A Material Difference: Chambray

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No, chambray is not a wine. You are thinking of chardonnay. We are all thinking of chardonnay, because it’s wine and it’s tasty. But chambray is quite light and lovely, like chardonnay, and it also has a French-y connection.

In the 1500s and 1600s, the French town of Cambrai seemed to really have it goin’ on with woven fabric production. Batiste and cambric (both fine woven fabrics using linen) were produced in the area, and eventually, the weavers began to experiment with a gingham-style weave and cotton. The classic checkerboard design evolved, and when the weavers began cross-weaving indigo-dyed thread with a white fill thread, it yielded what we would call chambray.

Chambray started being produced in America at the very end of the 18th century, and eventually found a permanent place as a work shirt. And because chambray shirts are typically blue, it gave rise to the term “blue collar worker.”

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Surely you know Rosie the Riveter, probably the most famous depiction ever of the blue-collar worker? Yeah, she’s totally wearing a chambray shirt. (Did you see our Riveting quilt from Quilty July/August 2018? You see what we did there—Riveting, Riveter?)

Chambray is not simply a lighter-weight version of denim, for all that some people (read: me) mentally categorize it that way.

Both have a “heathered” look because the white thread used for the weft (that’s the horizontal one) and the colored thread used for the warp (that’s the vertical one), and both are typically made from cotton.

Chambray, though, has a plain weave, whereas denim has a twill weave, which gives denim distinctive diagonal ridges. Denim also has a very clear wrong side, which is lighter, whereas chambray is essentially reversible.

The weird thing (at least, to me) is that chambray has been almost exclusively used in clothing.

Well, let’s reverse that little historically-true-for-several-hundred-years trend, shall we?

As far as tips and tricks, chambray does seem to fray more easily than regular quilting cotton. Laura Piland, who designed and created Somewhere in Indiana, our A Material Difference quilt for the July/August 2018 issue, said, “I didn’t do anything differently than I normally would for cutting or sewing, but I did minimize how much I handled the cut pieces, blocks, and unfinished quilt top. That really helped to prevent fraying.”

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She added that while spraying the pieces with starch could help minimize the fraying, she was able to complete the quilt without it.

Genevieve Stafford Hook, Quilty graphic designer and proponent of chambray, says that the fabric has a lot going for it. “It’s washing machine-friendly, which I like. So many other garment fabrics are dry-clean only or hand-wash only or need to be washed by the light of the moon with a llama at your side, or whatever. Otherwise it will felt, shrink, or shape itself into something bizarre,” she says. “But chambray can be pre-washed, and then washed again, and washed again, and it just gets softer and better.”

Pre-washing chambrays is recommended to get any shrinkage out of the way, especially if you’re combining it with quilting cottons. Under the heading of better-safe-than-sorry, some of those darker chambrays could use a color fixative, too, like Retayne or Rit Dye Fixative. (Ours did fine without it, but hey, we’re wild and crazy like that.)

Chambray works great for garments, Hook says, because “it has a blue jeans look, so it goes with everything.” The same could be said in your living room or bedroom. I mean, really, chambray could be the blue jeans of quilting—you can dress that quilt up, or dress that quilt down and always be right on target.

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There are more chambrays being released by familiar quilting manufacturers, too, in an astonishing variety of colors and textures—with Swiss dot effects and lightly printed designs, some with subtly amazing slubs of neon, others made from organic cottons.

In fact, this is a great fabric if you want the look of a different substrate, but don’t want to stray beyond the familiar with sewing tools or techniques. I mean— same needle, same threads, same setting on your iron. Gosh, why aren’t we quilting more with chambray?

This feature is included in the July/August 2018 issue of Quilty.

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