Shades of White
The World of Bridal Fabrics

Bet you had no idea there were so many shades of white till you started looking for a wedding gown.   How a cloth reflects or absorbs light has a lot to do with the particular weave of a fabric. So what’s a weave you ask?  And how is a weave different than the fiber of which it is a part?  Every fabric has a certain weave whether it’s a natural fiber, blend or synthetic.  Think of the weave as a threading process—warp threads going vertically, weft horizontally.  Woven together they can be loose, tight or somewhere in between to produce a certain finish.  For example, you hear the word twill all the time.  Twill is a type of weave.  It’s diagonal actually and can be either silk, cotton or wool.  While silk twill generally produces a garment with an entirely different function than that of cotton twill, the weave is similar. 

                                                   Britex Fabrics in San Francisco--an emporium of beautiful fabrics from alll over the world.

    To get a clearer picture of the actual weaves and weights of fibers, visit a fabric store.  Sure, reading this post is helpful but getting out there, really seeing and feeling many bolts of satin will be your real learning experience.  Have a salesperson show you the difference between crepe-backed satin and crepe de chine.  Ask him or her to run you through all the weights available.  Like something?  Request swatches.  They’re free and providing the one you want isn’t that exorbitantly priced one-of-a-kind rare import, most stores will oblige you.  Metro areas like LA, New York and San Francisco have some great fabric emporiums—that is, bigger establishments with awesome inventories like Oriental Silks in Los Angeles and Britex Fabrics in San Francisco.  Places like these are fabric gold mines worth visiting regardless of whether or not you’re going custom or ordering your gown through a salon.  If nothing else you’ll come out with a new respect and appreciation for fabric.  Below is your opportunity to get familiar with fabrics and their finishes.  Since most bridal gowns are made of silk, we’ll go there first.

 

                                                                       SILK-

    When it comes to bridal wear, silks rule.  Made from the cocoons of silkworms, around 2500 B.C. the Chinese discovered and developed the process of weaving it into fabric.  China is still the largest producer and exporter of 80% of the world’s silks.  Most silk weaves are luxe, opulent and suggest a certain formality ideal for the bridal gown.  Tightly woven silks like duchesse satin have a luster and are ideal for structured silhouettes, whereas loosely woven silks like charmeuse and crepe lend themselves to drapery.  Choosing the right silk depends on the style of your gown in addition to time of day of day and year your wedding takes place. 

SILK WEAVES

Brocade-Heavyweight fabric used in structured silhouettes.  The elaborate patterns of this fabric are created by mixing muted and glossy yarns in matching (sometimes contrasting) colors.  Most bridal gowns made out of brocade have a surface design of florals though I once saw a gown with some interesting geometric patterns.  Brocade molds perfectly in sheath and A-line silhouettes.  A fall/winter fabric, brocade is an excellent option for bridal suits.

Charmeuse (aka crepe-backed satin)-Lightest weight of all the satins.  This fabric has a glossy finish that clings and drapes the body beautifully.  No other fabric evokes the image of the white, bias-cut evening gown quite like charmeuse.  Works best in evening gown and slip dress styles.    

Photos by Ron Greystar

Above: Chiffon gowns and sample of embossed chiffon

Chiffon-Lightweight and transparent, the delicacy of this fabric makes it best for billowing sleeves, cowl draped necklines, ruffles, ruched bodices and long, airy trains.  See-through dresses worn over slips can be made of chiffon.  Full skirts in chiffon are ethereal and can be layered.  Be careful if you’re planning on dressing your bridesmaids in full skirts of pastel chiffon.  Unless you have a stylistic eye they could come off like they’re auditioning for The Lawrence Welk Show.

Crepe (aka crepe de chine)-Lightweight and drapey, the crinkled surface is achieved by a hard-twisted yarn process.  To get a sense of what crepe is like, look at the subjects of any Maxfield Parish painting.  Though it’s available in wool, cotton and rayon, silk reigns the favorite due to its incredible swathe and drape effect.  Like charmeuse, crepe is another 1930s Hollywood glam fabric and a natural for the bias cut evening gown.  Can likewise look great in a shirtwaist and chemise style.   

