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Fabric Friday: What is the fabric type?

Discussion in 'PUBLIC Workshops - specialty vintage topics' started by denisebrain, Jul 30, 2021.

  1. denisebrain

    denisebrain VFG President Staff Member

    Remember: It is very important to distinguish between fiber and fabric. The fiber is what the fabric is made of. The fabric is the finished product. This can be confusing.

    Example of this:

    The name “Cotton drill” is a fiber type (cotton) plus a fabric type (drill). Both of these words together make a fabric, a cloth, a material, or a textile (all synonymous). However in practice, drill alone is often used to indicate a fabric (cloth, material, textile) type. It’s just an incomplete description of the fabric. Some refer to fabrics by their fiber names alone, such as cotton. That's what you see on clothing tags. But is it cotton corduroy, cotton jersey or cotton piqué? You see what I’m saying? Neither fiber type nor fabric type alone gives you the complete picture. If you are purchasing an item in person, you can check how it feels, what the texture is like, etc., but when purchasing online it helps to be given the full description.

    Last week we talked about how to determine fiber. This week is all about trying to identify a fabric type. Knowing the fabric type will give you the other part of your 2-part fabric description.

    I used a "Fabric Looks Like" idea for the Fabric Resource. The inspiration came to me when I was consulting my trusty Roger Tory Peterson Field Guide to Western Birds (#birdnerdalert). In case you don’t know them, the Peterson guides contain drawings of birds (and other natural things) that emphasize distinctive, easily recognizable features.

    (Here's the Fabric Looks Like page in our FR.)

    Besides color, what do you see first when you look at this fabric?
    Pasted Graphic 1.jpg

    Diagonal ribs, right? Then, on the Looks Like page, click on

    Fabrics with clear diagonal ribs

    and scroll through the fabrics on that page to see which one looks most like yours. This example is a whipcord. There are two fabrics that look somewhat similar under "See also", Cavalry twill and Gabardine. Compare to make sure you are choosing the closest match.

    All knits (no matter what else might be distinguished about them) are filed under knit fabrics on the Looks Like page.

    Hint: If your fabric doesn’t seem to have anything particularly pronounced about its look or texture, but you know it's woven not knit, check Light to medium weight fabrics.

    Another hint: In some cases, a fabric falls into more than one category; try starting with what you think is its most noticeable aspect.

    If you’ve figured out the fiber of the fabric, that’s very helpful at this point. You can look up fabrics by their fiber type here: Fabric by Fiber. By the same token, you can sometimes find a fiber by figuring out the fabric type. In the example of whipcord above, the FR entry shows you it can be made of wool, cotton, manufactured fibers or blends, so that doesn't narrow it down much. However, the entry states that whipcord was originally wool. I would suspect it to be wool first.

    (Don't know your warp from your weft? If you need to know what any term means in the FR, you can look it up in Fabrics A-Z. I tried to include many fabric terms, not just the fabric and fiber types. Many of these are linked in definitions so all you have to do is click on the unknown word to be taken to the definition.)

    Finally, you can try to narrow down the possible choices for your fabric type by searching Fabric by Use. Is it a suit? Look under bottom weight, which includes fabrics most suitable for skirts, trousers, suits, light coats and heavier dresses. These are big categories which overlap somewhat, but it can help narrow your search.

    Who's got comments or questions? :)
    Last edited: Aug 5, 2021
  2. You make it sound so simple and easy, Maggie!!! Thank you for this great lesson. I know I can use more of them from those, like yourself, who are so very knowledgeable about identifying fiber and fabric.
  3. Distantdetails

    Distantdetails Administrator Staff Member

    Thank you, Maggie. I'm glad we'll be receiving these every Friday! I'm a little bit "Wha???" on some of this, but the more I read it (over and over), the more I understand.
  4. Midge

    Midge Super Moderator Staff Member

  5. denisebrain

    denisebrain VFG President Staff Member

    I know it can be rather confusing Janine! Please ask anything that needs clarification.
    Distantdetails likes this.
  6. Vintagiality

    Vintagiality VFG Treasurer

    Thanks Maggie. Great tips.

