Starch. Seems very 1950s to me: starchy white bread and mashed potatoes, cornstarch-thickened pie fillings, and ironing my father’s shirts when I was in junior high school. On summer afternoons circa 1970, I’d help my mother with the laundry. With eight kids and almost always two in diapers, there was a lot of it. I’d iron while we watched the soaps: Days of Our Lives and Another World for her and Dark Shadows for me.

    I left fabric starch behind when I worked for money and had a kid. We lived in a wash and wear world. I avoided buying clothes that had to be ironed or dry cleaned.

    When I received my bolt of wool from Shinei, and subsequently the araihari silk lining fabric, neither felt like wool or silk to me. Not only are they are incredibly lightweight, the finish was very smooth, almost like paper. In fact, any piece of washi I have is thicker and heavier than these fabrics.

    Of course, they’re starched. I only ever thought of using starch to stiffen fabric, to get my father’s collars to military crispness. Starched cotton and linen seems cool and summery. But starched silk or wool? Seems antithetical to the soft drape of those fabrics. Reading up on it, I learned that starch also protects fabric. Moreover, starching thread makes smooth and easier to weave, or to sew a running stitch when quilting. (People wax thread for the same effect.)

    I assumed that kimono would be starched with rice starch. I remember the tale of the tongue-cut sparrow who angered the wife by eating the rice starch which had been left out for the laundry. (As a child, I couldn’t understand why the sparrow wanted to eat starch, because I was familiar only with that nasty spray type. But the rice water…full of energy-giving carbs.)

    The ubiquitous American starch is cornstarch. I had some in my pantry. So I did an experimental wash of a piece of the silk lining. Then (following some YouTube video advice on how to wash and starch a sari) dipped the clean damp piece in a solution of 1 tablespoon starch to a cup of water. I let it dry and then ironed it. The cornstarch definitely restored some of the crisp finish, but it wasn’t perfect.

    A little more digging led me to a bunch of YouTube videos on rinsing your hair with rice water to make it silky-smooth and long. Well, of course, it works. Just like it does on the silk. They’re starching their hair. If it protects strands of hair like it protects strands of thread, they might be onto something. After watching the various preparation (cold water, boiled, fermented), I wondered what other starches would work…and when does starch become glue?

    Since I had some cornstarch water leftover, I combed some through my hair. I have very thin, fine hair which has gotten thinner and finer with age. Moreover, it breaks easily and so in Austin humid climate I look like I go to the same stylist as the grandma on the Addams Family. The effect was immediate and amazing. I could run the comb all the way through my hair without snagging. Not only did it leave it feeling silky (not stiff or sticky), it straightened it out so that my hair hangs almost to my waist (a few wisps anyway). If starch protects fibers against breaking, maybe I can finally grow it out.

    Cornstarch (and rice starch) are both used in dry shampoo because starch absorbs oil. But I think that’s just in powder form.

    So what makes glue? (And why didn’t I learn these useful things in school?) The internet replies, “Heating the water breaks down some of the glucose molecules in starch, creating a gel.” Like those overly cornstarch set lemon meringue pie fillings of my youth. Or flour paste for wall paper.

    A trip to Amazon and I find this Japanese rice paste, “nori”. Apparently used in archival work (museums use it) as well as children’s craft projects because it’s pH neutral, slow-drying, and non-toxic. Yes. You can eat your paste (or at least not get sick licking it off your sticky fingers.)

    Circling back to kimono, I read a good blog post on araihari. However, when they talked about the starching process, they said seaweed starch was used. What? Not rice starch? I looked for a Japanese source and the word was “nori”. I thought, ah-ha, a mistranslation. Nori was written phonetically in hiragana (のり). But in kanji, it could be written as 海苔 for the seaweed used in sushi, or 糊 meaning paste, glue, or starch.

    I was feeling pretty smug until I watched the video on the Daruma kimono shop doing araihari. This guy shows how they mix the starch. It comes in a bag looking a whole lot like a dried squid snack.

    And I caught the name on the bag: funori. Funori turns out to be a kind of seaweed of the genus Gloipeltis. (Some kinds are used in miso soup.) The “fu” means fabric, so “funori” means “fabric sea moss” ふのり 【布海苔】

    And funori is also touted as a hair conditioner.

    Starch! Who knew it could be so fascinating? Do you starch your clothes?


    Gloiopeltis is a genus of seaweed that is reddish brown to dark yellow in color. Called ‘funori’ in Japanese, it has been utilized to make glue and binding since ancient times. It is also used as an ingredient in miso soup.

    Until recently, there were five identified species worldwide, three of which were found in Japan- ‘fukuro-funori’ (Gloiopeltis furcata), ‘ma-funori’ (Gloiopeltis tenax) and ‘hana-funori’ (Gloiopeltis complanata). This research team revealed through genetic analyses that there are in fact over ten species of Gloiopeltis in Japan alone.

    Kobe University 2019-11-19