The HSF ’14: Challenge #16: Terminology

Of all the challenges in the HSF 2014, Challenge #16, due 1 September, is probably the one I’m most excited about.  The theme is Terminology: pick something that’s been defined in the The Great Historical Fashion & Textile Glossary, and sew it up!

Terminology posts aren’t the most popular things I write, but they have been my favourite things to write the last few years.  I’m a serious history nerd, so I always want to know exactly what something means in a historical sense, and why it means that.   I’ve really enjoyed researching each of the terms, so that I could not only define it, but understand where it fit into the societal context of the day, and how the term would be used in relation to similar items of clothing.  I’ve also really enjoyed the guests posts which usually explore a term and a textile from an era I don’t usually work in.  Whether through my own research and posts, or through guests posts, I’ve learned so much in researching each term, and hopefully some of you have found the posts enjoyable and interesting!

When it comes to the HSF challenge, there are endless possibilities for what you could make.  There are dozens of different fabric (from aerophane and alamode to viscose & voile), simple things like buffons and fichu (fichu en marmotte!), and complicated things like Chesterfield coats, tea gowns and robe de cour.  There are shoes (Moliére & Cromwell), hats (bergére and picture hats), and bags (reticules), outer-garments (burnouses and pardessus), and undergarments (symmetricals and stays), to name just a few.

I’ll also be adding to more terminology posts over the next two months as well.  There are some exciting guest posts involving Bronze Age textiles in the works, and I’m almost done with a post on the difference between brocade, damask and jacquard (plus a discussion of all the other textiles made with a jacquard loom), and have a post on the difference between worsted and woolens close to publishing as well – both of which are good multi-period terminology posts.

To celebrate the challenge, I’ve renamed the glossary: it’s now The Historical Fashion and Textile Encyclopedia, because it’s so much more than a glossary at this point.  I’ve also made it its own spiffy new button, which will shortly go on my sidebar:The Historical Fashion & Textile Encyclopedia at

I like the hero image for the Encyclopedia.  She’s wearing a bergere and a fichu (almost fichu robings), and I’m thinking I should write a post about muffs….

Whatever the challengers make, I hope using the Encyclopedia broadens their historical understanding, and through making the item (and additional research), I’m sure they will broaden mine!  Happy creating!


Terminology: What is ramie or nettle cloth?

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!

14th century nettle shift

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.  

Kimono , Aomori, Japan, 1890-1930, Indigo-dyed plain weave ramie with a stitched cotton design, Victoria & Albert Museum, FE.141-1983

Kimono , Aomori, Japan, 1890-1930, Indigo-dyed plain weave ramie with a stitched cotton design, Victoria & Albert Museum, FE.141-1983

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

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

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
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

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