From the early Middle Ages, the Low Countries had supplied Europe with superb linen fabrics. Among these was a thin, soft, notably white, closely woven, plain weave cloth called cambric after the Flemish city of its origin, Kambryk, now a French city called Cambrai. The French name for cambric, "batiste," reputedly honors the first cambric weaver, John Baptiste. This specialty item was preferred for ecclesiastical wear, fine shirts, underwear, shirt frills, cravats, collars and cuffs, handkerchiefs, and infant wear.
At the same time, India had been exporting cottons to neighboring countries in the Near East, Africa, and to southeast Asia. Although trade between Europe and the Levant brought Indian quilted silks and Indonesian spices into northern homes, cotton apparently held little appeal. In the early seventeenth century, as a spin-off of their spice trade, the English and Dutch East India Companies gradually began importing into Europe various India cottons, from sheer mulmulls to brilliantly colored, painted chintes. The finer muslins presented increasingly stiff competition to cambric weavers because they were more affordable; the traders obliged, assisting the idea by grafting familiar linen names like "cambric" onto the Indian product.
Struggling to survive efforts to stymie their competition with domestic textile manufacturers, European calico printers undertook to produce their own calico (plain cotton) for printing, rather than depend upon Indian trade goods. The English had learned to make fustian, originally a worsted fabric, from linen and cotton. To comply with and transcend prohibitions against importing India cottons, some manufacturers succeeded in producing fustians that closely resembled the Indian original. This accomplished, manufacturers went on to master the skills of spinning and weaving very fine cotton yarns in imitation of the Indian muslins. Consequently, linen and cotton cambrics existed side by side in the nineteenth century along with "percales" and "jaconet" muslins, which were a bit denser. Flimsy, heavily sized cotton "lining cambric" came into use by the nineteenth century for lining lightweight clothes. It was too sleazy for outer-wear, except for such things as masquerade costumes, and became limper still if dampened.
Twentieth and Twenty-First Century
By the early twentieth century, cambric was known as a fine cotton characterized by a smooth, lustrous finish.
In the twenty-first century its original distinction of fineness has been all but lost, and polyester often displaces cotton. Modern uses for polyester cambric are much the same as the earliest ones. Blouses, thin shirts, summer dresses, infant clothing, pajamas, robes, and underwear are still made of cambric; sometimes it is possible to find items made of fine cotton, but ironically the fabric may well have been woven in India.
Another fine linen known as lawn after the French city of its origin-Laon-had characteristics very similar to those of cambric. Of the two, lawn was the most likely to be sheer. The earliest lawns often were woven with stripes, figures, or openwork in them, while cambric was not. Cambric, lawn, and batiste now are made virtually alike, of cotton or polyester in varying degrees of fineness. They are easily confused because they differ mainly in points of finish.
Carmichael, W. L., George E. Linton, and Isaac Price. Callaway Textile Dictionary. La Grange, Fla.: Callaway Mills, 1947.
Irwin, John, and P. R. Schwartz. Studies in Indo-European Textile History. Ahmedabad, India: Calico Museum of Textiles, 1966.
Montgomery, Florence. Textiles in America. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1984.