    Since you asked… :)

    I struggle a lot even with knit vs woven. It looks so simple in concept but when I go to do it in practice, I frequently can’t tell at all if there are loops or weft & warp. Here is an example.

    It all looks like tiny bubbles to me. Are these loops? Or maybe they are the result of intertwining?

    Is one type of fiber typically knit vs woven? In other words, is it highly likely that say cotton is most likely knit? Or linen most likely woven?

    With many tightly knit or woven fabrics, I can’t see a pattern at all. If I do identify something like diagonal ribs then all of the fabrics in the category look the same to me or I can’t tell if the fabric I am looking at is as the photo even if I see a difference between the few choices.

    For example, if you hadn’t said it was whipcord, I would have never seen the difference with drill or a number of the fabrics in that category.
  7. denisebrain

    denisebrain VFG President Staff Member

    Again, thank you for asking great questions Victoria.

    One highly characteristic thing about knits is that they stretch. Pull horizontally to find that stretch. (Some knits also stretch vertically.) Some woven fabrics might have some give when pulled on the weft (horizontally), but most do not have give in either horizontal or vertical directions. There will be some give on the diagonal. If you can find a raw inner seam, you can sometimes examine the way the fabric is structured.

    Do you see the right angles of the crossing yarns? Definitely a woven fabric.


    Your fabric is a woven fabric with a twill weave. I straightened a section of your photo so that the diagonal would be clearer.


    Remember, this is twill's pattern—

    As to the differences between similar fabrics, sometimes they are pretty subtle, but these clear diagonal rib fabrics are all discernible with practice.

    Here is whipcord again. It has steep right-hand ribs (meaning they angle up to the right and at an angle not far off vertical—if these were stairs to climb, you'd kill your legs!). You can see the lines in whipcord even from some distance, they are so pronounced.


    Here's a jacket on Etsy made of whipcord. It's a fabric used for things that need to be very sturdy.

    Cavalry Twill has a noticeable double diagonal line.
    It is used for things like uniforms and riding breeches—again, for very sturdy garments.
    Here are some jodhpurs I found on Thrilling, and a close up of the fabric.
    Screen Shot 2021-07-30 at 4.35.18 PM.png Screen Shot 2021-07-30 at 4.35.08 PM.png
    I believe every time I've found vintage jodhpurs they were made of cavalry twill. The diagonal lines are steep and right hand.

    Then there's gabardine, also a steep, right-hand line. But it is tightly woven. Wool gabardine was used for fine suits and coats.


    Here's a 1940s wool gabardine jacket from Etsy, and then the fabric up close
    il_1140xN.2378890399_k89n-1.jpg Screen Shot 2021-07-30 at 4.45.27 PM.png
    Gabardine can also be rayon and/or other fibers—just to make things more interesting. :rolleyes:

    Notice when you read the descriptions of each of the fabrics with clear diagonal lines that they are all twilled. The twill weave is what makes that diagonal line. These can be either right-hand or left-hand twills. All wool and silk fabrics with a diagonal line are right-hand twills. Cotton twill fabrics can be right- or left-hand twills—more often left-hand.

    No, I'm afraid not. Even linen can be knit, although it is far more often woven.
    Last edited: Jul 30, 2021
  8. denisebrain

    denisebrain VFG President Staff Member

    A refresher from the Twill Weave entry in the Fabric Resource:

    GemGem and The Vintage Merchant like this.
  9. Vintagiality

    Vintagiality VFG Treasurer

    Thank you Maggie. So very helpful even if I find fabrics exasperating.

    This is a super helpful tip. I can definitely see this far more clearly when the fabric is unraveling.
    On the other hand, this I definitely do not see. The graphic presentation looks nothing like what I see in the fabric mainly because I don’t see anything diagonal in the graphic though I see it distinctly in the actual fabric photo.
    So then my fabric is a rayon twill.

