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All About Fabric Weaves: A Tutorial

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If you're anything like us, the fabric store is your personal wonderland. The colors and textures of the fabric just scream for new projects to be made. Which got us thinking... if we love fabric so much, shouldn't we know more about it; like how it's made, and what is what? An educated shopper is the best kind, so we set out to understand the differences between weaves of fabrics, and we're sharing our results.

It all starts on the loom

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Photo Credit: Pendleton Woolen Mills
Pendleton's Washougal, WA mill weaves their solid, striped and plaid fabrics on Dobby looms. You can see in the picture of the weave room that the threads on the looms are colored. On these fabrics, both the Warp threads (under tension, on the loom) and the Weft or fill threads (the threads that cross at a right angle) will show in the finished yardage. When Pendleton crosses a striped Warp with a striped Weft, they create one of their famous plaids. The large cones of thread next to each loom are the fill threads for that fabric.

Though it seems difficult to imagine, all fabric is created on a loom – just like it was thousands of years ago! Of course, technology makes the process much faster, but the basic principles are still the same.

The loom is set with rows of thread criss-crossing each other to form the fabric. First, vertical (lengthwise) threads are attached to the loom itself. These are called the WARP threads, and they are the basic foundation of the fabric. Next, threads are woven between the weft threads, usually at a 90˚ angle. These fill in the fabric, and are called WEFT threads. (One great mnemonic device for remembering the difference is to say. "Weft goes right and left"... plus, it makes you sound like Elmer Fudd.) The Weft threads create the selvedge of the fabric. The variations in the way the Warp and Weft threads criss-cross each other is how different weaves of fabric are created.

With our basic foundation in place, we can investigate some of the most common types of weaves.

Plain Weave

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The most basic fabric construction is called (go figure!) the Plain Weave. This is a one-to-one overlap of Warp and Weft threads (the weft threads go over, then under, the warp threads). Most of the fabrics we use on Sew4Home fall into the Plain Weave category, as this weave creates the ‘quilting cottons' we so enjoy sewing with. These weaves are inexpensive to produce and durable. Calicos, Ginghams, Cheesecloth, Percale, Voile, Chiffon, and Taffeta are all Plain Weave fabrics.

Basket Weave

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This is a simple variation of the Plain Weave. In the Basket Weave version, the criss-cross pattern uses more than one thread, but the number of threads is consistent throughout. For example, two weft threads cross the warp fiber every two strands. Often the weave will use contrasting colors. The result resembles a checkerboard, because the criss-crossing strands are more pronounced than in the Plain Weave. One popular example of this type of weave is Oxford Cloth. In a fabric store, you'll usually find these fabrics in the ‘Shirting' section.

Twill

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Twill weaves are easy to spot because they create diagonal lines. The Weft thread is passed through the warp thread in groups of two or more. Each row of threads starts on the next line in a progression, creating a distinct diagonal line. In other words, Row 1 starts by passing over the warp thread, Row 2 starts by going under it, and so on. The counts of ‘under' and ‘over' threads create different patterns in twill, such as Houndstooth or Herringbone. The process of making Twill creates a distinct front and back side in the weave itself. (You can tell the front and back on a Plain Weave only because the front side has been printed with the fabric design.) Twill is generally rougher in texture than Plain Weave fabrics, so they aren't great if you're making soft pillows or comforters. The upside of this, however, is that the rough texture will not wear or show dirt as readily. Denim, gabardine and tweed are common examples of Twill.

Satin

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Satin is known as a soft and smooth fabric that drapes wonderfully. To create this weave, one thread (either the Warp or the Weft) is ‘floated' over four or more opposite threads. It then goes under one thread, and repeats the pattern. 'Float' is the term for spaces between interlacings – where a thread rests on top of the opposite thread. The large distance between interlacings is what creates the smooth and glossy surface on this fabric. This distance also causes Satin to snag easily, and makes it less durable than other fabrics.

Jacquard

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Photo Credit: Pendleton Woolen Mills
The Jacquard loom is this photo is in their Pendleton, OR mill. You'll notice the warp threads on the loom are white, but the fabric is multicolored and patterned. This is possible because on a Jacquard loom, (and because of the structure of the Pendleton Trade Blankets), the warp threads will not show, only the fill colors. Notice how the space above the loom looks different on the Jacquard loom. That's because all the threads can be raised independently, making incredibly complex patterns possible. In this photo, the fabric being woven is their Chief Joseph pattern, one of the oldest in their line and still one of the most popular.

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A Jacquard Weave is produced on a special loom called (surprise!) a Jacquard loom. The photo above is from our friends at Pendleton Woolen Mills. Their Jacquard looms create their famous Trade Blankets and Paisleys. This special loom was invented by Joseph Marie Jacquard in 1801. The main distinction of the loom's design is how the weaver can control individual warps (generally warps are stagnant, while the weft thread is woven in and out of the warp threads). A Jacquard loom allows for the creation of very complex, multicolored designs. Jacquard fabrics tend to be rather expensive, but the designs created in the fabric won't fade or wear out as easily as printed designs. Because the back of some of these fabrics often expose quite a bit of the thread used in the weave, they should be backed or used in situations where the back of the fabric will not be exposed. This type of weave is very popular for upholstery fabric, and most true tapestries are made in this manner. Common fabrics made with a Jacquard Weave are Brocade, Damask, and Tapestry.

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Comments (8)

Manjusha said:
Manjusha's picture

Very helpful especially for a beginner like me. 

Liz Johnson.Editor.Sew4Home said:
Liz Johnson.Editor.Sew4Home's picture
Hi Lynn -- that is a GREAT story, so glad you found us for your new inspiration!
Lynn said:
Lynn's picture
I just started sewing this year, (at 57!)but have been totally taken with it and love learning all of the details about it, even about fabric itself. Really enjoyed this information. All of your tutorials etc. are especially easy to follow.
Thanks!
Liz Johnson.Editor.Sew4Home said:
Liz Johnson.Editor.Sew4Home's picture
Thanks becysews and MrsB! Those are wonderful compliments from such experienced sewers. So glad you enjoyed the article.
MrsB said:
MrsB's picture
I have been teaching Clothing & Textiles for 45 years and feel this is one of the best examples of fabric weaving I have seen. It is concise, accurate and very visual. I plan to save it and use with my Beginning Adult Sewing classes. smilies/smiley.gif
jonalyn baculad said:
jonalyn baculad's picture

okey,, i have been teaching clothing for 60 years and now i feel like this is one of the best examples of fabric....

beckysews said:
beckysews's picture
Okay, the things I do not know are many. But now I know these weaves. Sewing for 40+ years and had never really given the actual weave much thought.

Thank you!!!

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