A long time ago, when I posted the difference and between muslin, voile, lawn, and batiste (among other fabrics), someone asked if I could explain the difference between brocade and jacquard. I took a deep breath, and say “Yes, but it will take a while.” It certainly has, because it’s actually quite a big question, and there is so much confusion around it!
Left to right: Imperial brocade, tapestry/brocatelle, damask, brocade, damask
A lot of the confusion come from the fact that while the appearance of brocade has stayed very similar throughout history, the method of creating it has changed drastically. Prior to 1801 brocades were woven on hand operated draw-looms by master weavers, who manually created the elaborate brocade patterns as they were woven in with the help of a drawboy, who stood on a perch above the loom. Then, in 1801 Joseph Marie Jacquard demonstrated a new invention (albeit one based partly on a series of inventions from the 1740s-60s) – a loom which ran on cards with holes punched in them. Each card represented one line of a pattern, with the holes allowing threads to pass through into the pattern, changing the colours and creating a design.
Jacquard loom at the Museum of Science and Industry, Manchester, England
The Jacquard loom revolutionised the production of elaborately patterned fabrics. Skilled craftsmen who could read pattern diagrams and manipulate the pattern as it was being woven were no longer needed to weave brocades and other designs, and the Jacquard loom did not require the assistance of an additional drawboy. The new looms could be operated by an unskilled labourer, making richly patterned fabrics faster and cheaper to produce. Jacquard looms were so much easier and cheaper to operate that the old style of looms quickly became obsolete, and within a few decades of Jacquard’s invention almost all elaborate fabrics woven in the West, including brocades, damasks, and richly patterned faux-Kashmiri or ‘Paisley’ shawls, were woven on Jacquard looms.
If the punch cards with holes which create a pattern sounds a little like an early computer – it is. The Jacquard loom and its punch card pattern system is considered an important point in the history of the computer. Babbage and Lovelace (the ‘Father of the Computer’ and world’s first computer programmer and first person to envision a computer that did much more than mathematical calculations (also Byron’s daughter), respectively) were familiar with Jacquards loom, and Babbage intended to use punch cards based on the loom punch cards in his Analytical Engine.
Punch cards in use on a Jacquard loom at the Museum of Science and Industry, Manchester, England
The jacquard loom was further revolutionised in 1843, with the invention of the dobby loom, which makes simpler patterned fabrics by a method of up to 40 frames which lift according to a programme. The dobby loom was even cheaper to run than the Jacquard, and supplanted it for all simpler patterned weaves. Dobby loom patterns, however, are limited to designs that stretch over 40 threads, whereas designs made on a Jacquard loom are virtually limitless. Today jacquard weaves are achieved not with a Jacquard loom, but rather a Jacquard head which is fitted on to a dobby loom.
Almost all modern brocades are woven with a jacquard device, so one could say that all modern brocades are jacquards, but not all jacquards are brocades, because jacquard looms are used to create other weaves, such as brocatelle, damask and tapestry.
Today the name jacquard usually applies to all weaves that can be achieved with the machine, but it is sometimes used to describe one specific type of fabric woven using a Jacquard loom: a light, soft, draping damask weave (see damask weaves below) of silk, rayon or synthetic fibres, which is why descriptions of jacquard as a fabric sometimes say daft things like ‘similar in appearance to damask’.
A rayon damask of the type sometimes called jacquard.
Here are some of the most common weaves achieved on a jacquard loom. Because a jacquard head can produce an almost infinite variety of weaves, there are many fabrics produced with a jacquard loom that don’t fit nicely into one weave category or another, so certain fabrics (particularly brocade & tapestry) can be quite fluid or imprecise in their definition:
Brocade: These days brocade frequently describes the aesthetic of a fabric, rather than a specific weave. Brocades are fabric with an elaborate embossed or embroidered surface effect, usually with different ground and pattern weaves. The name comes from the Italian brocatto, meaning ‘embossed cloth’. Unlike damask, brocades are not reversible. Continuous brocades have the weft threads left loose and floating on the back. Some continuous brocades have the back threads cut away, though the short cut ends are still visible. A discontinuous brocade is one where additional yarns are only woven into the patterned areas, resulting in a smoother back.
