There are fingerprints, voiceprints, eyeprints and what I call chordprints and weaveprints – all made up of individual patterns which identify a specific source. Fabrics, regardless of their weave classification – plain, twill or satin and their variations, have certain telltale signs denoting their specific name. One could write a book on this fascinating subject.
Presented here are some common and popular staple plain weave cottons familiar by name but perhaps not by sight. All are available on the secondary and current markets and all present a valid case for keeping a linen tester by your side. Percale, muslin, voile, lawn and organdy [they are the same], batiste, broadcloth/poplin and gingham are most likely to be found in any fabric lovers’ collections. They have been around for centuries and continue to be basic or staple textiles for clothing and utilitarian purposes.
Even though many experienced fabric handlers can tell which is which by look or touch, there is that stumper whose appearance doesn’t always tell the real the story. Each of the above fabrics has its own weaveprint; once you spot that characteristic, identification will make your life less chaotic. Here is where a linen tester is worth its weight in gold.
It is also essential to have references for comparisons — either a book with weave closeups or fabric swatches. Weave closeups shown here are from Staple Cotton Fabrics by John Hoye, 1942. Optics Options Many ask why a linen tester; why not a magnifier or a microscope? It’s all about optics and distortion. As explained by an optics expert in the most basic of terms to this lay person, each of those instruments has its own optical powers and construction: a magnifier’s range of power increases a topical view of a surface; a linen tester intensifies to reveal the construction of a surface; a microscope opens up the insides of that surface.
Certain surfaces require different ranges of powers of magnification to prevent distortion when viewing them. Linen testers range from 6x to 10x with the best views from 8x to 10x. The ideal microscope magnification for fiber analysis is 10x x 15x = 150. Muslin, Percale and Pima Thread count and usually, but not always, quality of thread and finish, separate muslin and percale. Rule of thumb is muslin ranges from 112 to140 count, dress percale begins at 160 [sheeting at 180] to not less than 200. Thread count is number of threads per sq. inch [filling x warp. The x is misleading; filler and warp count are actually added.]
Carded muslin – note fuzzy thick/thin threads. Thread count shown here is 140.
(left) Carded percale – note tighter weave. Thread count is 180. (right) Combed percale; note smooth yarns. Thread count is 204.
Muslin is generally made of fair to good grades of shorter staple carded yarns, heavily sized and given a soft finish. However, some of the very fine muslins are made from quality strains, combed and/or mercerized. On the whole, linen tester reveals threads to be fuzzy in an uneven weave structure. Dress percale runs from 160 count [sheeting 180] to about 200, then begins to drift into pima quality and pima as the count increases.
This is because as the thread count becomes higher and the weave tighter, smoother, longer staple top-quality yarns are required, those strains which produce pima and sea island yarns. Pimacale, Wondercale and Supercale are some of the well-known brand names. Italy excels in quality pima fabrics.
Typewriter ribbon fabric Overall, percale is made from better quality cotton than muslin and is more likely to be combed and mercerized and distinguished by its hard, shiny cambric-like finish Linen tester reveals smoother yarns, more uniform and tighter weave structure. As thread count increases from 260 up to 400, fabric is called typewriter ribbon or mechanical fabrics. They are the highest construction plain woven fabrics made, woven of finest quality pima and Egyptian cotton.
Actual typewriter ribbon is the tightest weave made. Lawn/ Organdy and Batiste The degree of crispness separates these lawn and organdy, otherwise they share the same weaveprint. Lawn is known for its semi-transparency and can range from gauzy to a near percale opacity often called lining lawn or utility lawn. Finish ranges from soft to semi-crisp to crisp or permanent starchless but never stiff. Lawn organdy was a popular term in the 1940s-50s for this latter finish and often mistaken for organdy.
(left) Carded lawn. Its weaveprint is barely discernible. But it will be more evident after viewing next photo. (right) Combed lawn.
Note the arrangement of warp yarns: two close together, wider spacing, then repeat of two closer warps.
Organdy: note the same arrangement of warp yarns although weave is not as tight as lawn.
Organdy is the sheerest of cottons, ranging from the Swiss-patented transparent to semi-sheer and from finishes such as the sleek as an ice skating rink Swiss-patented highly desirable Heberlein to roughish surfaces as in commercial or artist’s organdy. To differentiate between lawn organdy and organdy, gather fabric in your hands. Lawn organdy evinces drapeability by falling into folds with minimal stroking; organdy will be unmanageable, bunching unevenly into ungainly clumps.
Batiste is part of the lawn family, sheerer than lawn and has a very similar weave structure except that there is more spacing between filling yarns than warp yarns. It is this unevenness that causes the fabric’s wavy or undulating appearance. This look is further accented by mercerization. If you hold fabric away from you and toward light, you can get a better view of its shimmering quality. A heavier batiste called lining batiste is comparable in opacity to a semi-sheer lawn. Best lawn and batiste come from Switzerland and England; organdy, Switzerland. Voile Voile is not too difficult to detect.
