Queen Elizabeth and cohorts nearly choked in it; Errol Flynn and his real-live counterparts brandished their swords in it; Scarlett and her friends often swooned in it as their corsets were being tightened; untold babes took their first step in it; teary-eyed damsels wiped their eyes with it; countless women sported flowers of it on their suits, dresses and hats; book collectors loved its satiny feel; many of us probably have it in our fabric stash without realizing it.
It is of course cambric, once the all-purpose textile. One could go on endlessly about this remarkable fabric and its seemingly infinite variations.Tres Fine et Tres Blanche Cambric has been with us at least since the early 16th century when it was first made of linen in the northern French town of Cambrai. Savary des Bruslons described it as a sort toile de lin, tres fine and tres blanche. It was used for fichus, head trimming, shirts, cravettes, ties, nightwear and ecclesiastical garments.One day , Samuel Rowland Fisher visiting Ireland in 1768 stopped at John Christy’s store and was shown great quantities of “wondorus cambricks” made by him but not equal to those of France.
He was told, alas, that several persons from “Cambray have the management of linen and cambray weaving.”
At least the bearded men had some chin protection from scratchy ruffs. One wonders how easy it was to turn the neck. These cambric ruffs date from Henry IV, 1590-early 1600s.
– The Mode in Costume Rare English fashion plates of the 1780s show the new light textiles muslin, cambric and lawn, calling them diaphanous compared to brocades, the other fashion favorite.
By 1812 the artful Irish, by virtue of a Petitioneers Machine, were able to create their own version of cambrick, producing cotton yarns of treble fineness and of a much more soft and pleasant texture than any which had ever before been spun in Great Britain. It should be noted that some references credit Scotland with producing the first cotton cambric and not Ireland. In 1810, the Boston Palladium advertised a “Fashionable Suit of Curtains, 168 years of cambrick chintz, ditto 168 yards of light blue lining cambrick.” Ackermanns advertised from 1809 to 1812 cambricks in morine* corded, imperial stripes, seaweed printed, jubilee twill shawl and permanent morone [we know it as maroon] printed.
*Morine is a variation of moreen, a British heavy fabric with horizontal filling and a moire finish, woven either in worsted or cotton.
It was used for upholstery and skirts. By this time, many countries were producing cambric of various quality; some types resembled fine muslin. Cambric goods from Hamburg, Flanders, Bengal, Germany and England were represented by ticking, men’s coats, breeches, waistcoats and women’s shoes. A Robe de Nuit, a night gown advertised as one of the newest styles in 1851, was made of linen cambric and valenciennes lace and was intended for a trousseau, though it could be made very prettily of any style of plain cambric or muslin with less expensive edging.
Beribboned cambric with lace bonnets and cambric chemisettes were the height of fashion as shown in Godey’s Lady’s Magazine, 1855.
The next time you step into your bikinis, be grateful you didn’t have to make and wear these cumbersome drawers. Bodies of muslin and cambric were very popular for wearing under jackets.
– Peterson’s Magazine, 1863
From 1830s Victorian England — at least the young girls had cool and comfortable cambric dresses for hot summer days.
– The Mode in Costume As Many As Heinz’s 57 Varieties Cambric’s dense weave and superior smooth hard finish made it one of the most popular and versatile fabrics for nearly four centuries.
From clothing to trims to book coverings to belting to corsets to shoes to church cloth, cambric was a staple fabric. For instance, an ad in an1890 Ladies’ Home Journal extolled the superiority of cambric – Babies, young ladies, married ladies, your white garments, aprons, pillow-shams, etc. should be made of the cambrics, lawns or nainsnooks made by the King Philip Mills …send stamps for samples. A dressmaking column in The Woman’s Home Companion, October 1903, advised for interlining to use haircloth or canvas, tacking it very lightly and invisibly to the goods and a facing of silk or mercerized cotton applied over it.
