you always wash your quilts right after you make them? How long have you kept any fabric post starching without washing? I don’t want to set myself up for future failure, I USE my quilts – they won’t last 125 years, but I don’t want to be repairing holes in only 5 or 15 years.

    1. Hi Amy, Thanks interesting. Thanks for taking the time to comment. I haven’t seen a difference in “stiffness” between the aeorsol and pump—both work well for me. I do notice that I inhale less when I use the pump and that’s definitely a benefit for my health especially since I work in a small studio space.
      I do see that the ingredients are different. I don’t know much about zinc-salt. I definitely have quilts that I’ve had for years that I’ve used starch in and haven’t washed (mostly the quilts that I travel with for workshops, presentations, programs) and haven’t noticed any degrading. I would think that with a good wash, the zinc-salt would wash out (but again, I’m definitely not a scientist or expert). If you’re concerned, I would say stay away to be on the safe side.

  18. Stay-flo 50:50 works well for me. I put it in a premium spray pump that provides both volume and even coverage. I also have made my own starch with corn starch which also works well.

    I see many express concerns about bugs. I have never seen one bug on anything that I have starched.

    I’m also a glue baster. Between starch and glue basting I use a washable cotton duck on my ironing surface. Every quilt I make, I launder prior to gifting/using (and if gifted, note that it has been laundered).

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