what are woven fabrics? - a complete guide
From jeans to sun dresses, I would be willing to bet almost anything that you have a woven fabric in your closet. So, just what are woven fabrics, and how are they used in fashion design? I'm diving deep into some textile science today to break it all down for you.
But, before we get started
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Now, back to woven fabrics...
Woven fabrics interlace two sets of yarns at right angles. The horizontal width-wise yarns are weft yarns or pick yarns. And, the vertical yarns in a piece of fabric are warp yarns or ends.
In this article
History of Woven Fabric
The History of Woven Fabrics
The first fabrics made by humans are woven fabrics. Originally, woven fabrics were only for clothing. But, as humans began to evolve, kings and religious leaders would decorate their homes with woven fabric tapestries with intricate weaving techniques to depict stories and, even record historical events.
How To Make A Woven Fabric
Woven fabrics are made on a loom. But, what exactly is a loom?
Parts of a loom
A loom needs to be able to control the warp yarns and the weft yarns, how these yarns overlap one another determines how the fabric will look.
Controlling the warp
A warp beam is a beam at the back of a loom that organizes and stores the warp yarns. The warp beam is set up by arranging warp yarns side by side. They then wind around the warp beam. Next, these yarns pass through the loom. They are ready for weaving.
Harnesses look like wooden picture frames. The harness holds the heddles in place. Their purpose is to lift warp yarns in groups.
These tiny thin wires that look like long needles, but, with a small hole in the center. They attach to the harnesses. Each warp yarn must pass through its own heddle.
In traditional looms, the harnesses lifts by pressing on specific foot petals.
A warp beam holds warp yarns. Each yarn must pass through its own heddle, which is held in place by a harness. Foot petals then control the harnesses.
Now, let’s add the weft
When a harness lifts, all of the heddles on it also lift, and so do the warp yarns that are passing through the heddles. When this happens it creates a space between the different yarns. This area is the shed.
A filling yarn aka warp yarn is what will pass through the shed.
The shuttle is what stores the warp yarn. In traditional looms, it looks like a little wooden canoe and slides back and forth from side to side of the loom carrying the weft yarns with it.
Reed and Beater
The reed and beater look like a comb, it’s job is to pack all of the warp yarns tightly together.
Then, it’s time to weave
The weave plan tells the weaver what harnesses to lift and in what order. The sequence of harnesses lifted determines what type of fabric weave is made.
Once the fabric is ready
The cloth roll is a beam kind of similar to a warp beam. But, it's purpose is to roll the finished woven fabric neatly underneath the loom.
Kind of confusing right? Check out this quick video virtue + vice made showing and explaining the process of weaving on a traditional loom.
Evolution of the loom
On the earliest looms, weavers literally wove weft yarns over and under warp yarns one at a time by hand. Then, with the invention of harnesses and heddles, moving warp yarns in groups, and, with the aid of shuttles to move weft yarns, weaving became much faster.
Today, most looms are shuttle-less. Shuttle-less looms are the fastest looms commercially available. All of the weaving processes and techniques are still the same, the only difference is that a shuttle is not necessary to move the warp yarns.
Different types of looms
Today, there are many different types of looms aside from vintage wooden ones, like the kind us sustainable and ethical fashion folks think of when we think about weaving. How the warp yarn is transported across the loom determines the classification of the loom.
Projectile looms use a small shuttle (about the size of a pocket knife) to pull the weft yarn across the loom. This type of loom is the most diverse, and can weave many different kinds of fabrics. But, it is not good for weaving fabrics with very fine yarns.
A rapier loom has a rod that pulls the yarn across the loom. A double rapier loom will actually transfer the warp yarn ½ across to a second rapier that will then bring the yarn the rest of the way across the loom. This type of loom is most common for weaving wool and silk fabrics. And, it is also a good option for producing extremely technical fabrics like Kevlar. Rapier looms can weave 900 meters of yarn per minute!
