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Bengaline is a woven fabric with wide, raised crosswise cords or ribs that create a sturdy texture. It may be made of natural textiles, such as cotton, wool or silk, or from synthetic fibers, such as rayon or nylon; it also often is made of a combination of two different materials. The many possibilities can result in a light or a heavy fabric, but the ribbing almost always gives bengaline a sturdy feeling. It is therefore useful for trim on clothing or for making coats, suits and dresses.
The fabric was first produced in Bengal, India, from where it gets its name. The French began to trade for the fabric, and its popularity rose in the late 19th century as a material for dresses. It is often used in children’s clothing as well because it does not wear out easily. Bengaline was first produced mostly as pure silk. Cheaper textiles, however, were soon woven in with the silk because the resulting appearance still looked like silk but cost less to manufacture.
The ribbing that the material is known for can be made by first using a thin or fine textile for the warp, or vertical yarn when weaving. A heavier weft or horizontal textile is then woven in to create the raised rib. Bengaline can be both stretchy and durable due to this type of weave.
The texture makes the fabric useful in several types of clothing. Well-constructed dresses, such as cocktail dresses with full skirts and wedding gowns, tend to rely on bengaline’s sturdiness. Outerwear such as coats may also use the material as it is believed to help reduce wear and tear through the years. Many people enjoy the fabric’s slight stretch on suit pants; together with its heft, the fabric may be more flattering than thinner, clingy materials.
When cut into ribbons, the material is also known as grosgrain. Trimmings may be created from the sturdy, flexible ribbon, though it is said that buttonholes can be difficult to make in this fabric. Seamstresses may also find bengaline a good choice for draperies, as the texture is often considered luxurious and long lasting.
The fabric can be found in a wide variety of colors. Often, the textiles are dyed before they are woven together into bengaline. It is possible for one to dye bengaline at home, though instructions should be followed carefully; dyeing fabrics containing polyester may be too difficult for non-professionals. When using the material, cuts should be made slowly and precisely, keeping the cording in mind. Sewing parts together should be done with care so that the ribbing on each piece matches up.
Bengaline has been around a while, and even may have played an important role in the August 1892 murders of Andrew and Abby Borden. Some writers have speculated the heavy dress Lizzie Borden was seen wearing when the bodies were found was not the dress she had on earlier that day. Both dresses were blue and white, but the bengaline was a heavy winter dress -- an odd choice of clothing for a record-breaking hot day. The dress she had on earlier was a much lighter cotton. This may have also been the dress (possibly blood stained) a friend caught her burning.
In any event, Borden was acquitted of the crime, and it may be because she had another dress whose description sounded like another, but was very different.