The upper edge of the haircloth must be bound with thin cambric or percaline. Sears 1908 catalog featured nine grades of cambric yard goods for undergarments ranging from muslin quality to superior-wearing Wamsutta sea island cotton plus a lining or paper cambric which was not washable.There was a staggering array of red turkey cambric shirtings, Jones and Berkley cambrics — heavier versions of nainsnook, for infant and children’s clothes and dainty ladies’ waists [blouses]; percales and calicos called cambric for dresses and pillowcases.
Another four pages offered hundreds of eyelet and embroidered trims and flouncings, and collars and cuffs. In the ready to wear, another 10 pages flaunted the luxury of cambric drawers, petticoats, corset covers and outerwear trimmed in medici and valenciennes laces, silk ribbon insertions and lawn ruffles.But all that started to fade in the post-WWI years as technology and new lifestyles began to change how persons acted and what they wore. Sadly by 1923 cambric was shifted to the back shelf. A textile glossary of that year defined cambric as heavily sized and too stiff for comfortable wear, and because of its heavy yarns, better for cool weather.
In good grades, it was used for underwear, corset covers, combinations [a half slip attached to the waist of one-piece teddy-type sleeveless top with panties and used for children’s wear], drawers, chemises, nightgowns and pajamas; in the cheaper grades, for linens and foundations where a slightly stiffened fabric was required.
Utility and lesser dress grades of cambric were usually found in the domestic section of most catalogs.
– Sears Catalog, 1908
First signs of the decline of cambric: even the top grades were now lumped in with all other domestic fabrics.
– Montgomery Ward Catalog, 1925 A 1926 textile glossary added aprons, shirts, scrap books, fancy dress costumes for pageants, church embroidery, lunch cloths, napkins, doilies, collars and cuffs.
The OTHER cambrics — cheap, off-grain, heavily sized, non-washable. At left is a highly glazed and stiff WWII cambric suitable for pageantry and halloween costumes. When washed [see inset], fabric lost body and finish. At right is an example of a 1930s attractive disposable trim in paper cambric and what is thought to be bookbinding cambric, probably from the 1930s-40s.
Both are wide grain and held together by glue. When these two were handwashed, they became a sticky mass. By 1953 it was listed as an obsolete yard goods fabric. Handkerchief linen cambric is still available, usually offered by specialty shops. It is also available wholesale by some European firms and used by professional textile conservators in protection and wrapping capacities. What’s So Special About Cambric? Cambric has many admirable qualities.
It is a closely woven rather firm cotton fabric with a slight glossy surface produced by calendering [a type of finish producing a glossy or silky appearance which can be permanent or wash out]. The better grades are made from fine yarns, carefully bleached and finished. It belongs to the batiste, jaconet, lawn, longcloth, mull and nainsnook family. As all these fabrics are produced in various grades and finishes, it takes an expert to distinguish one from the other after they have been laundered a few times.
Good quality longcloth and cambric probably are most similar, although longcloth has a softer finish.
Wide flouncing from an 1890s high-quality ivory cambric petticoat. Even though washed, it retains its crispness and sheen. Damaged petticoats are idea for recycling to dress antique dolls, such as these two German Kestner bisques circa early 1900s-WWI, shown in lightweight cambric. It was common for petticoats to have two layers of flouncing with the under layer of lightly gathered cambric and plain; the top of fully gathered lawn and lace and sometimes tucks.
Cambric is the easiest to identify due to its hard smooth surface, often referred to as glossy, and heavier weave than its relatives. Usually it retains most of its luster and smoothness after repeated launderings. In fact, so outstanding is cambric’s surface that in many of its catalogs Sears referred to its best percales as having a cambric finish and collectively called all its fine percales cambric. Actually, Sears and Montgomery Ward catalogs as far back as the late 1880s referred to percales and calicoes as cambric.
The textile industry is loaded with contradictions.However, keep in mind that the cambric described here has been for domestic and dress use. Looser, coarser cambric, off-grain, heavily sized and non-washable was manufactured for use in book bindings, artificial flowers, pageantry costumes, cheap linings and throw-away trims, to name a few.