Jet looms move weft yarns during the weaving process via a jet of either water or air, and are much faster than projectile and rapier looms.
These are the fastest looms out there. And are best for light and medium weight fabrics.
Just how fast are they?
They are able to weave up to 680 ppm (picks per minute, that is the number of rows of weft yarns per minute) on a 190-centimeter wide loom! If you figure about 60 weft yarns per inch for a standard commodity fabric, that means every minute about 11.3 inches of fabric is woven, that is 680 inches per hour, and because these machines require little to no manpower they are able to run 24 hours a day. So, that’s 16,320 inches of fabric or 453 yards of fabric per day. And, that’s on only 1 machine. Mills have lots of looms. Even if a mill just had 10 looms, and believe me they have a lot more than that, some have hundreds, they could make 4530 yards of fabric per day!
Slow fashion is impossible
With super quick weaving machines like jet looms and multiphase looms weaving is easy. The most time consuming part of weaving a fabric is actually setting up the loom. Once it gets going it is able to pump out fabric quickly and with little complications. Because of this, factories try to produce as much of the same fabric as possible. Remember a year ago when I broke the news that deadstock never really would have ended up in a landfill because mills plan to produce extra – and by extra I mean a lot extra, sometimes millions of meters of fabric extra.
I bet deadstock makes a lot more sense now after learning just how quick and efficient these machines are at producing fabrics.
This is part of the struggle of converting fast fashion high efficiency fabric mills to slow fashion. We are literally becoming too fast and too good at weaving fabrics. There is no slowing these machines down once you press start.
Do’s and Don’ts of woven fabrics
Holding a fabric in the right direction is a very discreet indicator that you know your stuff. It was one of the things I would look for when interviewing to hire new team members.
Because, if you start out holding a fabric the wrong way, then everything else is going to be wrong.
All yarns are the same right?
Warp and weft yarns are very different, they are designed for different purposes. When looking at a fabric the warp yarns should always be held in the vertical position with the weft yarns crossing horizontally.
Don’t worry, there are a few clues that can help you determine the correct direction of a fabric so you too can look like a pro.
Selvage always runs in the warp direction. So if your fabric swatch has a bit of the selvage attached, that is a dead giveaway of the fabrics direction.
Selvage literally means self-edge. The selvage is the ¼” – ½” edge on the width edge of fabrics. It isn’t just for looks as the world of hipster denim may have lead you to believe. It has a function. Selvage protects the edges of the fabric from fraying during the dying, printing, and finishing processes. It is even made to be stronger than the actual fabric. On the loom, heaver and strong warp yarns are positioned at the edges to add durability. And, the selvage usually has a different construction than the body of the fabrics so it is easy to identify.
Generally, but not always, warp yarns are thinner than weft yarns. Weft yarns need to be a bit heavier to protect them as the pass across the fabric.
Bonus, if you know a fabric has filament yarns in one direction and staple yarns in another, almost always the filament yarns will run in the warp direction.
Warp yarns are treated with sizing. Sizing helps to make yarns stronger during the weaving process. It can be made from corn starch or sometimes a petroleum based coating.
This one is hard to tell from a fabric, but if you are able to take the fabric apart to analyze, it can be a huge help. Because the warp yarns are thinner, usually they have a higher TPI. If you need a refresher on yarns and TPI click back to this textiles 101 chapter we did all about yarns.
Yarns Per Inch. Generally, the warp direction will have a higher YPI than the weft direction. But, there are some fabrics where the warp and weft have an equal YPI.
Again, this is hard to see from an intact fabric, but just so you know, if there is a ply yarn, it is generally in the warp direction.
Stretch is always added in the filling. Except in the case of 4-way stretch, then both the warp and filling have stretchable yarns.
Usually, stripes are engineered to run in the warp direction. This is done because once the loom is set with the stripe pattern in the warp, then only 1 color yarn is needed for the weft, thus, increasing machine efficiency and making weaving faster.
