Goffering Iron
Goffering Iron

In a tiny fort at the edge of a continent, an ocean away from London society, someone thought it was important to keep their ruffs up. Elizabethan clothing was complicated and colorful as a display of its wearer’s wealth. Specific tools — and the servants to use them —were needed to keep up appearances in the mud of James Fort and the heat and humidity of a Virginia summer.

Five goffering irons have been found so far in James Fort, with diameters ranging from 13 to 63 mm. The irons don’t weigh much because their tubing is hollow. To goffer means to crimp or frill, and such irons did that for the cartwheel ruffs popular from about 1580 to 1610. The material to be ironed would first be stiffened with white starch and then pressed over the heated iron to make a semi-circular fold. The goffering tube was heated by inserting a red hot iron of a slightly smaller diameter into it. It was a long and hot process for the servant doing it.

English society in the early 1600s maintained clear dividing lines between classes, ranks, and professions, and clothing was one of the markers of those lines. It may seem odd for the men to continue these displays in a remote military colony. Yet Englishmen thought their class structure was one of the reasons they would succeed in colonizing North America. The ranks were not irrelevant in the woods; instead, they were vital to success.

The discovery of starch allowed ruffs to be made wider without losing their shape, so some ruffs grew to be a foot wide. George Percy, the “highest born gentleman of the settlement,” requested that his brother in London send him starch in July 1608—and it may have helped Percy survive the “starving time” winter of 1609-1610, when food supplies were so low that “those that had starch for their ruffs made a gluey porridge of it.”

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