It’s soap-scum frosty appearance, roughish-wiry texture, wide satiny selvages called tape and weightiness give it away. However, appearances can be deceiving, especially ultra- fine English voile which is often mistaken for lawn or organdy.
Voile – notice distinct square formation.
A fancy voile called seed voile formed by seed yarn usually in the filling. Regardless of quality, under a linen tester voile’s weaveprint reveals perfectly formed squares; in lesser quality cotton, squares will be a little lopsided, but squares nevertheless. This is due to fabric’s hard- twist combed yarns of single or double ply which produce a wiry, tight yarn and give weight and crispness. As a result of gassing [smoothing process] yarns are round and smooth making voile bright and sheer.
Voile ranges from gauzy to ultra fine. Fancy voiles include seed voile, shadow stripe, splash [slub yarns produce a splash effect] and pique or corded. The finest voiles are made in England and France. Broadcloth and poplin Broadcloth is a lighter and finer weight version of poplin. In England poplin is the same as our broadcloth. Both fabrics are distinguished by random slubs or thick filler yarns which are more pronounced and coarser on poplin and sometimes barely visible on broadcloth. Once the eye is trained to spot slubs – a magnifier is a big help here, this pattern is relatively easy to spot.
Combed broadcloth – note diamond weave which is more prominent in poplin photo. Thread count is 240. Combed poplin, 152 thread count. 2-ply warp, single filling yarns.
Broadcloth is one of the firmest and least flexible of fabrics. Anyone who has tried to insert an ungathered sleeved in a garment, such as a shirt or blouse, can attest to this stubborn high-tensile strength. The finest broadcloth is made of dyed, combed yarns of long-staple Egyptian/American pima with a thread count around 260. Good quality is made from carded yarns with a count around 140.
Under a linen tester high-count broadcloth weave resembles an allover diamond-shaped pattern. Fabric comes in several weights for shirtings and dresses. Poplin comes in light or shirting weight and a heavier or outdoors weight.
In the 1930s and 40s, a slightly heavier shirting weight or dress weight was a popular fabric for casual summer street and sportswear. As with broadcloth, the best poplin is made from combed yarns; cheaper from carded. Gingham Ging-gang, as the Maylasians called it, is famous for its trademark checks and plaids. However, in solid colors, identification can be a real stumper. It is often mistaken for chambray which is a type of gingham that uses color warp and white filling. Fabric is woven from yarn-dyed fast colors; better grades are soft, fine combed yarns.
Although a plain weave, gingham is woven on box looms with white and colored yarns. A box loom is used when weaving fabrics made with two or more colors in the filling such as bi-color dots or plaid gingham. When woven in two colors gingham is called checked; three or more colors are called plaid. Both are balanced designs. Imitations use printed patterns and are usually found in muslin and percale.
Gingham plaid shown in 116 thread count. Weights range from feedsack to medium sports type to the very fine tissue and zephyr weights. Thread count ranges from 92 for low-quality carded to 120 for standard carded to 136 for combed zephyr to 200 for combed tissue. Scotland is generally regarded as producing the finest zephyrs and tissues. Create Own Weaveprint Swatchbook As mentioned earlier, swatches make an excellent reference tool.
Try to get as many different fabrics, variations and weights of each to use for comparison tools — stores and friends/relatives are sure sources. Be sure to mark name on each swatch preferably with a fabric pen for non-smearing permanency. Each swatch can easily be placed side by side with an unknown fabric under a linen tester to determine identify. Ditto for weave closeup photos from reference books. Most vintage textile reference books show closeups of weaves either in photos or illustrations.
The book used here may still be available by searching addall.com, used/out of print menu. Fabrics in this columns represent just the tip of the iceburg. Other confusing weaves to collect are crepes, both woven and chemically created. That in itself is a giant undertaking and possibly a future column topic.
****************** Updates Continuing with this column’s identification theme are two informative websites which open all sorts of doors to help naming and dating your mystery items. Both owners are extremely service oriented and knowledgeable about their products.
New Pathways into Quilt History – Quilters will especially revel in Kimberly Wulfert’s massive efforts to provide antique quilt and textile dating and photo gallery, upcoming tours, sources for repro fabrics, museum exhibitions, book reviews, interviews with noted quilt and textile historians and links to related sites.
At the time of this writing site is near completion and all segments should be available by time this column appears.
Needlework Goodies – Millie McKenzie’s comprehensive site for viewing and purchasing sewing machines and related accessories; needlework patterns and transfers from pre-1930s and later and tatting supplies; and other collectibles.
http://www.sewwhat.net/millie 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.