A Brief History of Matelassé Fabrics

Photography Courtesy of Fabric Innovations
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A dexterously double-woven fabric that first gained popularity during the 18th century, matelassé materials mimic the dimensional designs of handcrafted quilts made in the south of France. The figured fabrics feature a weave that is distinctly designed to imitate the intricacies of quilting. The information that follows explores the origins, construction, and characteristics of matelassé materials.

Origins and Overview

The textural techniques used to produce the patterns of matelassé originated in Marseilles, France, where they were first employed to emulate the textural effect of the region’s renowned whitework quilting. “The idea is to imitate the hand quilted whitework of Marseilles, which is constructed of separate layers as any quilt would be with a bottom layer of fabric, a middle layer of batting, and a top layer of fabric, held together by hand stitching that goes through all,” says Pam Marshall, VP of Design at Schumacher. “These quilts were sought after pieces, obviously laborious and expensive due to the nature of production. Several weavers wanted to find a way to produce this on a loom, and this was finally achieved sometime in the 1700s in England.”

Photography Courtesy of Schumacher

The intricate methods used to create matelassé fabrics translated the techniques and texture of whitework quilting to fashion a woven textile. During the early 1740’s, a method of making a fabric that maintained the appearance of whitework quilting was introduced by Robert Elsden, and this approach was praised for its propensity to imitate a hand-quilted look on a loom. By the 1760s, woven quilting became commercially available saw a sudden rise in recognition and demand across Europe. In England, the fabric was referred to as “Marseilles cloth,” while in France its name was adapted from the French word for to quilt, or “matlasser,” which is where the modern term matelassé comes from. With the debut of the first Jacquard loom in 1801, the process of producing woven quilting picked up speed and its popularity grew even more.

Photography Courtesy of Schumacher

Construction and Characteristics

Combining careful attention to detail and expert craftsmanship, the matelassé fabric construction utilizes a compound weave structure with multiple warp and weft series. Typically, three or four sets of warp and weft series are used, with two of the sets composed of regular warp and weft yarns and the remaining sets comprising crepe or coarse cotton yarns. The complexity of this construction is made clear when compared to that of simple weaves, which are often limited to only one or two sets of threads. “Specifically, there are thick threads that are not seen on the face of the fabric that serve to create the puffed, quilted appearance once it is washed,” says Marshall. Once the fabric is finished, the crepe or cotton yarns shrink, which lends a puckered appearance, while the thick yarns within the weave further emphasize the puffed, three-dimensional appearance of the fabric.

Photography Courtesy of James Dunlop Textiles
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With Matelassé fabrics, the warp and weft yarns intertwine with one another to produce an intricate interlacing pattern that simulates the appearance of quilting stitches on a solid colored surface. The textural pattern arises from the surface of the cloth, making it appear as if the fabric is padded. While many matelassés are made with cotton, their material construction can also comprise a range of other fabrics, including silk, wool, and linen. The array of aesthetically appealing patterns that appear across matelassé motifs range from decorative foliate designs to simple and straightforward geometrics.

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