While sewing a vintage 1950s style dress, I ran into a problem trying to design a stiff petticoat. I wanted a full, three-dimensional garment to complete the retro look! I figured this out by learning how to stiffen fabric.
Fabric stiffeners allow material to hold a three-dimensional shape. Common fabric stiffeners include glue, sugar, gelatin, cornstarch, hairspray, and even wallpaper paste. Some commercial sprays, glues, and interfacing will permanently stiffen fabric.
In this article, you will learn how fabric stiffeners work. You will also discover ten easy methods for stiffening fabric. Finally, you will discover the kinds of material that can hold a shape on their own.
What is Fabric Stiffener?
Fabric stiffener is any product that hardens and firms cloth, allowing it to hold a shape. You can use fabric stiffeners for sewing, crafting, and even sculpting!
In sewing, the most common kind of stiffener used is interfacing. Generally, you will find iron-on interfacing the easiest option here, since it quickly adheres to most kinds of cloth when ironed. However, spray-on stiffeners can also help create neat cuffs and collars for certain kinds of sewn garments.
If you have an interest in cosplay, costuming, or vintage clothing, you may already use stiffened fabric for full-bodied skirts, decoratively shaped lace, or realistic-looking armor!
You can also fabric stiffeners to shape hats. These days, making your own hat may seem antiquated. Still, this old-fashioned skill also requires many different forms of stiffened fabric, from shaping the hat itself to adding decorative elements like ribbons and flowers!
Many different kinds of crafts require stiffened fabric. If you like to make dolls, you might need stiffened fabric for some portions of their anatomy. Or you may need to harden burlap into a set shape to create a basket. You may want to arrange ribbons into elegant curls for a door wreath or freeze an elegant crocheted doily in a stiff circle!
You can also use fabric stiffeners for classic artistic pursuits such as creating painting canvases or making fabric sculptures.
As a DIY crafter or sewer, you may prefer to use household items you have on hand as fabric stiffeners. These include simple items like gelatin, sugar, and cornstarch.
If you prefer to save time by purchasing commercial fabric stiffeners, you can find a number for sale at any local arts and craft sale. Plus, you can repurpose commercial products like Mod Podge and wallpaper paste into a fabric stiffener if you happen to have that on hand!
The key thing to look for in any product you choose is that it should dry clear without leaving any trace on the material. It should also firmly hold the shape you gave the fabric, of course!
How to Stiffen Fabric Permanently: 10 Methods
All good fabric stiffeners will dry hard, holding the material in a set shape. That said, most fabric stiffeners are water-soluble, meaning that the stiffness could dissolve when exposed to water. For this reason, few fabric stiffeners offer true permanency.
The average spray-on starch, for example, has an excellent, stiff hold. It gives the cloth a nice shape and crisp edges. Despite that, it will come out in the wash, and you will have to apply it again the next time you iron that piece of clothing.
However, if you don’t plan to wash an item, you can safely use a water-soluble stiffener in a permanent way. So long as that item does not get exposed to water, the stiffener will hold its shape indefinitely!
The only types of commonly used fabric stiffeners that offer a truly permanent set are iron-on interfacing and some types of glue.
That said, not every project needs a concrete-like hardness! You may need to firm up a poof of netting for a fancy dress or give a crisp edge to a tailored blazer.
Each of the stiffeners described here has a particular kind of use. Some work better with certain kinds of fabric than others. The bottom line is that you should match your project to the kind of fabric stiffeners best suited to your needs!
1. Iron-On InterfacingInterfacing is a stiff, light material available in varying weights and thicknesses. Both professional and home sewers use it to provide extra body in clothing in places such as buttonholes, cuffs, collars, and waistbands.
Usually, interfacing comes in plain white since it either serves as a backing to the main material or gets sandwiched between the main fabric and a lining.
The easiest interfacing to use is iron-on since it has a shiny side that melts onto fabric when ironed. You can use interfacing on most kinds of material, though you will not want to apply it to a sheer or see-through cloth because it will show through!
Follow these easy steps to stiffen your fabric using iron-on interfacing!
- Cut a small scrap of the interfacing and your material. Do a test run with your iron to make sure the heat and the interfacing adhesive do not damage the material. Find out how hot you can set your iron without scorching or melting the material.