A continuous brocade with a pattern formed of lamé threads that have been cut on the reverse of the fabric.
Mantua, England, 1733-1734 (woven) 1735-1740 (made), Brocaded silk, hand-sewn with spun silk and spun threads, lined with linen, brown paper lining for cuffs, brass, canvas and pleated silk detail, Victoria & Albert Museum
Front and reverse of a silk brocade variant
Brocading: brocade or other jacquard weaves with the inclusion of gold or silver coloured threads. It is also called Imperial Brocade.
A variant of brocade with cut threads on both sides of the fabric, forming voided designs
Front and reverse of an silk/rayon blend imperial brocade
Brocade velvet: a patterned velvet with a raised pile and a woven ground (not to be confused with a burnout velvet, where the patterning is achieved by burning out the pile with acid, rather than weaving in the pattern from the start).
Brocatelle: Similar to brocade, but the patterned areas are more distinct and raised, and the fabric is heavier.
An ottoman in the process of being re-covered in brocatelle
Damask: Patterned fabrics with a ground of one weave (usually plain, twill or sateen) and designs in other weaves (particularly satin and twill variants), so that the patterned areas have sheen and reflect light, Damasks are always reversible, with the pattern weaves becoming the ground weaves on the reverse (so on a fabric with a plain ground and satin pattern front, the ground would be satin and the pattern plain on the reverse). There are tone-on-tone damasks, with different weaves within the damask creating elaborate floral or geometric patterns, and multicoloured damasks, where the background colours and the pattern colours reverse from front to back. My Polly Oliver jacket is made from a red tone-on-tone jacquard damask.
Tea gown with 18th century inspired back pleats, ca. 1905, Callot Soeurs, silk damask, lace, Victoria & Albert Museum
The damask for my Mariana Victoria frock
Front and reverse of a rayon damask
Matelassé/Marcella/Piqué: a weave specifically designed to imitate quilting with a characteristic bubbled/blistered raised effect.
Tapestry: In modern terminology ‘tapestry’ just means a fabric woven on a jacquard loom that imitates historical tapestries. It’s a very imprecise term, but it describes a heavy fabric with an elaborate, multicolour weave, usually with the colours reversing on the back of the fabric (for example, a fabric with green leaves on a red ground would have red leaves on a green ground on the reverse), but is thicker, stiffer, and heavier than damask, the reverse may not be as neat and tidy, and is usually woven with thicker yarns than damask or brocade.
Front and reverse of a modern tapestry type fabric
If you are looking at a modern jacquard weave fabric and trying to determine what it is most likely to be called, ask yourself:
- Is it reversible, with the pattern a mirror of each other on each side? If so – it’s a damask. If it’s light and drapey, some people might call it a jacquard.
- Is one side beautiful, and the other side a mess of floating threads? It’s a continuous brocade, unless it’s very heavy, and the pattern is very raised, and then it is a brocatelle.
- Is one side beautiful, and the other a mess of short, cut threads? Its a discontinuous brocade, unless it’s very heavy, and the pattern is very raised, and then it is a brocatelle.
- Is one side beautiful, and the other a pattern of coloured stripes? It’s a type of brocade.
- Is it a brocade with gold and/or silver coloured threads? It’s an imperial brocade/brocade with brocading.
- Is it quite textured, with puffy, blistered areas on the front and a loose, gauzy support weave on the back? It’s a matelasse/marcelle/piqué
- Is it really elaborately patterned, quite heavy, and doesn’t fit any of the other descriptions? It’s a tapestry weave.
Jacquard looms can also be used to create elaborately patterned knits, including:
Jacquard hose: socks and stockings with elaborate patterns, such as argyle, herringbone, and other socks with the patterns woven in. Stockings/socks/hose have been knit on jacquard looms since the 1920s, and have gone in and out of popularity since then.
