Voile is a fabric made from cotton, a natural fiber. For more information, see the entry Glossary: Cotton Fiber. Voile is plain woven and very sheer. It is similar to, but sheerer than, cotton batiste. It is also similar to handkerchief-weight linen lawn. Note that many fabrics sold as voile today are made of synthetic fibers, usually polyester, and are very different from natural cotton voile. Modern cotton lawn is sometimes as light and sheer as voile, but typically cotton lawn is closer in weight to batiste.
Whatever Happened to Muslin?
Modern cotton voile and cotton batiste, as well as other sheer specialty cotton fabrics, can be used in place of historical muslin. Very different from our stiff, short-staple, modern utility muslin, in the 18th and 19th centuries, “muslin” denoted a family of lightweight cotton fabrics, which were usually white. Muslins were woven from fine, long staple cotton fibers, and ranged from semi-sheer to completely transparent. It is also important to note that over the early to mid 19th century, fabrics which had once been exclusively or typically linen increasingly came to be made of cotton, while sometimes still being called by the same names, for instance cambric.
Definitions of voile and muslin from a variety of print resources, each of which contains further information:
- Bassett, Lynne Zacek. Textiles for Regency Clothing 1800-1850: A Workbook of Swatches and Information. Formerly titled Textiles for Clothing of the Early Republic. Arlington, Virginia: Q Graphics Production Company, Product division of Sally Queen & Associates, 2001.
There is no reference to voile, but on page 41, this book states that “‘Muslin’ denotes a group of lightweight cotton fabrics, generally white. The sample shown here is a corded muslin, striped in the warp. Checked muslins were woven similarly, with heavier threads spaced in between the warp and weft. Other varieties of muslin included book muslin, jaconette, mull, nainsook, and muslinet, all denoting degrees of drape, weight, and transparency. Except for book muslin, which was always plain woven, these various muslins could be pattern woven in stripes, checks, or figures, or plain woven. Any of these varieties might be printed with small motifs, or embroidered with dots, sprigs, or more elaborate designs.”
- Clark, Elizabeth Stewart. The Dressmaker’s Guide; 1840-1860. 2nd edition, Revised & Expanded. Idaho Falls, Idaho: Elizabeth Stewart Clark & Company, 2009.
In discussing cotton fabrics for use in authentic reproduction sewing of mid-19th century styles, on page 59 it is stated that “In fashion descriptions, ledgers, and advertisements, you’ll see many references to cotton muslin. This is not the same textile as found for 99¢ in chain fabric stores! Modern cotton muslin is much heavier than period muslin, which was a fine, long staple cotton fabric, and was most often quite sheer. To approximate historic muslin for living history use, look to textiles like imported sheer batiste, organdy, barred voile, dimity, and other very delicate, sheer articles.”
- Marsh, Heidi, Compiled by. Styles and So Forth of the Era of the Hoop; with Glossary. Greenville, California: Heidi Marsh, 1994.
The glossary entry for “Voile” on page 180 defines it as “thin dress fabric of cotton or wool, woven with an open texture from hard twisted yarns.” Note that this definition does not entirely apply to the modern material known as voile.
The glossary entry for “Muslin” on page 178 defines it as “stout, light, open cotton fabric of varying fineness, used for summer dresses, plain, printed, dyed, dotted. A general term used for similar fabrics as lawn, mull, cambric.”
Also on page 178, the glossary defines “mull” as “soft, thin muslin with no stiffening;” “book muslin” as “stiffly finished, light cotton fabric in a gauze weave;” “dotted muslin” as “muslin with small circles or dots on it;” “lawn” as “very fine linen or cotton fabric with a somewhat open texture, used for the sleeves of Church of England bishops, and for dresses” (see also Glossary: Linen Lawn). On page 175, the glossary defines “cambric” as “thin, fine, white linen fabric.”
- Montgomery, Florence. Textiles in America 1650-1870: A Dictionary based on original documents, prints and paintings, commercial records, American merchants’ papers, shopkeepers’ advertisements, and pattern books with original swatches of cloth. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 2007.
There is no entry for “voile.” On page 304, “Muslin” is defined as “A fine cotton textile first made in India.” The entry also notes that “Book muslin (book calico) is a name derived from the booklike form in which some of the finer calicoes were folded and marketed in India.” The entry for muslin includes a “see also” reference to “mull,” which is defined on page 303 as “Soft, fine white cotton imported from India from the seventeenth century.”
- “Cotton” on Wikipedia (Remember to read critically!)
- “The Prewash” by Sarai at The Coletterie
- “A Field Guide to Various Lightweight Cottons” by Gertie at Gertie’s New Blog for Better Sewing – includes voile, batiste, dotted swiss, gingham, double gauze, and silk/cotton blends.
- “Fabric Series: Cotton” by Caitlin at The Coletterie – see the section on voile and batiste
For more information about an individual fiber, fabric, or other material, select it on the right side menu for “Fibers, Fabrics, and Materials.” This will bring up all entries which have that tag, including (in most cases) a Glossary post like this one, which will offer a definition of that fiber, fabric, or material, and sometimes also offer useful links to outside sources on working with it. For more general information, visit the core entry for the Glossary: Fibers, Fabrics, and Materials. For a directory of all textile glossary posts, go to the Glossary Table of Contents.
Updated January 10, 2012