Now that you know the right direction to hold the fabric, there are a couple of other things to look out for...
Face and back
Fabrics also have a front and back. The face of the fabric is the side that the world sees, and the back is the side that's found inside of the garment. Some fabrics like plain weaves and leno weaves are reversible, which means they are the same on the face and the back. But for fabrics like satins and velvets, there is a technical front and back, getting them wrong results in a totally different looking garment and other complications.
Top and bottom
And, sometimes there is even a correct top and bottom to fabrics. Usually the top and the bottom is not so important. But, in fabrics like velvet and corduroy where the pile lays in one direction, it is important that all pieces of a garment are cut in the same direction to give the same effect.
Why is this important?
Knowing the direction of a fabric is very important in garment design and pattern making. How a pattern is laid on a fabric and cut effects the quality of the final product.
For example, fabric grain
Fabric grain describes the direction of fabric. On grain means that the fabric was cut with the warp and weft verticle and horizontal on the garment. Off grain or bias means that the fabric was cut on an angle. By cutting in the bias direction fabrics will have more drape and fluidity than on grain. Using bias cutting is especially popular when working with silks to make garments extra flowy. This is because woven fabrics stretch the most at a 45 degree angle.
Types of weaves
Now that you know the basics of all woven fabrics, let’s learn about all the different types of weaves.
Different weaves are woven by different arrangements of warp and weft yarns crossing one another.
Woven patterns are usually designed on graph paper. On a weaving plan, a warp that sits on top of the weft yarn (will show on the face of the fabric) is indicated by filling the box in. When the warp yarn is underneath the filling (facing the back) it is just left blank.
The most basic of all woven fabric constructions is the plain weave. And, plain weave fabrics are actually the most commonly made fabrics in the fashion industry. Fabrics like chiffon, gingham, canvas, chintz, and chambray are all common plain weave fabrics that you have probably heard of before.
The construction of a plain weave is simple. One warp up, one warp down, one warp up, and then another warp down, all the ay across the loom. The next filling yarn then passes through the reverse of that pattern, one warp down, then one warp up, and so on.
As mentioned before a plain weave fabric is reversible. That is because the fabric is completely balanced, the warp yarns that show on the front and back are exactly the same.
One of the most popular variations of a plain weave fabric is a basket weave. At its essence, a basket weave is a plain weave, but instead of the warps going one up and one down, they group together. So, a 2x2 basket weave will be two warps up and two warps down for 2 wefts in a row, while a 3x3 basket will be 3 warps up and 3 warps down for 3 wefts in a row.
Another variation is a ribbed plain weave
A ribbed plain weave fabric is similar to a plain weave, but a slight variation in the arrangement of how the warp and weft yarns cross one another creates a rib effect. Fabrics that are rib plain weaves include ottomans, faille, and poplins.
The most famous twill weave fabric is denim.
Twill weaves are easy to spot because of the diagonal line that goes across the fabric. Twills are directional, the lines can go upward to the right (a right-hand twill), or upward to the left (a left-hand twill). The direction the line is moving upwards is what determines twill direction.
The most common type of twill is a 2x1, this means 2 warps up, and 1 warp down before repeating. Because in this case there are twice as many warp yarns on the face of the fabric as the back it is important to hold the fabric in the correction direction.
But, there are also twills that are the same on the front as the back. They are called balanced twills. An example of a balanced twill is a 2x2 twill.
Broken twill weave
A broken twill weave combines both right and left-hand twills. A chevron is a famous example of a broken twill.
Satin weave fabrics have really long floats. And, are generally filament yarns. Because of this, they have the most drape and shine. Satin is also generally the strongest type of weave, holding all other variables constant.
What’s a float?
A float is when a filling or warp yarn passes over two or more warp yarns.