Jacquard sweaters: machine made sweaters with elaborate patterns knitted in. Most ugly Christmas sweaters? Yep. Those are jacquard sweaters. Aztec sweaters – those are jacquard sweaters. Machine knit argyle sweaters are knit on a jacquard loom. Faux Fair Isle and Cowichan sweaters are knit on jacquard looms.
And if you are interested, weaves that are usually done with a dobby loom are birds eye (diaper cloth), crepes, cloche, dotted swiss, double-weaves, honeycomb weaves, simple matelasse/piqué patterns, satins, and elaborate twills, as well as fabrics with small, simple widely spaced designs.
Cant, Jennifer and Fritz, Anne, Consumer Textiles. Melbourne: Oxford University Press. 1988
Calasibetta, C. M., Tortora, P, and Abling, B (illus.). The Fairchild Dictionary of Fashion (Third Ed). London: Laurence King Publishing Ltd. 2003
Collier, Billie J. and Tortora, Phyllis G. Understanding Textiles (Sixth ed). Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Prentice Hall Inc. 2001
Shaeffer, Claire. Claire Shaeffer’s Fabric Sewing Guide. Iola, Wisconsin: Krause Publications. 2008
Wilard, Dana. The Fabric Selector. Millers Point, NSW Australia: Murdoch Books Pty Ltd. 2012
When I made my fairytale inspired nettle smock, I promised to write a terminology post for ramie. It’s taken me a little longer than expected, and I wish I’d been able to find more extent period examples of garments from nettle fabrics, but here ’tis. Enjoy!
Ramie is the generic name for a bast fibre fabric made from the stems of plants in the wider nettle family. It is also known as nettle cloth, china grass cloth, grass linen, and rhea. Most of these names denote a specific plant source for the fibre. Nettle cloth usually indicates fabric from the European Urtica dioica, the stinging nettle. China grass cloth comes from white ramie, and is considered to be better quality than rhea, which comes from green ramie).
Most of the ramie that is sold today is china grass/white ramie, and comes from the plant Boehmeria nivea, native to China and Japan, but widespread throughout Asia from ancient times. Both white and green ramie were used historically across Asia. Nettle fabric in Europe was made from stinging nettles. In this post I will use ramie to mean fibre from white and green ramie, and nettle cloth to mean fibre from stinging nettles whenever possible.
Ramie, like linen, is a bast fibre, made from the cellulose stalk of a plant. Ramie stalks have a very gummy sap, and require a labour-intensive de-gumming process, which is part of the reason that ramie is not generally as commercially popular as linen. If improperly de-gummed and cleaned, ramie is quite rough, and becomes brittle very easily. If properly processed, ramie fibres are naturally white, and do not require significant additional bleaching. They are also stronger than any other natural fibre, do not loose strength when wet, and are naturally antibacterial. Ramie is easy to dye.
China grass cloth is sometimes used as the name for a fabric made from woven strips of un-de-gummed ramie, which would gradually de-gumm as the garment was worn and washed, so the garment would actually become cleaner and softer through years of use.
In terms of appearance, handle, and wear, ramie is most like linen. The ramie fabric I have seen and handled look much like linen, but are sheerer, finer, and thinner than linens of the same thread count, but with a slightly fuzzier surface. Ramie also creases significantly less than linen, though my sources say that ramie becomes brittle and liable to crack with age. Historically, extremely high quality ramie has been used as an alternative to silk, and there may even have been ramie velvets. Unfortunately I have never seen or handled a nettle cloth in person, and cannot comment on how it compares to ramie.
Ramie is frequently blended with other fibres, to improve the qualities of both fibres, and mitigate their drawbacks. Ramie is blended with synthetics for breathability, but with more strength than if the synthetics were blended with linen or cotton. It is blended with wool to add strength to the wool and to soften the wool, linen to decrease creasing (no pun intended), and silk for cost, breathability, and washability.
