Friday, June 7, 2013

What Makes Challis Fabric a Challis?

Yesterday, on Stitcher's Guild, a poster (KateLoom) asked the question, What is Challis? Does it employ a plain weave? Or a twill weave? It is always printed with a design or can be also it solid?

This got me thinking.

Challis was a pretty popular fabric back in the 70s and 80s. I sewed with it quite a bit, especially to make long flowy skirts and loose, flowy tops (not worn together, of course). I could distinctly remember using challis that was plain woven and also challis that was printed. I also remember some of it having a plain weave and some of it having a twill weave. (If you are not familiar with fabric weave, denim is a twill weave, which results in diagonal lines. A fabric like a quilting cotton is a plain weave.)

Though I should be doing other things today, it was more interesting to procrastinate by googling and learning more about challis. And, in a nutshell (because I don't have a lot of time to do proper justice to this topic), this is what I learned.

Challis is one of those rare fabrics that doesn't seem to be fully defined by its weave or its print (or lack thereof). It originated, approximately in 1832, in a mill in Norwich, England. A very high-end fabric, that seems to have been made of worsted wool and silk, originally, often with a dark brown background and printed using a hand block printing technique, challis was designed to be soft and drapeable, and made without gloss, as opposed to crape (crepe), which had a gloss and a "buoyancy". (If you are not familiar with crepe, it is also a drapey fabric, but it does have a buoyant texture, or a "springiness", if you will.)

From the History of the Worsted Manufacture in England, From the Earliest Times: With Introductory Notices of the Manufacture Among the Ancient Nations, and During the Middle Ages, by John James, F.S.A., London: Longman, Brown, Green, Longmans, and Roberts; and Charles Stanfield, Bradford, 1857:

About the year 1832 this article was introduced, certainly the neatest, best, and most elegant silk and worsted article ever manufactured. It was made on a similar principle to Norwich crapes, only thinner and softer, composed of much finer materials; and instead of a glossy surface, as in Norwich crapes, the object was to produce it without gloss, and very pliable and clothy. The best quality of challis, when finished with designs and figures (either produced in the loom or printed), was truly a splendid fabric, which commanded the attention of the higher circles, and became a favourite article of apparel at their fashionable resorts and parties. The worsted yard for the weft of this article was spun at Bradford, from numbers 52's to 64's. The making of the challis fabric soon afterwards commenced in the north.

(I just love the word "clothy". It sounds like a modern invention, but I guess it dates back to at least 1857!) This book looks like an interesting read - it also talks about the trade unions, strikes, and the problems introduced by mechanization to the weaving trade. Fascinating stuff. (By the way, the books quoted here are out of copyright, which is why they have been digitized by Google.)

I found a few sources (and here and here) that state that the word challis, originated from the American Indian word shalee, meaning soft, but I think this is a bit suspect. One source postulated that Challis was probably a surname. If anyone find more definitive information about the origin of the word, please let me know.

In any case, it does seem that one of the defining characteristics of challis is its softness and lack of glossiness, rather than its weave. Over time, challis was sometimes made using a twill weave, and using other fibers, such as rayon and cotton. Another later treatment given to challis is that it is often brushed after the weaving process. Again, this would further remove any shine and make the fabric softer and more pliable.

Interesting stuff! Here are some more linkies if you'd like to learn more:

And now it's time to shift the cat and stop procrastinating. :)


  1. Ah! The 80s!! I remember challis well. The oversized shirt and the gathered skirt. How it shredded pretty easy and how the unprinted fibers from the wrong side would flip around and you'd get white streaks on the right side. I also remember cringing over my mom pronouncing it "chalice". She just would not say it right!

  2. I loved Challis, especially rayon or wool challis. I made some of the best garments with it, long flowing skirts and blouses. I missed it terribly.

  3. How interesting that the weave doesn't matter! I just used a rayon challis for the first time and loved it.

  4. Thank you for doing this research, Shams.

    I used to love the challis dresses and skirts I wore in the 70s and 80s in the cooler weather for its substance, surface texture and drape. As I recall, it did not have a twill appearance but had a rough-ish feel. It was cozy and warm.

    Last year I found something advertised as rayon challis on an online fabric site for a bargain price (I thought) and ordered it. I was thoroughly disgusted, when it arrived as it was thin, stiffish .. no drape. It felt more like cotton than rayon.

    I think some textile manufacturers have adopted this description quite frivolously or haphazardly, and I won't be fooled again. If I can find what I want for next winter, which I now think must be only wool challis, it'll be in person so I can feel it, even if it's from a thrift shop .. LOL.

    Enjoy your day!

    ~Joy~ (from SG)

  5. Do you remember Viyella cotton/wool blend challis?

    I still have a blouse from the late 1980s made with a foulard print Viyella fabric. I used a Calvin Klein pattern with huge shoulder pads. ;-)

  6. Thank you for this! Challis is one of those fabrics that I just "know", without having to define it. It's a recognize it when I see it fabric - but I've never thought all that deeply about it. - Heather

  7. I have very fond memories of a wool challis skirt I made in about 1979. It wore so well & draped beautifully and I can't remember when or why it left my wardrobe. My mother may have 'borrowed' it.

  8. I had more than a few of those long flowing challis skirts in the early 80s. They were comfortable and feminine. They did shred over time but I didn't care. My favorite was the legendary Viyella but I sewed lots of rayon challis as well. Sure wish I could find some quality challis today.

  9. Wow! You really did your research. Although I used a lot of challis 'back in the day', but have had very little use for it since the 80s, having this information is great. With so many retro styles popping up these days, I may just take a second look at this fabric. Thanks for the great background information.

  10. I love some challis. It's my goto- iots a dress, it's a skirt,its a blouse, it's available in such gaudy prints. Just love it.

  11. What a timely post! I just bought some rayon challis to make a drapey skirt -- first time sewing with this fabric. Thanks for the interesting info!

  12. Thanks. I learnt something today!

  13. Can wool challis be used to make a blanket?