Friday, June 14, 2013

A Fabric Encyclopedia


In my long experience with sewing vintage patterns and reading vintage sewing books, I have come across quite a few fabric terms that have been a mystery to me.

For this post I have consulted a few websites and many of my sewing books to help you make sense of some of the fabric terms you might see in your sewing adventures. This includes fibers as well as weaves. To make it a bit more clear, they are color coded as follows: Weaving Processes, Fibers, Fabrics and Finishes.

If you have a mystery fabric in your possession, check out this amazing burn test chart to help you discover which fibers you might be dealing with!

If you have any terms to add, just leave a comment. I'll try to update this post regularly to make it as helpful as possible!


ACETATE: A man-made fiber (cellulose based) treated with acetic acid. Not to be confused with rayon, which as been treated differently. Tip: Iron it only on the coolest setting you can.

ALPACA: A long, fine hair from a South American Alpaca sheep. Soft, strong and lustrous.

ANGORA WOOL: Refers to the downy coat produced by the angora rabbit. The fiber is woven into a yarn for use in knitting.

BASKET-WEAVE: A variation of a plain-weave in which two or more filling yarns pass over and under two or more warp yarns. Looks very similar to the pattern in woven baskets.

BATISTE: A very fine, lightweight cotton with a lustrous finish. Used for baby clothes, lingerie and blouses.

BENGALINE: Stiff cross-ribbed fabric of wool, rayon, silk or cotton. Used for formal wear, curtains, coats and purses.

BOUCLE: Fabric with loops all over the surface and the backgrounds showing, giving it a nubby, uneven texture. Can be made from wool, rayon, cotton, silk and linen. Used for suits, sportswear and dresses.

BROADCLOTH: Cotton broadcloth is a plain-weave, very closely woven with fine cross ribs. Used for dresses, blouses, shirts, and pajamas. Wool broadcloth has a twill weave and lustrous napped surface and is used for suits and coats.

BROCADE: A rich fabric of almost any fiber with an intricate, raised design. Used for dresses, jackets, and home decor such as draperies, pillows and upholstery.

BUCKRAM: A stiff, open-weave fabric woven from coarse yarns and used primarily for stiffening and interfacing (often in millinery).



CASHMERE: A very soft wool from Kashmir goats. Though it's fragile, it is silky and blends well with other fibers.


CALICO: A washable, printed cotton with a closely-woven, plain weave. Used for aprons, dresses, and children's clothing.

CHALLIS: Formerly of worsted and silk, now of wool, rayon, cotton or other yarns. Lightweight, plain-weave, with a slightly napped, soft finish. It often comes in a small floral print and is used for children's and women's dresses, negligees, and baby things.

CHAMBRAY: A plain-weave cotton with warp and filling yarns in contrasting colors, giving it a changeable appearance. Often in solid colors and stripes and used for dresses, shirts, sportswear and children's clothing.

CHEVIOT: A woven wool in herringbone and twill weave, similar to serge but doesn't develop a shine as easily so it's more practical. Used for suits, coats and men's wear.

CHIFFON: A plain-weave, soft sheer fabric of silk or similar fibers, in either solids or prints. The word chiffon is sometimes used to describe the softness or light weight of other fabrics such as chiffon velvet. Used for dresses, scarves, lingerie, and luxury garments.

CHINTZ: A plain-weave cotton, usually glazed. It is often printed or striped. The glaze may or may not be permanent after several washings. Used for curtains, bedspreads, skirts and dresses.

CORDUROY: A cotton or rayon with the pile cut in rows or wales running lengthwise. The wales may be wide or narrow. Used for sportswear, curtains, bedspreads, upholstery and children's clothing.

COVERT: A wool or cotton, smooth-finished twill of medium to heavy weight. It has warp and filling of contrasting colors, giving it a flecked or speckled appearance. used for suits and coats.

CREPE: A plain-weave silk, nylon, rayon, cotton, wool or blend with a crinkled surface and sometimes an uneven, pebbled effect due to highly twisted yarns. Used for Dresses, lingerie, linings and blouses.

CREPE-BACK SATIN: A satin finish on one side and crepe on the other. Both sides can be used and one may even trim the other for a lovely textural effect. Used for dresses, lingerie, blouses, evening and bridal gowns.

DAMASK: A reversible patterned fabric of silk, linen, cotton, wool, or blends. Used for tablecloths, curtains, evening wear  and upholstery.

