Terminology: What is matelassé or marseilles cloth?

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!

18th century waistcoat thedreamstress.com
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.

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

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

A souvenir fan

I’ve mentioned before that one of the things I collect is antique fans.  I like that they are small and easy to store, and that they are so evocative of the events they might have been carried at.

I wonder where they came from.  Were they a gift from a beau?  A commemoration of being grown-up enough to go out from a parent?

What secrets were told behind them?  What faces did they cool after a spirited dance?  What frocks were they worn with, and what flirtations did they signal?  So many stories in a fan!

This particular fan from my collection is particularly gorgeous, and particularly evocative of a fascinating back-story.  Whose face was reflected in the mirror.  Did she use it to spy on other partigoers?  Or to check that every hair was in place?

An antique souvenir fan thedreamstress.com


The other side of the fan tells the rest of the story.  The fan was a souvenir, brought back from somewhere exotic.

An antique souvenir fan thedreamstress.com


Did the owner buy it herself, as a memento from a special trip?

An antique souvenir fan thedreamstress.com

Or did someone bring it back for her?  A friend or admirer?

I wonder if she loved and cherished it: perhaps so much she never used the fan at all.  On the other hand, she may have thought it was odd and tacky and useless, like most souvenirs these days!

An antique souvenir fan thedreamstress.com


The fan is very cunning: the leaves fold together and slip down into the handle with its mirror inset, and then pull out again with a bit of ribbon on the top.

It’s a beautiful piece, and I’m so glad to own it, but there is so much I don’t know about it.  Where was it a souvenir of?  How old is it (someone suggested 1870s, but that’s the only guess I’ve heard).

Terminology: Rayon, viscose, acetate, cuprammonium and all those other manufactured naturals

1930s/40s 'Smooth Sailing' trousers thedreamstress.com

My ‘Smooth Sewing‘ trousers for the HSF ‘Innovations‘ challenge were made of rayon (as is the 1940s aloha shirt I paired them with), so it seems high time that I do a terminology post on rayon and the other ‘semi-synthetic’ or ‘manufactured natural’ fibres.

Rayon is the generic name for a whole family of fabrics made by dissolving cellulose fibres in chemicals and extruding the resulting viscous solution.  Different chemicals and variations in the processes yield viscose (called rayon in the US), cuprammonium (cupra or cupro), nitro silk, acetate, modal and lyocell are all types of rayon, as is most ‘bamboo’ fabric – which is simply rayon made from bamboo rather than other cellulose bases.  Art silk (or artificial silk), is an older term for rayon.

Pyjamas and lingere in rayon, 1934

Pyjamas and lingere in rayon, 1934

The first manufactured natural fibres have their origins in the excited experimentation that characterised the birth of modern chemistry in the mid-19th century (a movement that also resulted in the first synthetic dyes).  Scientists discovered that cellulose could be dissolved in various solvents such as acetone and ether, and almost immediately hit upon the idea of creating a silk-like filament fibres from the resulting liquid.  In the mid 1850s an otherwise little-known chemist named Georges Audemars created the first artificial silk fibres by dipping needles in cellulose dissolved in a solvent, and drawing the needles out to form a thin fibre.  His method was obviously impractical for mass production, and it would take another half a century of tinkering to create a commercially viable manufactured cellulose based fabric.

His method, known as nitrocellulose, did go into production in the 1890s after further developments by Comte Hilaire de Chardonnet  (mentioned in NZ papers in 1888) based on filament development for lightbulbs, but the fabric was extremely flammable, had aesthetic issues, and was more expensive to produce than the other two competitors that had since arisen: acetate and cuprammonium.  Despite these drawbacks, and despite being popularly dubbed ‘mother-in-law silk‘, nitrocellulose was manufactured throughout the first decade of the 20th century, until the disruptions of WWI ended its production.

By the early 1900s manufactured cellulose fabrics of various varieties were making headlines around the world.  Articles raving about it had appeared as early as 1894, and by 1906 they reached a fever pitch with headlines like “The Wonder of Cellulose” and declared “Death of the Silkworm” and “Artificial Silk Can Be Made Cheaper Than Rags.”  Viscose was sold in the UK from 1905, in the US from 1910, and in New Zealand from at least 1911.

Ad for Ososilkie, Girls Own Paper, 1911, thedreamstress.com

Ad for Ososilkie (almost certainly a yarn made from rayon) as seen in the Girls Own Paper, 1911

World War I delayed the development of rayon and other cellulose based fabrics.  When the war ended in 1918, society embraced new technology of all varieties as hallmarks of a new world which had been washed clean by the horrors of war, and could start fresh.  Processed cellulose fabrics was one of these new technologies, and its popularity rose throughout the early 1920s.