Satin fabrics are very unbalanced, because of this there are warp face satins, where the majority of the yarns on the face are warps, and filling face satins, where most of the yarns on the face of the fabric are filling yarns.
Sateen fabric is a satin weave with staple length cotton yarns.
Crepe satin is one of the most common fabrics, and is in many flowy women’s wear dresses and tops. It is a satin weave fabric, but has a crepe effect by using warp yarns with a little twist and filling yarns that have a lot of twists. The effect is a pebbly texture look.
Dobby woven fabrics
Dobby fabrics have small repeating geometric patterns woven into the fabric. Dots are a common example of a dobby fabric pattern. Dobby fabrics need special looms.
Jacquard woven fabrics
Jacquard woven fabrics are extremely detailed. And, need a very special and technical loom. Or by hand. There is no repeat in these types of fabrics and while weaving, each warp must move individually to achieve the pattern.
Pile weaves are fabrics like velvet, terry cloth, and corduroy, with a third pile yarn. Along with the warp and the weft, a third pile yarns gives the fabric a 3D texture effect. These piles can be kept in tact to form loops like in terry cloth, or they can be cut, like velvet.
Manufacturers Tricks to watch out for in woven fabrics…
YPI – yarns per inch
One of the best indicators of fabric quality is yarns per inch. Mills and suppliers will often reduce yarns per inch to cut costs, and they hope that buyers won’t notice. That is why it is important to always have random cuttings of an order analyzed to make sure you are getting what you paid for. Generally, the higher the yarns per inch the higher the price.
Always have fabrics tested to ensure you are getting the correct fibers. For example, if you are buying a 50/50 silk/cotton fabric - make sure the fabric you are receiving does, in fact, have 50 percent silk. It is not uncommon for manufacturers to reduce content to 30/70 to save on the high cost of silk.
Woven fabric guide
every woven fabric you could want to know about
A taffeta fabric that has a slub yarn in the warp
Is just what it sounds like, it’s a fabric that looks like the bark of a tree. And, is commonly found in home furnishings like drapes.
AKA cambric, which is extremely popular in fast fashion and the Indian market. This is a very soft lightweight plain weave. Commonly in women's dresses. Cambric contains usually cotton, but sometimes wool.
A mock corduroy. 3D cord designs are woven into the fabric and resemble corduroy (corduroy is actually a pile fabric), and is generally made of cotton.
Is an extremely lustrous fabric with horizontal ribs. The design sits between an ottoman and faille fabric. These fabrics have rib textures which are from special filament warp yarns.
Can be made in cotton or wool. It is a plain weave fabric that is similar to poplin, but with a very slight rib in the width.
Is a luxurious fabric with extra warp yarns woven in to create jacquard designs. This fabric can be used for apparel and is especially popular in upholstery.
Is the cousin of the brocade. The extra warp yarn design is slightly pulled out to create more contrast and texture.
Similar to crinoline, but is even stiffer and has a higher PPI. Buckram is used for interfacing on things like collars, plackets, and waistbands to give extra structure. It can even be used in book bindings.
Sack fabric. Just kidding ;), well, not really. It’s a heavy, loosely woven plain weave fabric that is often made of jute fabric.
Is a medium weight plain weave fabric that has course irregular yarns. It is of flax (butcher linen) but, today is mostly poly/cotton blends.
A lightweight plain weave fabric of cotton. Usually with a small bright print design.
Heavy, plain weave fabric that is extremely strong and durable, usually with a pebbly surface. It is an industrial fabric and is in tents, awnings, and workwear like Carhartt.
Is a fabric with very open and lose construction which is common in drapes.
A medium weight pant woven fabric, extremely durable twill weave, characterized by heavy twill lines and woven with worsted wool yarns.
A lightweight plain weave fabric. Cotton or wool fibers, with a slightly brushed finish to give a warm hand feel
Lightweight plain weave fabric where the warp usually has a color and the weft is white. The most standard construction is 80x70, and is generally in shirting
Is a lightweight, satin weave fabric. The fabric gives a silk-like finish with a soft hand and a shiny face with a matt back. In dresses and pajamas.