DENIM: A heavy, sturdy twill-weave cotton in several weights. Usually striped or plain and more recently in prints, plaids, and stretch versions. White filling threads and colored warp threads can give it that old-fashioned faded denim look. May shrink unless treated. Used in jeans, sportswear, work clothes and children's wear. 

DIMITY: A crisp, sheer, plain-weave cotton with cord stripes or checks. Can be white, plain or printed. Used for dresses, blouses, lingerie, baby wear, and curtains.

DOTTED SWISS: A crisp, sheer,  plain- weave cotton, nylon or blend with woven dots which match or contrast. Paste or flock dots may look the same but will wear off, so are not true dotted swiss. Used in curtains, dresses and children's clothes.

DUPIONI: A type of silk fabric, similar to shantung, but with a more irregular weave. Medium to heavy weights, it can be quite stiff and has a wonderful luster.It is also woven with threads of other colors to create a multicolor effect to trick the eye. Used in dresses, bridal and formal wear, curtains and home decor.

FAILLE: A fairly soft, cross-ribbed fabric usually of rayon, silk or cotton. It has ribs but they are flatter than those of bengaline. Used for dresses, suits and curtains.

FELT: A fabric with wool or hair fibers processed by felting, not weaving. If non-wool fibers are used, a cementing process is used. It is a warm fabric, but not usually sturdy. Used in hats, skirts, jackets and slippers.

FELTING: A process o f applying high heat, moisture and pressure to fibers in order to bond them together without any weaving or knitting. Felt isn't as strong as woven fabrics, but it has a good body, is warm, and widely used for hats, skirts and slippers.

FLANNEL: Dress and suit flannel of wool or blends has a firm twill-weave with a light nap and is great for tailored clothes. Outing flannel is cotton, plain or twill-weave and napped on both sides. Canton flannel is cotton in a twill-weave with a heavy nap on the under side. Both of these are used for sleep wear, interlinings and children's clothing.

FLEECE: A wool or synthetic that is soft and fluffy with a deep napped surface. Used for coats, blankets, children's and outer garments.

GABARDINE:  A tightly woven twill-weave of wool, rayon, cotton or blend that is quite durable. It may develop a shine with wear. Used in coats, suits, sportswear, dresses and uniforms.

GINGHAM: A plain-weave cotton that is yarn-dyed in solid colors, plaids, checks or stripes. It has a sheer to medium weight. Used in dresses, play clothes, shirts, pajamas, and curtains.

GROSGRAIN: A closely-woven, firm and fairly heavy fabric with round cords running crosswise. It is heavier than bangaline and can be made of silk, rayon, and cotton. Used in ribbons, dresses, millinery, suits, and neckties.

HERRINGBONE: A wool or rayon fabric with a zigzag weave. Used for coats, suits and men's wear.

JERSEY: A knitted fabric using a plain-knit stitch. The fabric holds varying degrees of elasticity and is apt to not hold shape well. It also runs easily when made of smooth yarns, and not as easily when woven from wool or rough, napped yarns. Used for underwear, blouses, dresses, children's clothes, and some swimwear.

LINEN: the oldest known fabric, it is a plain-weave and often crisp in sheer to heavy weights. It wrinkles very easily unless it has been treated but is quite durable. Used in dresses, suits, children's clothes, table cloths, sheets, handkerchiefs and drapery.

MADRAS: A firmly-woven cotton sometimes with small designs, check or lengthwise stripes in the weave. Used in shirts, dresses and blouses.

MARQUISETTE: A sheer fabric in different weights made from cotton, rayon, nylon, silk and wool. Can be dyed, printed or with woven dots. Used in curtains and evening wear.

MATELASSE: A woven silk, wool, cotton, rayon or blend with a quilted effect. Used in formal wear, dresses and curtains.

MELTON: A heavy wool with a thick, smooth, sheered nap in a twill or satin-weave. Dull or semi-lustrous and sometimes uses cotton warp threads. Used in overcoats, uniforms and jackets.

MERCERIZED: The process of treating fabric or threads with a caustic soda solution to produce a greater sheen, better dying capability, and more strength.

MOIRE: A finely ribbed silk, rayon, or acetate with a watermark finish. The design is pressed into the fabric, permanent in only in acetate or heat-set materials. Used in evening wear, robes, ties, curtains and bridal wear.