Viscose in particular was originally marketed as a silk alternative – or artificial silk, shortened to art silk, to further veil its origins. Proponents raved that it was “so soft and glossy that it will deceive even experts when woven.” Less enthusiastic observers sneered that it was simply “disguised cotton“ and  noted “artificial the article certainly is, but silk it is not – any more than celluloid is marble.”

Despite the detractors, by 1925 rayon, with its ability to mimic both cotton and silk, combined with a significantly cheaper price tag, especially compared to silk, was being manufactured in large quantities in the UK, Germany and the US, and to smaller extents in Italy, Japan and other countries.  Production of rayon in the UK almost quadrupled from 1924 to 1926.  Silk remained pre-eminent for those who could afford it, but art silk was an attractive alternative to those on a budget.  Art silk was manufactured as yarns for embroidery and knitting, as a flat fabric, as a crepe fabric, and as a velvet, among other types of fabric.

1930s evening jacket of rayon velvet thedreamstress.com

1930s evening jacket of rayon velvet

Rayon was also mixed with wool and cotton to create blends that were often cheaper than either of those fabrics in their pure form, or simply to create new and exciting fashion blends.

Sports dress that will be much in evidence this winter. The material is Cobra, one of the new rayon and cotton fabrics that will be made up into sports frocks as well as gowns for tea dansants and afternoon wear. Auckland Star, 11 April 1928

Sports dress that will be much in evidence this winter. The material is Cobra, one of the new rayon and cotton fabrics that will be made up into sports frocks as well as gowns for tea dansants and afternoon wear. Auckland Star, 11 April 1928

The popularity of art silk prompted chemists to try to devise a fibre that could mimic wool, resulting in the development of the short-lived and unfortunately named Sniafil.  The fibres properties were apparently no more impressive than its name, and it is not mentioned again after 1927.

The entire manufactured cellulose fabrics industry became increasingly important with the economic crashes in 1929: more and more people could not afford real silk, and turned to art silk as a cheaper alternative.  The first fashion illustrations for rayon frocks appear in NZ papers in 1927 (and these illustrations would have come from overseas, so reflect a clear global trend).

1930s rayon crepe robe with rayon embroidery thdreamstress.com

1930s rayon crepe Japanese import robe with rayon embroidery

The drawback to rayon was its quality: it crumpled more than natural fibres, and often did not last as well.  Still, 1931 home economics textbooks advised that “with proper care and laundering, rayon may give as satisfactory wear as silk”.  Early rayons were so weakened by water that even slight rubbing when washing could produce holes in the fabric.  This weakness in water made rayon unsuitable for military use (can you just imagine how bad a parachute that weakened when wet would be?), so rayon filled the gap for a fashion fabric left by silk (which was  in high demand for parachutes, and in short supply due to trade interruptions) during World War II.

1940s rayon thedreamstress.com

1940s rayon fabric

In addition to an increase in demand for rayon, World War II also saw huge improvements in the qualities of rayon.  Early rayons were (as mentioned) weak in water, couldn’t take hot ironing, and prone to creasing in wrinkling.  Research into rayon technology spurred by a need for better, cheaper, fabrics during the war helped to improve the fabric, and also produced nylon, the first fully synthetic fabric.

1940s rayon floral fabric

1940s rayon floral fabric

Rayon has been continually improved since the end of WWII, based on fashion trends and cost demands.  It’s now softer, stronger, more breathable, and easier to launder and care for.  It’s also going through a bit of a resurgence as a fabric, motivated in part by rising costs in cotton caused by serious droughts in major cotton producing areas.  Rayon, in all its forms, is easily found in off-the-rack garments and fabric stores – at least for now.

'Grans Garden' reproduction 1930 dress in modern viscose

‘Grans Garden’ reproduction 1930 dress in modern viscose

I’ve used art silk, rayon and viscose as synonyms up to this point, which is how they were used historically, but they aren’t quite synonyms today.  So what is the difference between rayon and viscose?

Viscose was the trade name for the specific process developed by Charles Frederick Cross in 1894.  It was used as the generic name for fabrics produced using variants of that process until 1924, when the holders of Cross’s patent petitioned in the US to have the name restricted to their process, and the actual viscous liquid, which could also be used to make cellophane.  From 1924 viscose and other cellulose fabrics produced with similar processes were called by the generic name rayon, or art silk in the US, though they continued to be called viscose in Europe.  Thus, modern equivalents of the fabric are called rayon in the US, and viscose in NZ/Australia/the UK today.

