Wedding dresses are crafted in a variety of fabrics and fabric finishes, with everything from cotton to taffeta being fair game. Yet the last thing most brides-to-be are thinking about when they step into a bridal salon or log on to an online shop like House of Brides is fabric characteristics. Luckily, wedding dress designers and manufacturers make it easy for us all, pairing certain fabrics with certain styles to ensure that everything drapes and flows and rustles like it ought to.
Still, a little knowledge goes a long way when you’re searching for the perfect wedding dress! For example, knowing the difference between a fiber and a finish will ensure that you don’t unintentionally buy a wedding dress made of synthetic fabric when you have your heart set on natural fibers. The finish is what cloth looks and feels like once it’s woven – for example, taffeta can be made of silk or polyester, and it’s worth it to know which one you’re buying.
With that in mind, I’ve put together a short bridal fabric glossary that includes the fibers and finishes you’re most likely to encounter when shopping for your wedding dress and bridesmaids’ dresses.
Made of cotton, wool, or polyester, this lightweight fabric is thin and opaque, but not nearly as transparent as organdy.
A lightweight fabric with a satin weave that is softer and clingier than satin and less voluminous than silk finishes. Charmeuse, which is lustrous on one side and dull on the other, can be made with silk, polyester, or rayon. This is a slinky, slippery fabric.
This lightweight and slightly rough fabric is translucent with a soft drape. Made with either cotton, silk, or synthetic fibers, it is quite delicate and is usually thought of as a summer weight fabric.
Crêpe (or Crape)
A gauzy fabric, crêpe comes in two varieties: soft or Oriental crêpe and hard or crisped crêpe. With its pebbly texture and matte finish, crêpe has a fluid drape and can be crafted from silk, wool, or polyester.
Duchess Satin (or Peau de Soie)
Also sometimes called silk satin, Duchess satin is shiny on one side, luxurious, and heavy because of its high thread count. It is frequently made of silk fibers, though it can contain silk plus polyester, rayon, or acetate filler, or be made entirely of polyester, and holds its shape well.
This is a blend of hemp fibers and silk fibers in varying ratios and is similar in texture to raw silk. The weight, sheen and drape of hemp silk is similar to silk charmeuse.
Often incorrectly called a luxury fabric made in Europe, Italian silk can be a silk blend or a synthetic fabric that has a sheen like silk satin but is stiffer and less expensive.
A natural fiber woven from flax, linen isn’t used often in wedding dresses, but can be found in men’s summer weight suits. When first produced, linen clothing is rather stiff, but relaxes quickly with use.
This is a heavy silk taffeta with a watered appearance that can be made from silk, wool, cotton, or rayon. The fascinating finish can be created using a finishing technique called calendaring or by specific weaving patters, though calendared moiré is much more delicate and is considered the true moiré.
Net (or Tulle)
Also called Illusion or English net, this is a mesh-like fabric woven from synthetic fibers, though it can be made from silk. The weave determined the weight of the fabric, which is most commonly used for veils or underskirts, with bobbinet being some of the strongest and most durable.
The sheerest of cotton fabrics, organdy is crisp, lightweight, and transparent, and is rather like silk organza. It comes in three varieties: stiff, semi-stiff, and soft.
Crafted from silk, nylon, or polyester, this fabric is crisp and translucent, with a stiff texture that is similar in some ways to tulle. Unlike tulle, it flows well, which is why it is frequently used in skirts and overlays.
Also known as viscose rayon or art silk, this fiber is neither truly synthetic or truly natural as it is produced from cellulose fibers and various chemicals. It is the oldest man-made fabric and was created as a less expensive alternative to silk, though it can be made to resemble different fabrics and frequently appears in blends.
Sometimes called raw or natural silk, shantung is now regarded as a finish that can be applied to either silk or synthetic fibers. Though shantung is heavy and nubby in appearance, it is soft to the touch and drapes well.
Prized for its luster, drape, and softness, traditional silk fibers are created from boiled silkworm cocoons from which the worms have not been allowed to emerge. This allows the cocoon to be unfurled into a single continuous thread that is strong, light reflective, and useful in making fabric in a variety of finishes.
Nubby like shantung, Dupioni silk has an uneven, crisp texture and a rich, ribbon-like appearance that makes it perfect for wedding dress embellishments. Its elegant shimmer can be seen on both sides of this unique fabric, but some dislike its roughness and the occasional black flecks that can appear in the weave.
Similar in appearance to organza, gazar is somewhat stiffer and has a looser weave. It was developed and popularized by Cristobal Balenciaga, and is favored for its light weight and attractive translucency.
This blended, twill weave fabric has a beautiful heavy drape and an elegant luster. It is frequently made into gowns with an architectural stiffness because it holds its shape. Mikado satin is its synthetic cousin.
These include polyester, nylon, and acetate, but there are many, many more. Synthetic fibers can be woven into fabrics that look and feel like those created from natural fibers, but don’t breathe as well. As a result, wedding dresses made from synthetic fabrics can be stuffier, especially in hot weather.
A crisp and smooth matte fabric with a tight weave, taffeta can be woven from silk or synthetic fibers. It is known for its characteristic rustling sound, and is frequently used to create full wedding dresses that are nonetheless lightweight.
Ideally created from silk, this heavy, tufted fabric with its characteristic pile can also be made from cotton and more recently, synthetic fibers. In wedding dresses, velvet is often used in those gowns designed with the wintertime bride in mind because it offers a bit more warmth than other fabrics.
(The gown pictured is a silk taffeta gown known as Aurora from Amsale’s Blue Label Collection)