- Prewash your material. Most sewing projects suggest taking this step regardless, but you need to prewash when you use interfacing. Otherwise, the fabric and interfacing might shrink at different rates later on.
- Select the portions of your sewing project that need extra stiffness or body. Do you want extra support around buttonholes or in a collar? Find the relevant pattern pieces and simply cut them out of the interfacing.
- Match the interfacing to the fabric. You will need to place the shiny side of the interfacing on the wrong side of the material. Make sure all edges, corners, and curves align neatly.
- Let your iron heat up to the hottest setting you could use on the sample scrap. The hotter and steamier the iron, the more easily the interfacing will adhere! That said, some delicate and synthetic fabrics can’t handle high heat, so you can also go low and slow.
- If you have a delicate material, you may want to use a pressing cloth.
- Iron the fabric and the interfacing together! Allow them to cool slightly and then tug on the interfacing to make sure the adhesive melted on.
2. Glue/PVA GlueMost of the kinds of glue you use every day fall into the category of PVA, or polyvinyl acetate, glues. These include Elmer’s glue, wood glue, and craft glue! These types of glue are water-soluble, meaning that they will not remain permanent when exposed to moisture.
Despite that, creating a mixture of glue and water remains one of the most popular methods of stiffening fabric. This technique works well for any project that requires quite hard material, such as a door wreath, a fabric basket, or some components of costume-making.
- Find a disposable container and mix up equal parts glue and water. If you have a large amount of cloth or ribbon to stiffen, use a larger amount of glue and water! Just make sure you use a 50/50 ratio, so the solution does not become too thick or too thin.
- For some projects, you may want to soak the material in the glue solution. It will only need five to ten minutes to saturate in the glue.
- You will then need to shape the wet fabric into the desired contours.
- Alternatively, you can arrange the ribbon or fabric on a frame of some sort (usually wires bent into the right shape) and then use a cheap brush to apply the glue solution to the fabric.
- Either way, make sure you remove any drips of excess glue before the mixture dries.
This process creates a hard, plastic-like surface on the fabric and holds it firmly in a 3D shape. You can use it on any kind of material, even see-through or delicate kinds!
3. GelatinGelatin is a cheap foodstuff that can also serve as a fabric stiffener. Don’t worry, it won’t make your fabric all wobbly like jello! Gelatin contains a lot of collagen, and the protein in the collagen hardens during the heating and cooling process.
If you have ever made jello before, you know that gelatin dissolves easily in water. This means it lacks water resistance and isn’t entirely permanent. That said, gelatin has an excellent hold and creates a stiff texture for most fabrics.
This method works really well on slippery silk! The added stiffness makes it easier to cut out, align, and sew silk.
- To make a gelatin bath, you will need to heat a pot of water. Don’t let it boil, but you do want it steaming!
- Measure one teaspoon of gelatin for every sixteen ounces (2 cups) of hot water. You will need enough water to easily cover your fabric, so measure accordingly!
- Stir the mixture together until the gelatin dissolves.
- Let the mixture sit for half an hour. This allows the gelatin to activate.
- Add the fabric to the mixture, swishing it around a bit to make sure all of it sinks into the gelatin and water bath.
- Allow the material to soak for an hour.
- When you lift the cloth out of the bath, try to press some of the moisture out. You do not want to wring it out, as this could damage delicate material!
- If you just want stiffer silk to cut out for your sewing project, you will need to dry it on a flat surface or hang it on a drying rack.
- If you want the material to dry in a 3D shape, arrange it into the right shape, using supports as necessary.
- Let the wet material dry overnight.
4. Commercial StiffenersCommercial fabric stiffeners usually contain a synthetic, glue-like substance. They have convenient spray tops to make application a breeze. In general, they are non-toxic, though you might not like the way they smell!
You can typically apply additional coats of the spray-on stiffener.
Popular brands of commercial stiffeners include Aleene’s, Mod Podge Stiffy, and Spray N’ Bond.
If you go with a commercial stiffener, make sure you read the instructions on the package before use. This should give you clear directions for application, drying times, and so on.
5. HairsprayHairspray offers a cheap, convenient method for quickly stiffening fabric. This works well on any non-washable item, such as a doll or craft. It can also work as a substitute for starch in your clothing or costume if you’re desperate!
