Textiles have been around almost as long as humans have. Thanks to 5000+ years of textile arts. Today, shopping for designer fabric by the yard is easy and it can be used to easily create table linens, runners, drapery panels and more. Designer upholstery fabrics can satisfy the needs of any DIY home decorator, designer, or event planner looking to complete a project.
Once upon a fabric…
Derived from the Latin word, “texere”, which means “to weave,” textiles are defined as fibers and filaments processed by knitting or weaving. Textiles have been used by many civilizations of the world to define their culture, way of life, and ideas about beauty.
Textiles can be fragile and perishable,so the oldest evidence of them is often found in impressions in burnt clay, or in the unearthing of weaving tools.
Rudimentary plant-based textiles are seen in ancient fossils, but the earliest evidence of cotton, silk, and linen appear around 5,000 BC in India, Egypt, and China. During the Roman Empire, the European population was clothed in wool, leather, and linen and textiles were a product of a home industry. People produced fabrics by the yard (or other forms of measurement) to meet their own needs. Later, these artisan-made products were traded for other goods.
Trade occurred predominantly on the China-backed Silk Road, a route across lower Asia that connected the Far East to Mediterranean countries—crossing South Asia and the Middle East in the process as well. Built during the Han Dynasty in 114 BC, the Silk Road spanned over 5,000 miles, assisting in the sharing of goods and cultures across Asia.
In the Middle Ages, a wear-free, long-lasting textile called broadcloth became popular with the common folk while materials such as silk and linen were worn by the rich. During the 14th century, dyeing and tailoring technology hastened the spread of fashion in Western Europe. Inventions like the flying shuttle made cheap mass production possible in the United Kingdom. Along with the industrial revolution came the population boom in the late 1700s, where more textiles could be produced quicker than before thanks to the mechanically-driven loom. This lead to the masses having access to quality fabrics by the yard at affordable prices.
At the end of the 19th century, the first synthetic fibers were made and the discovery of nylon and polyester followed in the 20th century. Today, synthetic fibers are still being invented. However, the large majority of textile products are still created from natural materials, the most popular of which are silk, wool, and of course, cotton.
Fabric by the Yard: Classic Manipulations
Lacing is performed by using a backing piece to create finer fabrics with open holes throughout the piece. Interlacing a yarn through a piece of woven cloth results in a layer known as a pile, usually used in making of carpets and velvet. As felt from wool is the oldest known textile, so the oldest known technique of creating fabrics is felting, done by squeezing a mat of fibers together while drenched in liquid, creating a flat and tangled material.
Coloring textiles are also as ancient as the textiles themselves. Some early examples involve dyeing with plant extracts, but also double-dyed with a Murex sea snail that gave off a purple tint.
Other techniques involve combining fibers of different colors, bleaching to intensify the white in a textile, and stitching colored yarn for a marbled appearance. One classic technique used is fabric marbling, as seen below. This image was found on Pinterest, but shows fabric artist Paula Lavender at work in her studio.
A third was first dyed, then exposed to sunlight in order to produce a deep blue. This is the same process used to make the sacred techelet color, which was lost for centuries and only recently re-discovered.The wool of this same blue piece was spun locally, while the purple and crimson have characteristic marks of imported wool.
Some 3D printing startups are now venturing into printing wearable materials. However, the loom, an ancient yet reliable tool, is still considered far better at making textiles than a 3D printing machine today. Spanning hundreds of years, the making of textiles is considered a technology as the loom is often regarded as an early version of the computer. The French merchant Joseph Marie Jacquard is credited with storing fabric designs on a punch card, enabling the loom to weave these designs and further automating the process.
Modern Techniques for Designer Upholstery Fabrics
There are many ways to add texture to fabric. One of these is appliqué, done by hand or by sewing machine. Appliqúe is the process of stitching a small layer of fabric, usually in a unique shape, onto a larger base fabric. A popular example of this technique is the African Kuba, which is made up of many small pieces of raffia or other fabric, sewn onto a base to create a pattern.
Meanwhile, patchwork or “pieced work” is created by sewing pieces of fabric together to create a larger piece. The patterns, built up with different fabric shapes, can be turned into formal repeating designs, or can be more random and free form. This Vintage ralli quilt collected on a SmithHönig buying trip to India, is a great example of patchwork. The patchwork has been made into a unique pillow.
One of the most intricate and popular techniques of decorating fabric is embroidery. It involves creating patterns through filling stitches on the fabric. The Torans in this post are classic examples of embroidery AND appliqúe. They are colorful fabric door hangers that welcome guest at the entrance of homes in Hindu cultures and are usually complimented by layer upon layer of embroidery.
Other methods of embroidery are bullion stitches and French knots. This decorative throw pillow from SmithHönig is made up of bold floral crewel embroidery.
Macramé is a technique of using macramé threads and knotting them to make fabric. This can be used either to decorate the fabric or to create an entire fabric with macramé. This breezy turquoise curtain from Rover@Home’s 10 Amazing Bohemian Chic Interiors post shows us how to use macramé as a window treatment.
Trims and Tassels
Trims like ribbons, braids and tassels are also used to add personality to designer fabrics. This luxurious velvet pillow from SmithHönig features eye-catching removable tassels– a finishing feature in historic fabric and clothing decoration. It’s basically made by binding or otherwise gathering threads together and binding them together at one end. Tassels are used around the globe and can be both formal and bohemian, depending on the textures, sizes and shapes.
And this lush black velvet pillow embellished with fragments of vintage Tibetan clothing incorporates cotton velvet with contrast trim.
Designs on fabric can also be created by through paint. The yellow couch in the first photo below was painted by Kellie using Velvet Finishes Bold. She used one and a half 32 oz containers on this huge mid-century sofa. The fabric has dried to a soft velvety finish. The fabric on a chair, on the other side, is given patterns by using the specially formulated Velvet Finishes paint over a stencil.
A more timeless design on fabric is monogramming. Common on household textiles such as towels and tablecloth, monogramming involves embroidering a person’s initials and is a popular way to personalize fabrics. Kellie curated a list monogrammed gift ideas in this Holiday Gift Guide post, if you’d like to see more examples.
If you want to know more fabric manipulation techniques, you can check out this comprehensive post for adding texture in fabrics. What ever your preference for fabric design, it is clear that creations are only limited by your imagination. You can combine, mix and match– whatever you want to do in whichever way.
And if you’re a home décor aficionado or working with a creative designer then SmithHönig’s Fabric by the Yard is going to excite you! The possibilities of what you can make out of the fabrics are endless, you just need a pattern and good sewing machine and you can transform the fabrics into your furniture, pillows, table and more.
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