Excerpt from All About Silk

All About Silk: A Fabric Dictionary & Swatchbook
By Julie Parker
Copyright 1991. All rights reserved.

I wrote this book because I wanted to know what I was looking at when I went to the fabric store. I have been sewing for more than 20 years, but until recently, fabric made no more sense to me than it did when I made my first dress back in the sixth grade.

A trip to the fabric store was inspiring and confusing. Colors and textures caught my eye, but I knew little about the different types of fabrics and their characteristics.

I was familiar with terms like twill, tissue faille and crepe, but I didn't know what they meant. I didn't understand the distinction between crepe chiffon and chiffon taffeta. I thought organdy and organza were the same thing. I thought damask and jacquard were different.

When I began to ask questions, I didn't get satisfactory answers. I got more confused. And I discovered that many other people who work with fabric don't know any more about it than I did.

I consulted sewing and textile books, and quickly discovered that some fabrics have three or four names, some terms describe three or four fabrics, and some terms have three or four spellings. It's normal to be confused.

I was overwhelmed by vague and conflicting descriptions and industry jargon. Textile dictionaries are quite technical: They speak of picks and ends, bilateral fibers, warp beams, eight-harness looms, weft yarns, calendering, gassing, singeing and face-finished goods.

None of that makes much sense to me. What I want to know is how each fabric looks, feels and behaves, how to use it and how to care for it. I want to know how much I can expect to pay for it and where to buy it. When I pay $30 a yard for three yards of silk, I want to make that purchase with confidence in my ability to choose the right fabric for my project.

Those who lack confidence in their fabric-selecting skills are advised to stick to the list of fabrics suggested on the back of most pattern envelopes. This is not as easy as it sounds, for two reasons:

The lists usually include confusing, oversimplified or vague terminology.

Even when the information is clear, it is not very useful, because fabric stores seldom use such terms to label their products.

Most fabric labels include the fiber content, the price and, in many cases, a recommended method of care. Some stores routinely provide additional information about the weave, the country of origin, the fabric's weight and so forth, while others make no effort to do so.

This is not a conspiracy to keep customers in the dark. Many stores do not identify fabric types because they simply don't know what they are.

For starters, only a few fabric types can be easily identified and accurately labeled. Descriptions of similar types of fabrics often overlap; distinctions are not clear and usually represent someone's preference or opinion rather than fact. You might call a fabric "damask," while I prefer to call it "jacquard." We would both be right.

That's because there are no hard and fast rules about defining fabric. The textile industry is creative and competitive, driven by consumer demands for fashion and function. Weaves, fibers, dyes and finishes can be mixed together in a mind-boggling number of combinations. As fabrics evolve, definitions change.

Adding to the confusion is the natural desire of textile mills and garment manufacturers to market their products by suggesting an air of distinction, novelty or exclusivity. The easiest way to do this is to give the product a catchy name. And almost anything goes, as long as the manufacturer gives equal time to the fabric's fiber content. The catchy name may refer to the fiber, the weave, the finish or the garment itself, resulting in a jumble of confusing terms. A number of very different items often wind up bearing similar names, even when they have nothing in common.

The confusion is compounded when an item becomes popular enough to receive media attention. Constant use of a catchy marketing term often creates the impression that the name refers to a standard type of fabric with clearly defined characteristics, when it does not.

Finally, some fabrics don't have assigned names. Mills frequently use numbers, rather than names, because it is easier to keep track of fabric No. 3754 than "lightweight silk crepe with jacquard figures." When one of these numbered fabrics is described in terms of fabric types, it is based on the expertise and opinion of the person giving the description, rather than an industry standard for the fabric.

In spite of this, some fabrics are easily defined. It's not difficult at all to conjure up an image of corduroy, velvet, denim or canvas. Most people can visualize a terry cloth bathrobe and an oxford shirt.

These are what the textile industry calls staple fabrics. Staple fabrics have steady sales over an extended period of time. They are produced in response to a large and continuous demand, they have been around for years and they aren't going to disappear in the near future.

Novelty fabrics are variations of staple fabrics. They usually resemble certain fabrics, even if they aren't exactly the same. So while it is next to impossible to accurately define all fabrics, it is easy to describe staple fabrics and to apply that knowledge to everything else. That's where this book fits in.

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