MUSLIN: A firm, plain-weave cotton that can be unbleached, piece-dyed or printed. Too much sizing will show poor quality and will wash out. Sheets can be made of heavier muslin (see thread count labels). Used for household wear, uniforms, children's wear...and wonderful for test garments.

NAINSOOK: A plain-weave, soft cotton like batiste, but heavier. Usually it is mercerized for a soft luster. Used for baby clothes and lingerie.

NET: An open-mesh formed by yarns twisted together. It may be hexagonal or diagonal.  Used in Bridal wear, evening wear, support petticoats, and curtains.

NYLON: The first truly synthetic fiber. Used alone or in blends, it is quick-drying, elastic, and stron.
Tip: iron it only on the cool setting.

ORGANDY: A thin and crisp, almost transparent cotton or blend with a plain weave. It often has permanent starch already applied and wrinkles easily unless treated. Used in children's clothes, evening, bridal, bedspreads, curtains, and table wear.

PERCALE: A firm, smooth, plain-weave fabric similar to muslin but composed of finer yarns and with a higher thread count. Used for sheets, shirts, dresses and curtains.

PILE-WEAVE: Based on the use of loops. There are two sets of warp threads; one is held tight and the other is is loose. The filling threads are woven in and the the loose warp threads are formed into loops. The may be left that way, as in Turkish toweling, or cut off evenly, as one sees in velvet.

PIQUE: A medium to heavy weight  cotton, rayon or silk in several weaves. Pin-wale pique has very fine wales running lengthwise. Wide-wale has wider wales. Waffle pique has woven honeycomb check. Birdseye pique has a closely spaced diamond-shaped design. Used for baby clothes, blouses, dresses, summer suits and slacks.

PLAIN-WEAVE: The most common of the weaves and sometimes referred to as, "over one under one." Each of the crosswise yarns, or "filling" goes over and under each of the lengthwise yarns, or "warp." Some plain-weave fabrics include linen, gingham, muslin, percale, pongee and shantung.

PLISSE: A plain-weave cotton with a crinkled design in either patterns or stripes. It has a permanent finish but it can be flattened out by pressing with an iron. Used for lingerie, children's clothes, curtains and bedspreads.

PONGEE: Is similar to shantung but lighter in weight. It has an uneven, slubbed texture. Used for dresses, lingerie, blouses and children's clothes.

POPLIN: A medium-weight fabric that is slightly heavier than cotton broadcloth with a fine crosswise rib. It can be made from cotton, silk, wool, rayon or blends.

RAYON: A man-made fiber (from regenerated cellulose) using a viscose process. It dyes well, can be ironed on higher heats, and it often used in blends. In Europe, it is often referred to as Viscose.

RATINE: A plain-weave with a nubby, almost spongy texture from the yarns used. Can be made from numerous fibers. Used for coats, dresses, suits and curtains.

SANFORIZED: A process which kept fabrics from shrinking more than 1%.

SATEEN: A cotton with a satin-weave.  Used for linings, children's wear, dresses, blouses... note: it's a huge cat fur magnet!

SATIN: A lustrous fabric in silk, rayon, nylon, acetate or poly blends. Only the right side has any luster. Used in bridal wear, lingerie, bedding, draperies, formal wear, skirts and trimmings. Actually, it's used for just about everything now that I think about it.

SATIN-WEAVE: Made by the crosswise filling yarns going over and under from 4-12 lengthwise yarns. either the warp or filling yarns can sit on the surface. Sateen has the filling yarns on the surface. Satin has the warp yarns on the surface. These surface threads, or "floats" give the fabric its characteristic sheen and luster on the one side. Not quite as durable as fabrics made from a twill-weave.

SEERSUCKER: A plain-weave cotton, nylon, or rayon with lengthwise crinkled stripes. Miraculously, it never needs ironing. Used for dresses, sportswear, children's clothes, bedding and curtains.

SERGE: A hard-finish worsted wool with a twill-weave. It is quite durable and holds creases well, but can get a bit shiny from wear. Used for suits, men's wear and jackets.

SHANTUNG: A plain-weave fabric with nubby, crosswise yarns. It can be made from silk, rayon, nylon, cotton or poly-blends. It occasionally has a figured pattern woven in. Used for dresses, suits, blouses and curtains.