That said, you do need to make sure you select a hairspray that does not contain alcohol. Alcohol could cause the dye in some material to run or create bleached spots on your clothing!
For this super-simple method, just follow these steps!
- Work in a well-ventilated area, or take a small item outside.
- Use a smooth back-and-forth to spray the material until it is thoroughly saturated.
- For 3D shapes like hats or many crafts, arrange the damp cloth into the desired shape and then let the material dry in that shape.
- For clothing, smooth the damp fabric flat onto the ironing board and then iron it to set the hairspray stiffly, like starch!
6. Mod PodgeYou can use Mod Podge as a clear, firm coat to stiffen many kinds of fabric. All you have to do is follow the steps described in the glue section earlier in this article.
Basically, regular Mod Podge is just watered-down PVA glue! (Shocker, right? All those bottles you bought over the years for decoupage and scrapbooking when you could have used craft glue!).
That said, you can also buy a special product called Mod Podge Stiffy that offers a spray-on fabric stiffener. This does hold material very well, and it saves you the trouble of mixing up your recipe!
If you choose to use Mod Podge Stiffy, you will want to follow the instructions on the package.
7. CornstarchCornstarch makes a great fabric stiffener because it goes through a process called gelatinization when exposed to heat and moisture. It absorbs the water around it, turning it thick and goopy!
Starch gives non-washable items a nice crisp, permanent hold. However, cornstarch will not provide a permanent hold for anything that will get wet. Cornstarch also will not work as well on any synthetic fabric.
You can easily make your own cornstarch stiffener.
- In a small saucepan, combine one tablespoon of cornstarch with six tablespoons of water. If you need more, you can make this mixture in a larger amount. Just keep the ratio of one part cornstarch to six parts water.
- Stir till the cornstarch dissolves.
- Heat until slightly thickened over medium-low heat.
- You can then either submerge your fabric in the warm mixture and shape it while wet, or shape it and then paint the thick cornstarch liquid onto it with a cheap paintbrush.
8. Commercial StarchApplying commercial starch, also known as spray starch, gives the fabric a nice crisp finish. It can add a bit of extra body to puffy garments like gathered skirts or petticoats, as well as making shirts and slacks look sharp. Of course, this is a temporary stiffener for anything you plan to wash, such as clothing.
That said, you can create a semi-permanent stiffness for various crafts and artistic projects using spray starch! If you’re working with synthetic fabric, you can get the same result by using an alternative spray product called sizing.
To starch fabric, follow these simple steps. The ironing step is key because heat will activate the thickening ability in the starch, allowing it to stiffen the fabric.
- Wash and dry the fabric first. This removes any chemical coatings, dust, or dirt that might make it hard for the starch to stick to the fabric’s fibers.
- Arrange the fabric on your ironing board.
- Spritz thoroughly with spray starch. Let this sit for a couple of minutes to soak in.
- Press the damp material with your iron. Make sure you use a heat setting that is safe for your material.
Believe it or not, you can use sugar as a simple fabric stiffener, too! Now, in all honesty, this is an old-fashioned recipe that may not provide the permanent results of many commercial products you can buy today. But it’s worth considering since it served as one of the classic methods of fabric stiffening–especially for lace and doilies–for a very long time!
- Combine a 1:1 ratio of water and sugar in a small saucepan.
- Stir until the sugar dissolves.
- Bring the mixture to a boil.
- Remove from heat.
- If you see crystallized sugar along the edges of the saucepan, brush them down using a wet pastry brush.
- Next, use cooking tongs to dip your lace, doily, or handkerchief doll into the sugar mixture.
- Allow the fabric item to cool slightly, and then arrange it into the desired shape.
- Let it dry overnight.
10. Wallpaper PasteWallpaper paste dissolved in water can also make a fairly permanent fabric stiffener. Most wallpaper paste contains starch and cellulose ethel, both products that have strong adhesion.
Is wallpaper paste better than the glue method? Well, it probably smells stronger, and you may want to test it beforehand to make sure it dries clear. This can vary, depending on the brand of paste!
Wallpaper paste also costs more than your average bottle of Elmer’s glue.
Aside from those concerns, it will almost certainly provide a long-lasting, fairly permanent stiffness in any fabric object.