Extremely lightweight, plain weave, soft fabric, with a very open almost see through construction. Usually cotton.
A medium-ish weight, very rough twill weave found in suiting and coats. The fabric is made using uneven yarns that creates a fuzzy surface. It is very similar to tweed but is a little rougher and more casual.
Lightweight, sheer, plain weave. Filament yarns like polyester and nylon give the fabric that has a silk like feel.
Medium weight tight twill weave, that has a slight shine. It issued in uniforms and preppy wear.
Light/medium weight plain weave fabric with a polished finish. This fabric usually has a bright print and is common in drapery, upholstery, and women’s dresses.
Medium weight, usually cotton fabric with lengthwise wales made by cutting a third pile yarn during the weaving process.
A lightweight wool twill weave fabric common in uniforms, performance wear, and hunting gear. The fabric warp and weft yarn colors are usually tonal to one another meaning if the warp is dark blue, the weft will be light blue.
Medium weight plain weave, woven with uneven yarns that create a course hand in the fabric. This fabric is often of flax or linen and is in towels and jackets.
Fabric with a pebbly or crinkly look. The crepe texture happens by using yarns with too much twist.
Crepe de cine
Light to medium weight fabrication made with filament yarns like silk or viscose that gives it a nice sheen. Crepe silks and viscose are one of the most popular fabrics I use for my women’s wear clients.
Satin fabric that has a crepe effect on the dull backside of the fabric.
Light to medium weight, tight plain weave fabric that is similar to a chintz, but is generally a lower and cheaper quality.
Lightweight very stiff plain weave fabric with open construction. Crinoline often adds structure to a garment when chosen as a lining or tutus.
Heavy fabric that has jacquard designs on both the face and the back.
Medium weight twill weave. The warp has color, usually indigo, and the weft is white.
Lightweight very sheer fabric. It is also known as a rib weave because of the cord pattern with groups of multiple warps.
A plain weave tweed woven with colorful contrast slub yarns.
Lightweight sheer fabric made with very fine yarns characterized by a dot pattern. Dots can be made during the weaving process (clip-dot) or with glue (flocking).
Medium weight twill weave that is pretty durable, and usually made from cotton. Khaki is an example of a drill weave.
Medium or heavy weight plain weave that is very durable, but is generally a little bit lighter than canvas.
Heavy luxurious satin, common in wedding dresses and couture.
Medium weight fabric with a slight sheen and rib pattern that is common in evening wear.
Taffeta with a rib
Light to medium weight fabric, generally twill weave, that is usually of cotton or wool. The fabric has a brush effect on both sides for a soft and fuzzy, warm hand feel.
Light to medium weight fabric, similar to flannel, but only has brushing on one side.
A lightweight twill weave woven with filament yarns and is very similar to surah fabric. A special print called a foulard print generally indicates this fabric. Common for scarves, ties, and women’s dresses.
A very heavy pile fabric (extra yarn woven in) with a loop, but the loop can also be cut to give a velour/velvet effect. There is a visible rib in the fabric, and it is generally in upholstery.
Medium weight twill weave made with fine durable yarns. Typically with cotton or wool and is found in suiting.
A very lightweight, sheer plain weave fabric with open construction. Originally for dressing wounds, this fabric has become increasingly popular in boho styles.
Light sheer fabric similar to a chiffon but with a crepe finish.
A lightweight plain weave fabric with a check pattern woven in by using alternating colors of warp and weft yarns.
Did you know ribbons are woven fabrics? Grosgrain is a heavy ribbon with rib.
Heavy pile fabric with a rough surface. It is similar to a frize but has much bigger loops.
