Cambric is a type of finely woven linen or cotton cloth which is specially treated to create a glossy, stiff appearance. True cambric can be difficult to find, as a result of the rising popularity of other textiles. When cambric can be found, it tends to be of poor quality. Consumers purchasing cambric for use in projects should look for tight, even weaving, a crisp texture, and a shiny upper side. A variation on cambric, chambray, is much more widely distributed. Both types of fabric are named after Cambrai, a city in Northern France which contributed to the development of cambric.
To make cambric, cotton or linen is tightly woven so that it will have a smooth, even grain. Once finished, the fabric is run through hot rollers in a process called calendaring, which tightens the fibers and aligns them in the same direction. The resulting fabric is glossy and stiff, often through repeated washings. Cambric of a lower grade may need to be retreated after time to regain its original properties.
Cambric first appeared in the late 1500s, and it quickly became a popular textile for a wide range of applications. The stiff neck ruffs of the Elizabethans were made from cambric, as were many curtains, wall hangings, petticoats, and a variety of other textile goods. Cambric was also known as batist, especially when it was used for embroidery and lacework. The fine fabric took well to embroidery projects, and many women produced astounding embroidery on cambric.
The widespread availability of other textiles and new manufacturing processes caused cambric to decline in popularity in the 1900s. However, chambray, a variation on cambric, continued to be popular. Traditional chambray is made by weaving colored threads through a white weft, somewhat more loosely than cambric is woven. The resulting chambray fabric is not calendared, so it stays soft, supple, and smooth. Chambray is often used to make shirts, which are typically designed to be loose fitting and comfortable.
Some sewing supply companies still carry cambric. Chambray is readily available in a wide range of colors, although blue chambray is the most common. Cambric garments are very difficult to find, expect in vintage stores, or in the form of costumes which are not intended for extended wear. The cambric used in these garments is often of poor quality, unfortunately, leading many people to confuse cambric with low quality fabrics. Chambray shirts are readily available in many department stores.