- Combine a 1:1 ratio of water and wallpaper paste. The paste usually comes as a powder packet.
- Stir them together until you don’t see any lumps floating on the surface.
- Submerge your fabric in this mix.
- Arrange the wet fabric in the desired shape by draping it over a frame or molding it by hand.
- Allow the fabric to dry completely.
What is the Best Fabric Stiffener?
The best fabric stiffener for you depends on the kind of project you’re working on. If you’re sewing clothes, you will probably want interfacing or a commercial spray to help stiffen the material. If you’re making crochet snowflakes, you probably want a cornstarch or sugar solution to soak the doilies in.
If you’re looking for the best commercial product on the market, check out these three popular brands!
Mod Podge Plaid Stiffy Fabric StiffenerMod Podge has a famous brand name and this firm-hold fabric glue lives up to the name! It dries in a clear, firm coat on many types of fabric, you can apply this to most woven material as well as ribbon and lace.
On the downside, it comes in both a bottle and a spray bottle, so make sure you get the kind you want for easy application!
This product is water-soluble, meaning that it will dissolve if washed.
Aleene’s Fabric Stiffening SprayPossibly the most popular fabric stiffener spray on the market, Aleene’s sells a range of products, including this hand Stiffen-Quick spray bottle.
This spray-on coating dries super fast. You can add additional coats if you need a more firm finish to your piece.
Aleene’s stiffening sprays provide a great finish but will wash out when exposed to water.
That said, it dries fast and clear, making it an instant solution for last-minute gifts or decorations!
SpraynBond Fabric StiffenerSpraynBond offers another spray-on, quick-drying fabric stiffener. It makes the fabric stiff like paper, allowing you to easily cut the material without any fraying edges.
If you like to quilt or applique, you will find this a useful product!
You can either allow the cloth to air dry or iron it to set the stiffness instantly. You may need multiple coats to stiffen heavy-weight materials, but this spray works very well on macrame, ribbon, yarn, and lace!
Homemade Fabric Stiffener
As described earlier in this article, you can easily make your own homemade fabric stiffener using sugar or cornstarch. You can also make another recipe using nothing but a little rice!
- Measure four cups of water and two cups of rice into a pot.
- Bring the water to a boil and boil for about ten minutes.
- Strain the water into a clean, shallow dish. (You can save the rice, finish cooking it and eat it later on!).
- Dilute the rice water with another cup of warm water.
- Soak your fabric in the rice water for five minutes.
- Allow it to drip for a few moments, and then either hang it up to dry to arrange in the right shape before allowing it to air dry.
This method makes another kind of starch out of rice!
What is a Waterproof Fabric Stiffener?
To waterproof or weatherproof fabric, you almost always have to apply a finishing coat of some kind of silicone or acrylic spray. Most fabric stiffeners are water-soluble and do not even have strong water resistance, let alone a true waterproof ability!
Even the commercial products described in this article will dissolve in the wash since most of them use water-based glues.
The good news is that you can find lots of commercial waterproofing sprays available. These work well on things like outdoor awnings, patio umbrellas, or even a camping tent!
Brands like Scotchgard, Mod Podge, and Krylon all make this kind of sealant.
Stiff Fabric That Holds Shape
In some circumstances, you can choose a fabric that has a natural stiffness instead of seeking out a fabric stiffening product! Some of these naturally stiff materials include netting, canvas, buckram, organdy, interfacing, and some kinds of denim.
Even fabric with a loose weave like cotton can hold a shape when it has a heavy enough weight or thickness. Thin felt, for example, flops all over. But thick felt can hold a shape easily.
You can also use one of these materials that can hold a shape, like netting, to give the body to lighter material. For example, many formal gowns have a netting layer beneath the skirt to give it a full shape!
Popular homemade fabric stiffeners use sugar, gelatin, cornstarch, rice, or Elmer’s glue to shape and hold the fabric. Commercial products such as Mod Podge, Aleene’s, and SpraynBond also give most fabric types a firm finish. Some fabric stiffeners work better on certain types of material.
Almost all types of fabric stiffeners are water-soluble. For a truly permanent hold, an application of an acrylic or silicone sealant will waterproof the fabric.
Have you ever made your own fabric stiffener? What recipe did you use? Leave a comment below to let us know!