Damask-Lighter weight than brocade, damask is a jacquard fabric with woven designs thorough out.  Best for structured silhouettes.

Duchesse Satin-Medium weight satin with a glossy finish.  A staple of traditional bridal wear, it has versatility whereas it works for strait as well as full silhouettes. 

Dupioni-Made from thick uneven yarns rolled from double cocoons.  Has irregular slubbing and lustrous texture.  Ideal for fuller silhouettes yet I have used this continually in sheath and modified A-lines with excellent results.

Silk Faille

Faille-Medium to heavy weight, cross-ribbed fabric with a tight weave.  Works best in structured silhouettes like the one pictured above.

Gauze-Lightest weight transparent fabric.  Since it’s lighter than chiffon it has an airy quality perfect for light trains, veils and scarves. 

Georgette-Lightweight and sheer fabric made from twisted yarns.  Somewhere between chiffon and crepe, it has a crinkly appearance surface.

Marquisette-Very light mesh fabric.  Drapes like chiffon and georgette.  A very hard fabric to find.

Mikado-Medium weight twill weave with beautiful luster.  Ideal for both A-lines and full skirts.  Used by more and more designers in recent years, brides love the surface sheen of this fabric..

Moire-A treatment of watermarking given to fabric, leaving an undulating, watery finish.  Most moiré is either faille or taffeta. 

Organza-Light, springy and transparent fabric.  Once considered suitable only for summer, organza is now year-round and widely used in gowns requiring full skirts, A-lines, trains, veils, drapes and overlays.

Peau de Soie-Heavier-weight satin with dull finish.  Structures well in either straight or full silhouettes.  Ideal for tailored gowns and suits. 

Pongee-Raw silk with a wild, natural feel.  Typically comes in a natural tan shade.  Once standard for men’s suit lining, pongee is the ideal lining for gown bodices wherever inner structure is needed.  Though pongee can be the perfect lining choice, it shouldn’t be overlooked for shirtwaists, chemise styles and relaxed A-lines like the trapeze.  Good option for the wedding party, especially the little ones.

Satin-faced Organza-Another trendy fabric, it has the spring of regular organza and the luster of a satiny finish.  Ideal for full A-line skirts.   

Shantung-Rough, plain weave with irregular slubbing.  Another ideal lining fabric depending on the weight.  Silk as well as synthetic versions of shantung are often used for attendants.

Taffeta- Stiff, crisp, lightweight cross-rib weave.  Taffeta can have either a slight luster or muted finish.  It can be shaped, adding volume without bulk and weight, making it an ideal choice for A-lines and ball gowns.  Nice in a sheath silhouette providing it has some kind train preferably of the same fabric with some degree of fullness.

Photo by Ron Greystar

Silk Tulle

Tulle-Fine mesh netting with hexagonal pattern that comes in silk or nylon. Tulle is standard material for bridal veils.  Also used in bouffant skirts like the one pictured above, proffering that ballerina look Vera Wang popularized a few years back.  While the big tulle skirt is classic, edgier versions of late suggest special effects like draping, rouching and pick-up treatments over more modified skirt silhouettes.  Not to be overlooked for trains done in layers.  

Both Photos: Examples of cut velvet

Velvet- Heavy-weight, napped fabric.  Perfect for the winter bridal suit.  The cut velvet pictured above works well in any season.

                                                           

 

                                                                  COTTON-

   Since cotton is the ultimate in laid-back casual, we rarely think of it in terms of bridal wear.  Think again.  Especially about organdy and swiss cotton.  These are some of the finest fabrics in the world and not just for kids dresses anymore.  First-rate cottons like these have always been a stylish option for summer brides and garden weddings.  One of the most beautiful gowns I ever designed was a dotted swiss ball gown with an asymmetrical neckline. Savvy and confident, my client amped her ‘look good’ factor by adding a dimity sash.  Since not every bride wants the formality of silk on her wedding day, some designers are getting this message, offering at least one cotton option in their spring/summer collection.  Bravo!  Finally!

