Taffeta is a fabric made from silk, a natural fiber produced by silkworms. For more information, see the entry Glossary: Silk Fiber. Taffeta is a light-mid- to mid-weight fabric with a crisp hand, in an even plain weave. Synthetic taffetas are also available today, but they are quite different, and very prone to shredding. Generally, they have a very plastic appearance and do not strongly resemble silk taffeta, though taffeta made from acetate, a man-made cellulosic fiber similar to rayon, is generally more silk-like than substitutes made from noncellulosic synthetic fibers such as polyester and nylon. If seeking an less expensive substitute, some lengths of silk dupioni can be found which are quite smooth and have very few slubs, which can be used as imitation taffeta fairly convincingly in some applications. However, dupioni is not an even-weave fabric; it is plain-woven, but the weft threads are thicker than the warp threads, and are uneven to varying degrees. It is not a perfect substitute, and is not always appropriate.
Definitions of taffeta 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.
On page 29, under the heading “Changeable (Shot),” there is a swatch of changeable silk taffeta. The text states that “‘Changeable’ silk–that is, silks woven with one color in the warp and another color in the weft–have been around for centuries and are still easily found today. The play of light on a shimmery changeable silk gives it an iridescent look. The terms ‘changeable’ and ‘shot’ are most commonly used in reference to silk.”
On page 37, under the heading “Lutestring (Lustring),” there is a swatch of crisp, evenly plain-woven silk of a weight closer to habotai than to most taffeta, but with a crisp hand like taffeta. The text states that “Lutestring is a plain-woven silk, similar to taffeta in that it has a crisp hand and even thread count, but lighter in weight than taffeta. Its smooth, glossy surface made it a favorite for elegant dresses for women in the early nineteenth century.”
- Marsh, Heidi, Compiled by. Styles and So Forth of the Era of the Hoop; with Glossary. Greenville, California: Heidi Marsh, 1994.
On page 180, “taffeta, taffetas” is defined as “fine, even-textured, smooth silk fabric with a luster.”
Also on page 180, “tabby, tabi” is defined as “strong, heavy silk taffeta, shiny with a watered finish, also used to describe a plain weave.” On page 177, “gros” is defined as “a heavy silk fabric with a dull finish.” On page 179, “paduasoy” is defined as “plain stout smooth silk, formerly a rich heavy corded silk.” Also on page 179, “pou de soie” is defined (identically to the above) as “plain stout smooth silk, formerly a rich heavy corded silk.”
On page 178, “lustring” is defined as “lustrous paper-thin silk” while, oddly, “lutestring” is defined as “plain, stout silk fabric with a lustrous finish.” On page 180, “silk tissue” is defined as “fine, transparent silk fabric.”
On page 180, “shot silk” is defined as being “woven with warp and weft threads of different colors, so that the fabric changes in tint according to the angle from which it is viewed” and “changeable silk” is “also called shot silk; fabric that is one color from one angel, another color from another angle.” On page 177, “glace,” or glacé, is defined as “usually silk, with a smooth glossy finish, sometimes with a shot effect.” On page 178, “moire,” or moiré, is defined as “a watered effect given fabrics by the pressure of engraved rollers that displace and flatten threads.”
- 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.
On page 358, there is an entry for “Taffeta (taffety),” which states that “In seventeenth-century trade with Bengal, the term covered a wide variety of silk and silk/cotton goods, many of them striped or checked, among which were alachas, seersuckers, sousaes, and charconnaes.” It also states that “Most European taffetas were plain woven silks with weft threads slightly thicker than warp and related to tabby, alamode, Persian, and lutestring.”
On page 355, “tabby” is defined as “A plain silk, slightly heavier than lustring and stronger and thicker than taffeta. A cloth woven in a plain weave. Many were given a watered or waved finish.” On page 314, “Paduasoy (padaway, pattisway, poudesoy)” is defined as “A rich and heavy silk tabby with a self-colored pattern and usually brocaded. It was generally corded and was the heaviest of dress silks.” On page 321, “Persian” is defined as “A thin plain silk, principally used for linings in coats, petticoats, and gowns in the eighteenth century. Silks from Persia were the most highly esteemed of all Eastern fabrics, and the name Persian may have been given to English imitations to promote their sale.”
On page 195, “changeable fabrics” are defined as “Plain weave fabrics with warp of one color and weft of another. Chambray, caungeantrie, and modern Oxford cloth used for men’s shirts are included among these textiles.” On page 347, “shot” is defined as “A term used to describe textiles made partly of silk.” This may be an earlier usage of the term; I cannot recall having seen the term used this way in nineteenth century sources.
- “Silk” on Wikipedia (Remember to read critically!)
- “The Prewash” by Sarai at The Coletterie
- “Fabric Series: Silk” by Caitlin at The Coletterie
- “This Girl’s Tips & Tricks on Working With Silk” by Sunni at The Cupcake Goddess
- A thread about “silks” for mid-19th century use at The Sewing Academy
- “Tips on Sewing With Silk” by Tasia at Sewaholic
- “Quick Look: Taffeta” by Rachel at The Coletterie
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