The large ruffs you find in Dutch early seventeenth-century portraits are the results of the time consuming efforts of linen bleaching, sewing, starching and setting. A ruff is constructed from a long strip of fabric, usually very fine linen lawn (Holland lawn was the finest around, made, obviously, in The Netherlands), gathered into cartridge pleats.
The length of fabric ranged from a few meters up to nearly 20 meters and ruffs could have anything from 30 all the way up to hundreds of pleats! The famous Dutch portraits such as the one above by Frans Hals, often show ruffs of around 200 pleats and we can assume that the painter painted the ruffs fairly accurately.
The laundress had the responsibility to starch and set the ruff in the shape required with the aide of a hot poking stick to set the pleats. Rain and wear would ‘melt’ the starch and would make the ruff go floppy and the work would have to start all over again.
In Jonson’s play Every Man out of his Humour (1598) a character warns his friend to “keep close; yet not so close, thy breath will thaw my ruff”.
A rare surviving ruff is in Munich’s Bayerisches Nationalmuseum, where there is a linen ruff from around 1620-40 with no less than 530 pleats (images are hard to find). It is one of very few original ruffs left in the world ( as far as I can tell at the moment, there are only three original ruffs left, the other being in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam and in the Stockholm Armory Museum).
The ruff on this unknown lady (above) was painted by Frans Hals in 1633 and is impressive indeed. Perfectly starched and bleached it frames the face of a confident elderly lady who looks at us with a twinkle in her eye. She seems dressed modestly but do not let her soberly coloured outfit fool you as the quality of her black brocade jacket and satin skirt are of the highest quality indeed. She is dressed fairly conservatively as in the 1630s a ruff would have been quite out of fashion already.