COTTON WEAVES

 

Batiste-Lightweight, fine cotton.  Used mostly for freely-fitted summer dresses, bridesmaids and child attendants.  Good lining alternative.

Dimity-Sheer cotton with corded stripe or check.  Great for a transparent dress worn over a slip, shirtwaists, sashes and veils.  I’ve also seen this as an interesting lining.

Cotton Eyelet Bouffant Dress

Dotted Swiss-Lightweight to sheer cotton.  Made up of a lappet or swivel weave with woven dots.  Used for shirtwaists, A-lines, shifts, chemises and hourglasses.  Great in colors for outfitting the wedding party.

Eyelet-Light to medium weight cotton with cutout patterns of embroidery along the border.  Pictured above, it is a  classic summer time favorite for informal brides.  Makes up into pretty long or short hourglasses, sundresses, chemises, shifts, shells, A-lines.  Perfect in colors for attendants. 

Muslin- Simple weave cotton, rather durable and heavy.  Typically your test pattern will be in muslin because weight-wise, light, medium to heavy, it’s compatible with measuring out how corresponding silk choices will make up. 

Organdy-Light, plain weave cotton or poly that is transparent and permanently stiffened.  Sometimes used for jacket interfacing and making lightweight hats.  Lends itself well to the once popular daytime formal concept of afternoon garden receptions —the kind a Katherine Hepburn character would have attended.  Crisp and pure, it makes up into lovely structured hourglass silhouettes and A-lines. 

Pima-Fine quality cotton with a lustre finish.

Voile-means ‘veil’ in French so you get the idea of how light it is.  Sheer, plain weave of cotton or polyester.  Dubbed ‘poor man’s chiffon’ because of its less formal appearance than its counterpart, silk chiffon.  It is however, in some cases, more expensive than silk chiffon for the reason it’s not as redily available as silk chiffon that you find everywhere. 

                                                                          WOOL

    -Ordinarily when we think wool, we think of coats and suits.  Wool crepe and jersey drape beautifully though and are excellent choices for the gown or dress with a more modern feel.  The wool dress is an excellent choice if you’re considering re-wearing after the wedding.  Optimal for wedding suits and contemporary brides, wool offers a certain sophisticated chic.  Wool is great for winter weddings especially if you don’t want that luxurious fabric finish that most silks proffer. 

Carolina Herrera

WOOL WEAVES

Crepe-Like silk crepe, wool crepe drapes closely to the body but has more body.  Great look for evening gowns, bridal suits and more structured silhouettes.

Jersey-Like silk jersey, this knit clings to the body.

 

                                                                          LINEN-

    If you’re in a hot, humid climate and dress in linen, it’s something like wearing your own personal air conditioner.  A great conductor of cool, the down side to wearing linen is that it constantly wrinkles.  Regardless, years back those wrinkles suddenly went chic when Don Johnson of Miami Vice popularized the ‘creased linen jacket look’.  Eventually this look tiptoed into women’s wear.  Linen jackets, dresses, pants, blouses—just about everything looked hip with wrinkles.  Though not as widespread a look as it once was, the rumpled look has developed into more of a geographical thing.  Warm and tropical climate brides opt for the lightest weight handkerchief linen.  Medium and heavier weights are classic for the summer bridal suit. 

 

 

    You have to admit, there’s something about real linen—wrinkles and all—that can’t be duplicated.  Wear it in white and you’ll look as crisp and fresh as a Ralph Lauren ad from the 90s.  While you can get it in synthetic blends that won’t show a crease, linen seems to have a following complete with die-hards who refuse to get into any of these crease-free pretenders.