A History of Damask and Brocade Fabrics

Distinguished by delicately rendered decorative patterning, damasks and brocades are two types of finely detailed fabrics. Bearing many similarities, they are often thought to be interchangeable by those less acquainted with their intricacies. While both fabrics boast age-old histories dating back to centuries ago, their alluring appeal has endured over the years. Tracing their origins back to ancient China and Byzantium, both brocade and damask fabrics were originally hand woven on jacquard looms and were primarily constructed of silk.  “These hand-woven fabrics were later adapted from linen and wool yarns in Europe as they didn’t have access to silk at the time,” says Stephen Elrod, VP and creative director at Kravet’s Lee Jofa. “Eventually mechanical jacquard looms were developed which expanded production. Both types of fabrics share similarities as they are woven on jacquard looms but differ in their construction and intricacies.” The information below explores a brief of history of brocade and damask fabrics, while highlighting the nuances and elusive details that set the two apart.

Photography Courtesy of Kravet
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Origins and Characteristics of Damask Fabrics

The word damask is derived from Syria’s capital city of Damascus, where the fabric was first featured as one of the five basic weaving techniques used by Byzantine cultures during the Middle Ages. The identifiable pattern that distinguishes damask fabric comes from the unique attributes of its construction methods. Damask fabrics are created by weaving a single warp yarn and a single weft yarn into the cloth on a jacquard loom. “Damask constructions yield a fine patterned fabric that is reversible, as the pattern will appear the same on both sides of the cloth, although the portions of lustrous and matte areas of the pattern will be reversed,” says Elrod. Commonly crafted in a consistent color scheme, the front facing pattern often features a floral motif that is satin-woven and the background is usually sateen-woven, creating a tone-on-tone effect through its combination of lustrous and matte surfaces. With a heavyweight construction that allows for a more durable design, damasks have shorter weft patterns that enable subtle effects that play off of light and shadow.

Origins and Characteristics of Brocade Fabrics

With its name originating from the Italian word for embossed cloth, brocade fabrics often boast the illusion of raised embossment or embroidery, an appearance that is achieved through the unique construction methods employed in their creation. This characteristic also serves to set the aesthetic of brocades apart from damasks. “While damasks are relatively flat fabrics woven with a warp yarn and a weft yarn set up on the loom, brocades are woven on the loom with several different weft yarns,” says Elrod. Brocade fabrics commonly feature multicolored patterns comprised of iridescent metallic yarns, which are jacquard woven on the surface of the textile. “Brocades were developed to emulate fine embroidered fabrics with raised motifs in the pattern utilizing a variety of weave structures and colors of weft yarns,” says Elrod. “The resulting fabric isn’t reversible as the reverse side doesn’t have the refinement and definition of pattern as the face of the cloth.” A popular pick for clothing and decorative textiles during the Renaissance, brocades are often distinguished by detailed floral and pictorial imagery that are only visible on the face of the fabric

Photography Courtesy of Scalamandre
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While both fabrics are still featured today, damasks have emerged as the more prevalent option. “Certainly, damasks of varying types of yarns, including silk, cotton, linen and viscose, are more prominent and popular in today’s decorating schemes,” says Elrod. “However, brocades are still specified by interior designers for more formal interiors and historical restoration projects.” A juxtaposition of the two jacquard woven fabrics reveals that damasks and brocades can be distinguished by the details of their characteristics and construction methods.

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