    The stretch is the other hard part. I know that woven fabric is only modestly stretchy on the weft but this one had quite a bit of stretch which made me doubt it’s woven. However, I know that the reason for that is that the fabric also has some lycra in it (this is a modern dress and has a tag) but if it didn’t I may have thought it to be too stretchy to be woven.
    So that’s the other trouble. Sometimes with blends, the very clear characteristic of a given weave are obscured.
    GemGem likes this.
  10. Vintagiality

    Vintagiality VFG Treasurer

    I also just looked closer at the fabric photo of the blue gabardine jacket and I can’t tell what the difference is with my fabric. It looks like the same diagonal weave
    Last edited: Jul 30, 2021
  11. Vinclothes

    Vinclothes Alumni +

    Maggie, you are such a good teacher. Thank you.
    Victoria, your questions are helping us all, thank you, too.
  12. Linn

    Linn VFG Board Member Staff Member VFG Past President

    This is great! Thank you, Maggie.
  13. denisebrain

    denisebrain VFG President Staff Member

    That graphic of twill is probably a little too abstracted.

    Take a look at these two wool flannels. The red one is a plain weave, the second is a twill weave. Wool flannel is a type of fabric that can be found in both plain and twill weaves.



    One distinction in the twill weave group is the angle of the twill. A 63˚ angle is considered steep, 45˚ is regular, and 23˚ is reclining. This last is relatively rare. The second fabric above shows a 45˚ angle. Compare it to gabardine.

    _big_vintagefashion-new_43777 (1).jpeg

    _big_vintagefashion-new_82239 (1).jpeg

    I'm not totally sure we have the best comparison shot of your fabric Victoria. It's hard to see where the horizontal is for sure. Which of these angles do you see when you look at the fabric after you've determined the horizontal?

    Another really interesting distinction between twills is how they look from the reverse side. Does anyone have a wool gabardine item on hand to take a pic of the reverse side? I don't have any in my house at this moment, and it would help to show differences.

    Ah! You make a great point about the stretchy woven fabrics that use lycra. We don't often see that with vintage fabrics, but it is not at all uncommon with newer fabric. So it is important to know the difference between woven and knit not just by knit's stretch, although only newish vintage would have woven fabrics with stretch.

    There are lots of interesting variables and exceptions which we can get into more as we go along.

    Coming out of this discussion, maybe the weaving process is a good topic for next week. :)
  14. vintagedevotion

    vintagedevotion VFG Member

    Wow. Thank you, Maggie. You're like a fabric scientist. Just amazing.
  15. Linn

    Linn VFG Board Member Staff Member VFG Past President

    I have a wool gabardine jacket - (the red one I am wearing in my avatar photo) - but the reverse side is either covered by lining or it is self faced. I had a little battle with the zipper in the bag it's stored in. I'm trying to remember if I have anything else that is wool gabardine.
  16. denisebrain

    denisebrain VFG President Staff Member

    It is often lined in garments, but maybe a skirt would be unlined.
  17. Midge

    Midge Super Moderator Staff Member

    Nothing beats a 1940s wool gabardine for a jacket! I have a couple of those, one is a black one and it's been my go-to for years, combined with any modern black pants or skirt I have it's perfect for business wear. It has come through beautifully travelling half way around the world with me and being packed in a suitcase for a week or two several times.
  18. denisebrain

    denisebrain VFG President Staff Member

    It is so wonderful, I agree!
    GemGem likes this.
  19. claireshaeffer

    claireshaeffer VFG Member

    Maggie, this is a great thread with great info.
    Here are a couple of thoughts that might help when examining fabrics.
    Most garments are cut with the warp lengthwise--from head to toe. Since these are the yarns put on the loom at the outset, they are stronger with less stretch than the weft or filling yarns. Also, the weft yarns will be more decorative and fragile.
    If you hold a fabric firmly on a grain--length or width--with only an inch between your fingers and stretch, the weft will stretch more. This is a very small difference on many fabrics.

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