Friday, June 14, 2013

A Fabric Encyclopedia

In my long experience working with vintage sewing books and patterns, I have come across quite a few fabric terms that have been a mystery to me. Many of the terms included below might not often be seen outside of a 1920s hat pattern, or a 1930s dressmaking book.

For this post I have consulted several resources including websites and many of my antique 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 has been treated differently. Tip: Iron it only on the coolest setting you can.

AGARIC: A cotton fabric of loop yarn construction with a surface somewhat similar to fine Turkish toweling.

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.

ARMURE: A form of weave which produces a fine, pebbled surface - sometimes seen in silk.

BADEN HEMP: A superior grade of hemp, stripped by hand. 

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.

BATAVIA CLOTH: A variety of straw cloth woven with cotton or silk threads in lacy or net designs - often used in millinery and draping. The name is also used for a cloth made of wood manufactured in the Philippines.

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. The thick threads or cords run from selvedge to selvedge. Used for formal wear, millinery, 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.

BROCHE (broché): A fabric with elaborate figures woven on the surface of the fabric, as with brocade.

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

CAMEL HAIR: A fabric woven of long staple wool and having loose hair on the surface.

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.

CHARDONNET SILK: An artificial silk named after its inventor made by dissolving nitrated cellulose in ether.

CHARMEUSE: a light-weight satin having a high, natural luster; also a very light silk-satin crepe finished with a high luster on the face and a pebbled effect on the back.

CHENILLE: A cotton, wool, or silk yarn having a pile protruding all around at right angles to the central threads.

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 lightweight of other fabrics such as chiffon velvet. Used for dresses, scarves, lingerie, and luxury garments.

CHINE (Chiné): Warp printed; a term applied to fabric wherein the design, printed on the warps, appears somewhat faint and indefinite in outline.

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, and evening and bridal gowns.

CRIN: The French term for horsehair; refers often to horsehair braid used in hat making or a hat made of hair braid.

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.

DUCHESTER: A kind of English velvet.

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 multi-color 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 of 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 is 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 underside. Both of these are used for sleepwear, 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.

GEORGETTE: a sheer, lightweight, crêpe fabric with a dull finish named after the early 20th-century French dressmaker Georgette de la Plante. Originally made from silk and made with highly twisted yarns.
GEORGETTE CREPE: A crinkled chiffon.

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 bengaline and can be made of silk, rayon, and cotton. Used in ribbons, dresses, millinery, suits, and neckties.

HABUTAI: A fine washable Japanese silk, smooth and even in texture.

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

JACQUARD: A design produced by the loom invented by Jacquard, whereby complicated figures are woven into the fabric.

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, tablecloths, 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.

MALINE: A soft, thin gauzy fabric, similar to a net in weave; also known as illusion or tulle and often used in millinery.

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.

MARCELINE: A plain woven silk fabric with a single warp, used for hat linings.

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

MESSALINE: A closely woven satin, soft and brilliant.

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

MOHAIR: the long silky hair of the Angora goat. It resembles the wool sheep, and possesses a luster almost equal to, if not surpassing, that of silk. 

MOIRE: A finely ribbed silk, rayon, or acetate with a watermark finish. The design is pressed into the fabric, permanent 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 strong.
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.

PEAU DE CYGNE: A closely-woven silk having a lustrous but uneven surface.

PEAU DE SOIE: A firm, soft, durable fabric of grainy weave with a double satin finish. It is woven with a single or double face.

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 loose. The filling threads are woven in and the loose warp threads are formed into loops. They 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 a 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. It is made from the silk produced by wild silkworms that feed on oak leaves. 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 is 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 that kept fabrics from shrinking more than 1%.

SARCENET: a light, soft, thin fabric; also satin back velvet or taffeta and other ribbons made with a reverse side of satin.

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 warp yarns on the surface. These surface threads or "floats" give the fabric its characteristic sheen and luster on 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 1940s-1950s 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 a changeable fabric, or shot cotton.

SURAH: Is defined 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, woven designs, or changeable effects. Used for evening wear, slips (most often in the 1950s 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, and dresses, and is great for gloves.

TRICOTINE: A fabric made with black gold metal and silk; or a gold cloth.

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.

TULLE: A plain, fine silk net, very similar to Maline.

TUSSAH: The wild silk from which shantung and pongee are made. These fabrics, when heavy and coarsely woven, are called tussah silk.

TWEED: A rough-surfaced, nubby wool found in plain, twill, or herringbone weaves. It is durable, bulky, and 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 suits, trousers, sportswear, and many a professor's jackets.

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. Its 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 of 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.


  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.

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

  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.

  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!!

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

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  7. Great Post! Loved all the pics and info. So deeply appreciated.

    Silk Organza Fabric NYC

  8. Thank you for compiling this list of fabrics. Nice to have them all in one place.

  9. Thanks Anna, great list! One comment, linen is a fibre not a construction 😊. It is commonly a plain-weave, but not always. Cheers, Jay