Identifying Vintage Fabrics

All my life, I've had a love affair with fabric and vintage clothing.  I never tired of playing dress-up in the party dresses that retired to my mother's closet.  I can still hear the swish of satin as I twirled in front of her tilt mirror in a dress that would have fit two of me.  But, my.....didn't I feel grown up and elegant!

I love researching vintage textiles and one thing becomes very obvious on the web.  Fabrics are very sensual to the touch and all the reading in the world doesn't compare to being able to see and study the weave.

I would like to share my love of these beautiful fabrics so I decided to put together a loose guide and terminology for the different textile weaves, along with photos from my own collection.

I will be building my library as I gather more photos, so please bear with me and check back for more info as this library grows.

The original barkcloth fabric was literally made from the bark of trees. In order to make the fabric, the inner bark of certain types of trees (primarily trees of the Moraceae family) is beaten flat and pressed into sheets. Hence the name - barkcloth.  This type of original barkcloth is pretty scarce.
If you hear the term barkcloth used today, however, it usually refers to a different type of fabric all together. From the 1930's through the 1960's (and even early into the 1970's) one of the most popular decorating fabrics was also known as barkcloth. In this case, the term barkcloth refers to the weave of the fabric which is thick, nubby and slightly textured. Barkcloth got it's name because the texture of the fabric bears a slight resemblance to the bark of a tree.
Barkcloth fabric is often made of cotton, although it can be made of other fibers as well including linen, rayon, polyester, and fiberglass depending how old the fabric is. Although thicker than a standard cotton, barkcloth is surprisingly soft and drapes nicely which made it a great choice for draperies and curtains. Because of it's thick texture barkcloth is also quite durable which also made it well suited to being used as an upholstery fabric.

(Click the photos for a super-sized view)

Hawaiian Tropical Floral Barcloth from the 1940s

A fine, sheer, combed fabric named after the 13th Century French linen weaver, Jean Batiste. This fabric has an etheral, sheer and gauzy look.  Usually mercerized to add strength and luster. Woven from cotton, linen, silk or blended fibers. Often used to make blouses, dresses, lingerie, baby clothes and handkerchiefs. It has a graceful drape that smocks and gathers beautifully.

[pronounced boo-klay'] Means curled, ringlet or buckled. Boucle yarn may be used in both the warp and weft or just in the filling.

 A lightweight version of satin with a softer and more clingy look. Charmeuse has a liquid, flowing look.  Charmeuse can be made with silk or rayon and made in different weights....from the gorgeous, clinging gowns of Jean Harlow to the elegant lightweight bed jackets and lingerie of that era.

Chiffon (SHI-fon) A transparent, lightweight fabric finish, chiffon may be made from just about any fabric. It is often layered and has an unusual luster. 

 Crepe (KRAPE) A light, soft and thin fabric with a finely pebbled texture.  crepe is a traditional fabric for a mother of the bride ensemble or a polished destination wedding dress.

The Damask/Brocade Family

Jacquard woven fabrics can be of various fiber content. Woven of wool, silk, linen, rayon, acetate, worsted wool. The type of weaving process creates floral or geometric patterns that are reversible. 

Damasks are woven with one warp yarn and one weft yarn, usually with the pattern in warp-faced satin weave and the ground in weft-faced or sateen weave.
Lightweight Silk Damask from the 1940s
Jaquard fabrics of rayon/poly blend enjoyed a resurgence in popularity in the late 70s to 80s.  I have several garments in my collection that are lightweight, comfortable and have the feel and drape of silk.

Lightweight Rayon Jaquard from the 1970s -click for weave detail

1970s Damask - lightweight reversible weave

Brocade weaves are non-reversible and were widely used in clothing.  
A Midweight Vintage Brocade from the 1960s

Twill damasks include a twill-woven ground or pattern.
Damask weaves are commonly found in table cloths and napkins

1940s Damask of midweight cotton blend - note reversible weave

Vintage Duchesse Evening Gown
Duchess (pronounced DUH- chess) Satin

Also referred to as silk-faced satin, this finish weighs less than traditional silk finishes and is usually less expensive. Most Duchess satins are a blend of silk and rayon woven into a satin finish.