SHARKSKIN: There are a few versions of sharkskin (not actually from sharks, thank God). One type is a worsted blended with a synthetic fiber, clear finished, in a reversible twill-weave. Another can be made from firm, heavy acetate in a plain or basket-weave. It is very firmly woven and almost chalky in appearance, as well as being quite stiff. Used in suits and sportswear. Lighter weight blends were often used for swimwear before Lycra became popular. Many 1940's-1950's bathing suit patterns will suggest the use of sharkskin.

SHOT: The process of weaving fabric with one color warp and a different color weft so the overall color of the fabric changes depending on the angle at which it is viewed. This technique is often found in taffeta, shantung, and dupioni. It is also used for iridescent cotton, also known as changeable fabric, or shot cotton.

SURAH: Is defines as any lightweight twill-woven silk or silk-like fabric. It is sometimes referred to as tie silk. May be printed, dyed, or woven in checks, plaids and stripes. Used for neckties, scarves, dresses and jackets.
--many silk-like scarves you find in thrift shops these days are often made from surah.

TAFFETA: A crisp, lustrous, firm and closely-woven silk, rayon, acetate, nylon, cotton, wool or poly-blend. Can be found in plain colors, and woven designs or changeable effects. Used for evening wear, slips (most often in the 1950's when volume was sought), bedding and curtains. Most notably used for many a hideous bridesmaid dress.

TERRY CLOTH: A very absorbent pile-weave cotton with a surface made from uncut loops on both sides. Used for towels, beachwear and robes.

TRICOT: A knit fabric of silk, rayon, acetate, nylon or other smooth fibers. Wales run lengthwise on the face in jersey, for example, but chain stitches show crosswise on the back side. It is very fine, almost run-proof and only slightly elastic with a nice drape. Used for lingerie, dresses, and great for gloves.

TROPICAL WORSTED: A lightweight, plain-woven wool that is unnapped, porous, smooth and quite resistant to stains. It is also quite durable and won't wrinkle. Used for summer suits and jackets.

TWEED: A rough-surfaced, nubby wool found in plain, twill, or herringbone weaves. It is durable, bulky, warm and will not hold a crease unless it has been treated first. Mixtures of wool-like and cotton yarns may be used. Used for suites, trousers, sportswear, and many a professor's jacket.

TWILL WEAVE: Made by crosswise yarns passing over and under groups of lengthwise yarns (warp) at regular intervals.Each succeeding row of the filling enters the group of warp yarns at a different thread, creating a diagonal ribbed effect.

UNFINISHED WORSTED: A soft, smooth, closely-woven wool, usually found in a twill-weave. It's lightly napped surface helps prevent shine from wear. Used in suits and coats.

VELOUR: The French term for velvet, velour comes in a few types: one is heavy with a long pile, sometimes called plush. It's used for upholstery and coats. The other is a napped wool with a satin or twill weave. The nap is long and heavy but shows background threads. More recently, velour has been woven with more elastic fibers to better facilitate those alarmingly attractive sweat suits.

VELVET: A fabric with a deep pile that can be silky and soft. Often made from silk, cotton, nylon, rayon or blends. Used in luxury women's wear and home decor.

VELVETEEN: A fabric similar to velvet, but with a short pile in cotton with a plain or twill weave. Used in jumpers, sportswear, children's clothes, and the occasional magical rabbit.

VOILE: A sheer, almost transparent plain-weave fabric in cotton, silk, rayon, nylon or blends. Used in dresses, blouses and curtains.

WORSTED: A type of yarn made from wool, as well as the fabric made from that yarn. Used in Suits and tailored garments.

6 comments:

  1. SHOT: The process of weaving fabric with one color warp and a different color weft so the overall color of the fabric changes depending on the angle at which it is viewed. This technique is often found in taffetas, shantungs, and dupionis.

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    1. Thanks for contributing, Lilith! I'll add that right in!

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  2. Thanks much! I was just looking at a pattern that called for sharkskin and I was like ??????. Good to know that it's not actually shark skin.

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  3. wow Mrs Depew, you did a lot of typing on these definitions. I am impressed! I have been sewing longer than forever & many times I have asked a fabric store clerk if they have "batiste,pique,madras & crepe back satin". And they had no clue. So I think that you have helped out many ladies out there who don't know. Keep up the good work! Love your blog!!

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  4. This is a great list! Thank you for taking the time to prepare it!

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  5. Love the laid back look! The sandals are beautiful!

    Loose dress

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