Glossary: Cotton Broadcloth

Broadcloth is a general term for mid-weight and slightly lighter weight, plain-woven (tabby) cotton fabrics. Cotton is a natural fiber made from a plant; for more information, see the entry Glossary: Cotton Fiber. Cotton broadcloth weights and qualities cover a wide range, and may be woven from short- or long-staple fibers, at least as the term is generally used. Historically, broadcloth is more likely to refer to a particular type of wool fabric, very different from modern cotton broadcloth. Light- to mid-weight, non-sheer, plain-woven cotton fabrics have been known by a variety of names, including some whose meanings have changed, or overlap with other types of fabric, such as calico and cambric.

In the interest of clarity, I will throughout this site refer to cotton fabrics of this type generally as broadcloth. When speaking of printed cotton fabrics similar to historical calicoes, I will use the term calico specifically. When speaking of the material that is now referred to as “muslin” but which bears almost no resemblance to the fine sheer cloth known as muslin in the 18th and 19th centuries, I will use the terms “white cotton utility muslin” or “unbleached cotton utility muslin.” (For more information on historical muslins, see the entries for cotton voile or cotton batiste.)

Definitions of broadcloth and other midweight cottons from a variety of print resources, each of which contains further information:

Several samples of cotton fabric of this type are included, but are known simply by their printed or woven design (for instance calico) or their intended use (for instance shirting), without specific names being applied. Page 26 states that “‘Cambric’ as a term was used rather loosely in the early nineteenth century” and that in addition to being line white linen in a tabby weave, “it could be colored, it could be glazed, and it could be printed. Ackermann’s Repository, an early-nineteenth-century English periodical of literature and fashion, frequently uses the term ‘cambric’ to mean ‘calico.'”

Page 26 offers a sample of chambray, which is plain woven and light-to-mid-weight, but “generally has a colored warp and a white weft.” It is also stated that “It is likely that cotton chambray was generally considered under ‘shirting’ in store inventories, and not otherwise specified.”

Page 33 offers a sample of gingham, which is a mid-weight cotton. It states that “Rather than denoting a particular woven checked pattern, ‘gingham’ described a family of pattern-woven fabrics in the early nineteenth century, including all sorts of stripes, checks, and chambray, in cotton, linen, and even wool or silk.”

On page 175, “broadcloth” is defined as “fine, stout, smooth-faced wool cloth, felted or given a nap finish to avoid raveling, much used for men’s clothes” and no mention is made of cotton. Also on page 175, “calico” is defined as “cotton cloth of various qualities, often applied to the coarser, printed cottons.” On page 176, “dimity” is defined as “a fine ribbed fabric, white or colored, sometimes prints.”

On page 178, “muslin” is defined 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.” On page 179, “poplin” is defined as “fine, smooth, strong fabric with a plain silk warp and coarse silk weft, or of all cotton.” Also on page 179, “print” is defined as ” a plain fabric, often cotton, with a figure stamped on one or both sides, sometimes called calico.”

Entry for “calico” on page 184: “Cotton cloth of many grades and varieties first made in India and later in the West. Thomas Sheraton gives a broad definition in his Encyclopedia, 1804-7:

“In commerce a sort of cloth resembling linens made of cotton. The name is taken from that of Calicut, the first place at which the Portuguese landed when they first discovered the Indian Trade. . . . Calicoes are of different kinds, plain, printed, stained, dyed, chintz, muslins, and the like, all included under the general denomination of calicoes.” (page 184)

Entry for “broadcloth” on page 177: “Made of carded wool in plain weave and fulled after weaving” and no reference is made to cotton.

Online Resources:

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.

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