Very popular with bridal and evening gowns over the decades.  Full bodied weight without feeling heavy that lends itself beautifully to full skirted gowns.

If you ever have the opportunity to wear a dress made of Duchess satin,
I guarantee you will feel like a queen.

Dupioni (pronounced doo-pee-ON-ee) A finish similar to shantung, but with thicker, coarser fibers and a slight sheen. Dupioni can be woven silk or synthetic fibers.

Faille (pronounced File) A structured, ribbed finish that has the look grosgrain ribbon; usually mid-weight with substantial body, faille was a popular look for evening dresses, party dresses and formal gowns.  Has a wonderful drape effect when constructed with a full skirt.  The House of Bianchi made some beautiful evening and cocktail dresses out of this fabric.

Georgette (GEOR-jet) A sheer, lightweight fabric often made of polyester or silk with a crepe surface.

A very elastic knit fabric; the face has lengthwise ribs and the underside has crosswise ribs. The drape is long and clingy.

[mat-luh-say'] means padded or cushioned in French. Discriptions in reference books vary, but the overall look is a puffed or 'quilted' effect.

Moire (pronounce MOI- ray or mwah-ray)

Means watered.  Obtained by passing through engraving rollers, producing crushed "watermark" patterns that reflect light differently. Used most often on ribbed fabrics made with cotton, acetate, rayon, silk and some manufactured fabrics. Moire taffeta is taffeta with a moire finish that has been heat set.

Moire taffeta
A heavy silk taffeta with a subtle, wavy design.

Net, illusion or tulle (TOOL) A tight mesh-like fabric most often woven from synthetic fibers. Varying weaves can increase or decrease the weight of this finish.

Organdy A crisp, transparent fabric finish made from cotton. 

Organza Crisp and sheer like chiffon, with a stiffer texture similar in effect to tulle, but more flowing; popular for skirts, sleeves, backs, and overlays.

Peau de soie (po-da-swa), "skin of silk"
Peau [poh] in French means skin. Think about the soft feel of a baby's skin.
A heavy, smooth satin with very fine ribbing and delustred finish.
Peau de soie [pho deh swah] In French means silk skin. Soft silk (or manufactured fiber) in satin weave. Fine cross rib created by interlacing. Has dull luster.

Satin A tightly woven effect that gives fabric a beautiful sheen on one side. Can be matte, delustered or highly lustrous, i.e., reflective.

Typically woven in polyester fiber, satin is the most common fabric finish for wedding dresses. The quality of the thread and the detail of the weave make the difference between the best and the rest; an expensive satin weave looks and feels like silk satin.

Shantung (SHAN-tung) Originally known as raw (or natural) silk, this finish has a rough, nubby appearance with slubs. Once associated exclusively with silk fabrics, shantung is now seen as a finish for synthetic fabrics as well.

Silk Mikado (Silk Mik-AH-do) A brand of blended silk, usually heavier than 100% silk to give a dress a crisp, lady-like body.

Mikado satin is a polyester weave that looks and feels like the real deal.

Silk-Satin a densely-woven fabric notable for its super-lustrous gloss. It can be silk, a blend of silk and synthethic or woven from a synthentic fiber.

Taffeta Crisp and smooth, with a slight rib. Matte taffeta, satin-backed taffeta, double satin-faced taffeta and moiré are variations in the weave.

Velvet A soft, thick fabric with a felted face and plain underside

I will continue to add more photos to the fabric descriptions as this library grows.  My first love is the vintage clothing and elegant fabrics of the 30s, 40s, 50s and 60s so I've started what will be a multi-part cataloging of that section.

I hope to move on to other areas in future articles as I sort and catalog my own collection of fabrics.  Perhaps it will be vintage lace.  Whatever it may be; I promise you lots of photos!  It's a wonderful way to enter the history of vintage fabrics and a way of life that should never be forgotten.

Until then, I hope your vintage collection gives you as much joy as I've received from mine.
But a word of warning.
It soon becomes an obsession.