Linen and chambray are summer wardrobe staples for men and women, as both are lightweight, breathable fabrics. Linen fabric is defined by the plant it is made from: flax. Its weight and weave can vary according to the intended use of the fabric, which can range from household goods like bedding or towels to couture apparel. Chambray, by contrast, is a fabric defined by the way it is made: a plain weave of colored warp and white filling yarns. It is usually made of cotton fibers, but it can also be made with linen or silk, and its primary use is shirting.
Characteristics of Linen
Linen is a type of fabric made with flax fibers. Flax fibers are more rigid than cottons or silks, endowing linen fabric with a lack of elasticity and its propensity to wrinkle. Linen can be made using a multitude of weaves, which will determine the texture and weight of the fabric. Regardless of the variety, linen fabric is known for its breathability and its natural sheen.
Characteristics of Chambray
Two characteristics define chambray: its plain weave and its white selvage. A "plain weave" is the most basic type of textile weave. It employs a simple over one, under one crisscross pattern. In a chambray fabric, the warp fiber is dyed -- usually blue -- and the weft fiber is white. This weave creates a soft, faded color that resembles denim, but is lighter in weight. Chambray fabric is usually made with all cotton fibers, but it can also be made with silk, or a blend of the two.
Both linen and chambray originated in Europe, though linen pre-dates chambray by far. Linen is, in fact, considered to be the oldest textile in human history, dating to 8000 BC in prehistoric Switzerland. Its endurance is linked to the abundance of flax plants and the durability of the fabric. Chambray is a derivative of cambric fabric, which dates to the 1500s in Cambrai, France. Originally known as a plain-weave cloth made with linen fibers, cambric cloth was closely associated with linen until the 1800s. Chambray diverged from cambrics with its characteristic use of white filling yarns.
While both linen and chambray make regular appearances in summer fashion, linen has many uses outside of apparel. Because of its durability and high absorbency, linen is used in household goods such as bedding, towels and tablecloths. Chambray, by contrast, is used exclusively for clothing. Originally used for workmen's shirting, chambray's use has recently expanded to women's dresses and children's clothes.
M. Farrugia is a writer and editor with more than five years experience in print and online media. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in French and Francophone studies from UCLA, and a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing/critical studies from CALARTS. Her writing appears regularly on Racked and Curbed.