Ramie was used extensively in Egyptian mummy wrappings between 5,000-3,000BC, and there is strong evidence that ramie was used to make clothing for farmers and other working classes in China as early as 5,000 years ago. Ramie fabric may have been imported into Ancient Rome along the Silk Road. There are also claims that some North American Indian tribes wove cloth of nettles.
Nettle cloth has been used in Europe since at least the Bronze Age, and recent archeological finds show that nettle cloth was traded across Europe, and worn and woven far from where it was grown.
Nettle cloth made in the Bronze Age, 2,800 years ago. National Museum of Denmark
Nettles were grown and woven into cloth in Europe almost continuously from the Bronze Age until the 19th century, with fluctuations in popularity based on changes in climate and the availability of other fabrics. The late 15th century inventory of the Palazzo Medici lists numerous pieces of nettle cloth. In the 17th & 18th century nettle cloth was sometimes (though not as commonly as is often claimed) called Scots cloth, probably because nettle cloth was manufactured and was particularly popular in Scotland.
It was only in the 1870s, with the invention of an economically viable mechanical de-gumming process, that ramie displaced nettle cloth in Western fashion. Ramie blend fabrics soon appeared on the market under a variety of names: ‘Japan silk’, ‘Canton goods’, ‘grass linen’ and ‘Nankin linen’ were all euphemisms for ramie-blends in the 1870s. Some contemporary textile watchers claimed that extensive amounts of the silk fabrics sold in the last quarter of the 19th century were adulterated with ramie. It would be interesting to see if modern technology could test this claim.
Ramie was in vogue in its own right in the early 20th century as part of the fashion for crisp, white and neutral fabrics. According to fashion columns white ramie was known as ‘tuxedo‘
Nettle cloth was pressed back into use during WWI, when the seriously under-prepared German Army (they were so sure of victory that they went to war with supplies for less than three weeks of fighting) resorted to nettle cloth uniforms, using an estimated two-thousand tons of wild stinging nettle plants in their manufacture. It took almost 45kg to make one shirt – quite an effort!
Ramie remained popular throughout the rest of the world for clothes and millinery, though the supply was sometimes interrupted by the World Wars.
Today ramie is grown commercially in China, the Philippines, Brazil, and in small quantities in India and the US. US production has apparently been in a steady decline throughout the 2nd half of the 20th century, and worldwide production appears to have peaked in the 1970s. Most ramie is used for industrial applications: mixed with jute as carpet backings, blended into car upholstery, and use for cord and rope. Ramie popularity for fashion garments fluctuates hugely, based partly on trends, and partly on reactions to fluctuations in the prices of other fibres. When cotton, linen, or polyester prices rise, ramie is more likely to be commercially viable, and to appear on the catwalks and in your local fabric store.
Buchanan, Rita. A Weaver’s Garden: Growing Plants for Natural Dyes and Fibers. Mineola, New York: Dover Publications. 1999
Cumming, Valerie and Cunnington, C.W.; Cunnington, P.E, The Dictionary of Fashion History (Rev., updated ed.). Oxford: Berg Publishers. 2010
Ghosh, G. K., and Ghosh, Shukla. Indian Textiles: Past & Present. New Delhi: APH Publishing Corporations. 1995
Lewin, Menachem, and Pearce, Eli M (ed). Handbook of Fibre Chemistry, Second Edition, Revised and Expanded. New York, New York: Marcel Dekker Inc, 1998
Linduff, Katheryn M, Rubison, Karen S (ed). Are All Warriors Male? : Gender Roles on the Ancient Eurasian Steppes. Plymouth, UK: AltaMira Press. 2008
Maitra, K. Encyclopaedic Dictionary of Clothing and Textiles. New Delhi: Mittal Publications. 2007
Needham, Joseph. Science and Civilization in China. Cambridge: University Press. 1988
As I’ve just finished a matelassé waistcoat, it’s high time I (finally) finished my matelassé terminology post and added the term to the Great Historical Fashion & Textile Glossary!
