What is Cambric?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

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.

Cambric is named after Cambrai, a city in Northern France.
Cambric is named after Cambrai, a city in Northern France.

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.

The popularity of cambric declined in the 1900s due to the availability of other textiles.
The popularity of cambric declined in the 1900s due to the availability of other textiles.

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.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


The song asks the woman to do the impossible because of the impossibility in the refrain. It's a nonsense to say that she "once was" a true love. True love - by definition - is forever. If she dumped him (as appears to be the case), then they never were true loves at all.


Cambrai is a town in Northern France, not far from the Belgian border.


The song also has the lady asking the man to find her an acre of land between the sea shore and the sea sand.


The traditional "Without a seam or needlework" made the beat work better. Why did Simon change it to "Without no seams nor needlework"? Because the movie would not ask an impossible task.


I believe the double negative was just to make the beat work. Even with seams, without any needle work it's still impossible.


You are all missing his point. He says "without no seams" If he had said without seams, that would be impossible, without no seams means with seams. (double negative )! so either he is astute or a complete idiot who cannot write English and I am surprised you all missed that.


About making a cambric shirt with no seams: Try joining two bits of material without it resulting in some form of seam.

When was the last time you saw a hand made piece of clothing that didn't have stitching or a seam?

Honestly, you should be able to work that out yourself.


in the original chant it was about things that no human could do to prove their love. The song surfaced originally right before the witch trials of england and was said to be a courtship of a witch and warlock sung widespread to spite the church. Only magic could craft a shirt in the 1500's without seams or needlework.



A "cambric shirt without no seams nor needlework" is a shroud. In the oldest versions of the folk song used by Simon & Garfunkel, the line goes, "Tell him to make me a cambric shirt" (the "parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme" line comes from another song); their version creates a nice song about a man going away to war, asking his lover to make him a beautiful shroud.


In the song, "Scarborough Fair," the man asks his lover to make him "A cambric shirt without no seams nor needlework."

This is supposedly an impossible task. But why?

What is so impossible about making a cambric shirt without no seams or needlework?

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