Traditionally habutai is a lightweight plain weave silk-like fabric with spun yarns (not fillament). In India, it is a type of silk fabric with a very flat surface and is generally one of the cheapest silks you can buy based on their weight.
A lightweight plain weave fabric, woven with slightly uneven warp and weft yarns to give a textured effect. Usually made in silk or filament fibers.
A basket weave made unique with course irregular yarns. It is similar to burlap.
Medium weight fabric with a simply dobby design common in towels. Yarns in this weave have very low TPI to help increase absorbency.
A less sheer version of voile.
Originally from Madras India characterized by plaid designs that fade into one another.
A leno weave with a sheer open construction, found in curtains.
A jacquard weave that resembles a quilt type look.
A type of felted fabric.
A taffeta with a watermark design that can also look like tree bark.
A heavy-duty basket weave fabric usually made of cotton.
A stiff unfinished plain weave fabric. This fabric is super cheap. And, generally, designers use it for draping and creating garments to test patterns before using the final more expensive fabric.
A heavier version of lawn fabric.
Light weight plain weave, sheer with an open construction, similar to chiffon but, heavier. It has high twist yarns that add structure to the final fabric.
Lightweight plain weave fabric with open construction and stiff hand feel, but of cotton or other staple fiber yarns.
Similar to organdy but has silk or filament yarns.
Unfinished course plain weave industrial fabric.
Known for its large rib surface.
Best known in the oxford shirt, this is a lightweight 2x1 basket weave which creates a rib pattern in the fabric. The fabric has a fine warp and course weft.
Velvet, but with the pile in 1 direction.
Taffeta with a very crisp, stiff hand.
Peau de soie
A heavy twill weave fabric that has a satin or silk-like hand.
A high-quality plain weave sheet fabric made with fine fibers and yarns.
A medium weight fabric with a 3-d dobby design woven in. Patterns woven into the fabric can be dots or cords.
Lightweight plain weave that is similar to a seersucker.
A lightweight plain weave fabric that has a sluby weft yarn and a silky hand feel.
Best known in button down shirts, this is a plain weave fabric with a slight rib.
Similar to poplin but with a strong rib design woven in.
A lightweight version of a duck fabric.
A satin weave fabric made with cotton or other staple length fiber yarns.
A type of weave, see article above to description.
Like cheesecloth but with a stiff handfeel.
Colored stripes are woven into the fabric by using alternating yarn placements. The fabric has a pucker effect which is woven in with high twist yarns or a special chemical reaction.
A heavy durable twill weave fabric made with worsted yarns. The yarns have a high TPI and are woven closely together creating a high-density fabric. Often found in suiting.
Similar to a pongee fabric but heavier weight and more textured.
The face of this fabric is similar to the skin of a shark, it is medium weight twill with a slight sheen and hard hand feel.
Light weight twill weave, silk-like fabric.
The stuff that ’80s and '90s prom dresses, thank you, Madonna. Dresses made out of these fabrics made a lot of rustling noise when worn.
A throwback to medieval days this heavy fabric with a rib surface and jacquard designs were often made to depict stories.
Most commonly found in towels and bathrobes this fabric is usually made from cotton fibers and is known for its looping yarns on the surface.
An upholstery woven fabric common in pillow coverings, and often comes in a stripe design. This fabric is strong because of its heavyweight.
A light weight version of faille.
A lighter weight version of taffeta.
Net like fabric, which usually is very stiff. Commonly found in weddings dresses, and veils.
A medium to heavyweight woven twill fabric with a rough and fuzzy finish on the surface.
Made from filament yarns which can synthetic fibers or natural silk, this medium weight fabric is similar to terry cloth but with cut pile yarns.
Velvet by made out of staple length fibers like cotton.
A sheer, very lightweight fabric, with a crisp handfeel created by weaving with yarns with a high TPI.
A very heavy fabric made of worsted wool or cotton, the fabric is characterized by prominent twill lines. It is very similar to a gabardine but the will lines are even bolder.