Matelasse or Marseille’s cloth (sometimes shortened to marcella or called piqué de marseilles) is also known as woven quilting, because it is a weave specifically designed to imitate quilting. It looks like a fine quilt, or like a slightly bubbly, blister-y brocade. Matelassé is sometimes patterned in simple geometrics, or (like my waistcoat), in elaborate foliate designs. It can range from a heavy, bulky fabric, to a fairly light but still puffy and squishy crepe. A very similar fabric (sometimes sold as matelassé, and it’s difficult to tell the difference on some examples), is cloque.
From a technical standpoint:
Matelassé is a figured fabric made with either three or four sets of yarns. Two of the sets are the regular warp and weft yarns; the other sets are crepe or coarse cotton yarns. They are woven together so that the yarn sets crisscross. When the fabric is finished the crepe or cotton yards shrink, giving the fabric a puckered appearance. Heavy cotton yarns sometimes are used as stuffer yarns beneath the fabric to emphasise the three-dimensional appearance of the fabric…Cloque is made of four sets of yarns: two warp yarn sets and two weft yarn sets. The interlacing pattern is complex and simulates the appearance of quilting stitches on a solid coloured surface. Since there is no shrinkage of some of the yarn sets as in matelassé, cloque is a flatter fabric.
In the early 18th century quilted petticoats (along with other quilted items such as waistcoats, banyans and pockets) were hugely popular, and Marseilles in France was particularly famous for its quilting, especially of what would come to be known as whitework or trapunto quilting. England, always eager to promote British made goods and to discourage importation, sought to control the importation of the quilts through taxation and import restrictions. Various societies and manufacturers also offered rewards to anyone who could come up with an alternative to Marseille’s quilting. In the early 1740s one Robert Elsden invented a technique for imitating the hand-quilted look on a loom. He was immediately awarded a prize by the Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufacture & Commerce.*
Elsden’s technique was probably quite rudimentar, because it was not until the 1760s that woven quilting became commercially available, probably after much refining to the technique to make it workable and viable. Capitalising on the fame of Marseilles’ quilting, the cloth was sold in England as ‘Marseilles cloth’, and soon became extremely popular. Merchants in England and the American colonies could choose from dozens of patterns, sent out in samples books, some of which still exist in museums. The fabric was sold for bedcovers, petticoats, waistcoats, and even in special designs for small items such as pockets.
In 1783 the SEAMC congratulated themselves on the success of the fabric their reward had supported:
When the proposition was first made in the Society, of offering a premium to encourage the making in the loom, an imitation of that Species of Needlework, long known by the name of Marseilles Quilting, it was almost rejected as visionary and impossible; but the laudable spirit of enterprise, which has always distinguished the Society, determined them to publish the premium, and the consequence has justified the venture. The manufacture is now so thoroughly established and so extensive, being wrought in all the different materials of Linen, Woolen, Cotton, and Silk, that few persons of any rank, condition, or fix……exist who do not use it in some part of their clothing”
18th century Marseilles cloth consisted of two layers of fabric woven together, with the patterns defined by cord. As the Societies advertisement stated, it could be made in silk, cotton, wool or linen, though most varieties, and silk in particular, were more decorative than durable, so few early examples survive.
While the English called the fabric Marseille’s cloth, the French did not want it to compete with their prized hand quilting, so they took a name from the French matelasser – to quilt, hence the modern matelassé.
Marseille cloth disappeared from fashion in the early-mid 19th century, though it remained popular for bedspreads and furnishing. There are a few reasons why matelassé fell out of fashion. First, the fullness that matelassé would give to skirts was no longer desirable with the slim Regency silhouette. Second, lighter, simpler, less bulky fabrics were fashionable for the first few years of the 19th century. In addition, the line between underclothes and outerclothes became more distinct in the early 19th century, especially where petticoats were concerned. Because petticoats were no longer interchangeable with skirts, expensive decorative petticoats fell out of favour, and fabrics associated with petticoats became undergarment only fabrics, rather than general fashion fabrics.