The best percales had a cambric finish and sometimes were called cambrics.
– Sears Catalog, 1908 Looking for Cambric In Your Collection Chances are if you collect old fabric or garments such as petticoats, christening gowns and children’s underwear, you will have cambric.
How can you tell if it’s cambric? Good question. My first connection was in 1980 when a friend, the late Lou Thompson, author of The Lace Sample Book and a vintage fabric and antique dealer, gave me a swatch each of linen and cotton cambric. She understood my needs for dressing antique dolls and said cambric would be essential to doll dressing. She may just as well have given me a slab of bacon because I had no idea what she was talking about. Then when I began seeing the real thing at doll shows and later learned more about the intricacies of costuming, I understood the significance and came to appreciate the advice. Like Virginia Slims, I’ve come a long way since.
I have found that linen or cotton cambric has a slight occasional linen-like slub. Run your hand over fabric. There’s a hardness, smooth and glossy, that you won’t find on other fabrics, the exceptions being superior percale or sea island cotton. However, cambric will be slightly heavier and slippery. As noted before there is also a great resemblance to longcloth; both have that erratic slub and after being washed, dry somewhat rumpled like linen.. Longcloth is a slightly looser and lighter weave with a duller finish.
Comparison of washed, unironed cambric [l] and longcloth. While the longcloth swatch is not as fine quality as the cambric swatch, the similarity in weave is still visible. Because of its smooth, hard surface cambric can be creased or folded easily – you can hear it fall into place like the snap of a crisp pickle. It folds true to line and best of all, it holds its shape with finger pressing, eliminating the need to iron seams during sewing for the most part. How to Sew with Cambric Cambric is like no other fabric to sew.
On the plus side it behaves beautifully due to its hard surface; minimal raveling, no stretching, yet flexible. On the down side, trying to get a needle through its denseness is like trying to puncture cement. And if you have to rip, there will be holes. The key is to use either #9 or #11 machine needles, regardless of fabric weight. Better yet, use the two smallest sizes of Schmetz microtex needles, 70/10 and 80/12. For comparison, the latter is equivalent to #9. These needles, developed for today’s microfiber fabrics and silk, have a thinner shaft but a larger eye, making them easy to thread.
If you have to rip, they leave no holes. So superior are these needles, I use them now for most everything except knits. I have also found that lighter weight cambrics cut more easily with scissors designed for sheers, lightweights and silks, such as the Gingher brand shown here.
Sewing aids to make life easier when working with cambric — microtex needles and scissors designed for cutting sheers and silks. Now that you are more acquainted with the properties of cambric, take the time to check your fabrics and old garments to see if you may have some of this long-gone marvelous material.
References: Godey’s Lady’s Book & Magazine, Vol. LI from July to December 1855 Peterson’s Magazine, from January to June 1863 Sears and Montgomery Ward Catalogs, 1887, 1908, 1925 Textile Fabrics, Elizabeth Dyer, 1923 Fabrics and How to Know Them, Grace Denny, 1926, 1947, 1953 editions The Mode in Costume, R.
Turner Wilcox, 1958 Fairchild’s Dictionary of Textiles, 7th edition, 1996 Fabric Glossary, Mary Humphries, 1999 Linda Learn, owner Class Act Fabrics, re-enactment costumer and textile lecturer Excerpts from Fashion through Fashion Plates 1771-1970 , Doris Langley Moore and Mr Godey’s Ladies by Robert Kunciov and magazine ads provided by author and collector Thelma Bernard.
Next Month: Feedbags Coming soon: What quilters Want and Building A Textile Reference Library The arbitrary cut-off date for this Vintage Fabric column is 1960. To stay within the scope of this timeframe, reference materials published up to that date are the prime source of information to more accurately capture actual thoughts of the time. Joan Kiplinger is an antique doll costumer and vintage fabric addict who learned to sew on her grandmother’s treadle and has been peddling fabrications ever since.