A smart three-piece sports ensemble of wool and rayon weave, featuring the popular jacket and set off by a large silk bandanna. Auckland Star, 25 June 1928

A smart three-piece sports ensemble of wool and rayon weave, featuring the popular jacket and set off by a large silk bandanna. Auckland Star, 25 June 1928

There was a time though, when the fabric was called rayon in New Zealand  Advertisements for rayon, rather than viscose or art silk, first appear in New Zealand papers in March 1925.  In the later half of the 1920s, and throughout the 1930s & 40s rayon was the most common term for manufactured cellulose fabric in New Zealand fashion articles and advertising.  Only when rayon fell out of favour (replaced by the new fully synthetic fibres, like nylon) in the post war period did the name disappear.  When rayon/viscose experienced a resurgence in the 1980s and new millennium, it was brought back to New Zealand under the name viscose.

Today rayon is the generic term for all of the manufactured naturals, while viscose implies a specific process and materials – so viscose is a rayon, but not all rayons are viscose.  There are also:

- Acetate, acetate rayon, or cellulose is the second oldest manufactured cellulose fibre, with origins dating back to 1865, though it wasn’t until the turn of the century that a process that was commercially satisfactory was developed (interestingly enough, by the Dreyfuss brothers, who were also responsible for the first synthetic indigo dye).  Acetate differs from viscose significantly in that in that acetate is hydrophobic (reacts very poorly to water and must be dry cleaned) and viscose is hydrophylic (loves water and absorbs lots of it).  Acetate did poorly at first as a fashion fibre because the initial process was hard to dye (as it couldn’t be put in a dye bath) so was used primarily for industry.  Acetate also reacts poorly to heat and melts easily – this does mean that it is one of the few semi-natural fibres that can be permanently pressed into pleats.  Because of these drawbacks it wasn’t manufactured commercially on any great scale until at least 1924.  Variants of acetate are Triacetate and Diacetate.

- Bamboo rayons (from bamboo fibres) – simply viscose or other manufactured naturals made with bamboo as their cellulose base.  Bamboo can be processes into a fibre in two ways: mechanically, or using chemicals (as a rayon).  The mechanical process is expensive and time and labour intensive, and results in a much stiffer, less attractive fabric.  The rayon process produces a much nicer fibre, but is not particularly environmentally friendly.  In some countries, such as the US, bamboo rayons must be marketed as such unless they are entirely mechanically processed.  There are no such rules in New Zealand.  It is possible to buy mechanically processed bamboo (it’s rather like a stiff, coarse linen), but its usually blended with other fibres to make it softer and more wearable.  I’m reasonably certain that the stripes in my Subtly Striped petticoat are manufactured bamboo.

-Cuprammonium rayon is simply cellulose dissolved in a cuprammonium solution.  Sold as cuprammonium, cupra, cupro, bemberg and bemberg silk, after the J.P. Bemberg company, who improved it and first produced in commercially in 1901.  Cupro is usually a very light, fine, soft fabric, and is used as linings in quality suits and dresses, as it tends to last better than silk, but is nicer to feel and wear than acetate.  It is apparently illegal to manufacture in the US at the present, due to the chemicals used to make it.

-I’ve been told by more than one American seamstress of my grandmothers generation that in the post WWII attempt to rebuild Japan’s economy fancy brocaded rayons were sold as ‘Kyoto silk‘.  I’ve never found any marketing or research which definitively substantiates this, and Kyoto has always been famous for its gorgeous fabrics of real silk, so rebranding rayon as ‘Kyoto silk’ seems particularly unscrupulous on the part of marketers.

- Lyocell, trade named Tencel, is a relatively new rayon, only invented in the 1980s.  Unlike most rayons it is strong when wet, and is highly absorbent.  It can also be made to mimic a variety of other fibres and finishes, from suede to silk.  It can be quite hard to dye, and has a tendency to pill, though both of these drawbacks can be overcome by additional processing.  Lyocell is often marketed as the most environmentally friendly of the rayon processes, though some manufacturers use harsher chemicals to make the process faster and cheaper, as it is also the most expensive of the rayons to produce.

- Modal, is most similar to lyocell, and like lyocell is extremely soft and very absorbent.  Along with lyocell it is currently being heavily marketed as a ‘green’ fabric.


Cant, Jennifer and Fritz, Anne, Consumer Textiles.  Melbourne: Oxford University Press.  1988

Garfield, Simon.  Mauve: How One Man Invented a Colour that Changed the World.  London: Faber and Faber Limited.  2000

Joyce A. Smith. Rayon – The Multi-Faceted Fiber. Ohio State University Rayon Fact Sheet

Rathbone, Lucy & Tarpley, Elizabeth, Fabrics and Dress.  San Francisco: Houghton Mifflin Company.  1931

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