Finally, fabric manufacturing methods were revolutionised by the invention of the jacquard loom (yes, I’ll be doing a post on that!) in 1801. Today matelassé is usually made on a jacquard loom, but I’ve not been able to determine when the jacquard loom was first used for the manufacture of matelassé. It probably took some time to adapt the jacquard to the matelassé weave, so matelassé was eclipsed in popularity by other previously expensive fabrics like brocade that could be cheaply (or at least less expensively) be produced by a jacquard loom.
So for the first half (and a bit) of the 19th century, matelassé was quite rare as a fashion fabric . When examples of it are shown in fashion magazines, they make it quite clear that the reader would not be familar with the fabric. It was seen as a fabric for bedcovers, and for the occasional petticoat, like this example from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, with a cotton matelassé hem which would help to bulk and smooth out an elliptical hoopskirt:
Jacquard manufacture of matelasse may not have happened until the early 1870s, when the fabric reappeared in fashion in a big way: being mentioned in dozens of fashion articles in late 1874. It was marketed under the name matelassé in both English and French speaking countries, showing the French dominance of fashion, and a clear break with the link to quilting that had made it so popular in the 18th century.
A fashion column of autumn 1874 describes the fabric and the types of styles made from it, and makes it clear that most women would not be familiar with matelassé as a fabric for clothing:
a novel fabric, which is matelasse. It is silk with a satin face, and as thick as though it were wadded. It is woven to look like fanciful quilting in small diamonds, arabesques and floriate designs. It is made in black, olive green, chestnut brown and a variety of other colours; in fact, matelasse jackets, polonaises, and skirts will be all the rage when colder days arrive. In pale pink, blue and white the material will be mainly used for skirts for wearing under trained evening or dinner dresses.
Another fashion article of the same period also describes matelasse in great detail:
The new curiasse, however, the tight bodice, with closely fitted basques, is to be made of fabrics specially manufactured for it, and called matelassé. These fabrics are very thick and firm, and will set closely to the figure like cloth. They are generally made with a background of wool, and perhaps a little cotton, but in some entirely of silk. The more modest specimens are what we might term silk piqué, and have geometric patterns upon them. A more elegant style is covered in handsome designs worked in the stuff itself, that looks as if it were embroidered upon it, and is really one of the most effective materials I have seen for a long time.
Matelassé remained fashionable throughout the rest of the 19th century, though after the 1870s it was used primarily in capes and other items of outerwear.
Examples of matelassé as a fashion fabric are reasonably rare (though certainly not unknown) in the early 20th century. By 1923 fashion papers described it as ‘a rather old fashioned weave’, though there was an attempt to reintroduce it (or a type of cloque, as the fabrics were often confused) as ‘Cloky‘ (an unattractive re-naming if I ever heard one, and one which thankfully did not take!) After a few decades as an unusual fabric, matelassé experienced a resurgence of fashion in the 1930s, especially as lightweight matelassé crepes in silk and rayon.
Gown of gold lamé matelassé, Mainbocher, mid 1940s.
It was once again at the forefront of fashion in the 1960s, when bulky matelassé brocades, often in the new synthetic fibres, lent themselves well to the stiff, sculptural silhouttes – just as they had as ‘quilted’ petticoats when the fabric was first developed.
Evening dress, Paris, France, ca. 1955, Givenchy, Silk matelasse brocade, Victoria & Albert Museum, T.270 to B-1975
*well, that covers pretty much everything
Maitra, K. Encyclopaedic Dictionary of Clothing and Textiles. New Delhi: Mittal Publications. 2007
O’Hara, Georgina. The Encyclopedia of Fashion: From 1840 to the 1980s. London: Thames and Hudson Ltd. 1986
Peck, Amelia. American Quilts and Coverlets in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York: Dutton Studio Books. 1990
Rowe, T (ed.) Interior Textiles: Design and Development. Cambridge: Woodhead Publishing Limited. 2009
Shaeffer, Claire. Claire Shaeffer’s Fabric Sewing Guide. Iola, Wisconsin: Krause Publications. 2008
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