Plain weave (also known as tabby weave) is the most basic structure for producing cloth. When done by hand, the technique is like basket weaving: one filling (a crosswise or weft) yarn is drawn over, under, over, under, and so forth, through a series of warp (extended lengthwise) yarns. The next filling yarn takes the exact opposite path (under, over, under, over, …) and the whole pattern is repeated. When using a loom, a weaver alternates between raising all of the even-numbered warp yarns and all of the odd-numbered warp yarns, laying down successive filling yarns in each opening (shed) to create the same pattern. Although this technique has been in use since the late Stone Age, Fairchild's Dictionary of Textiles estimates that 80 percent of all woven textiles are made using plain weave.
Simple Weave Variations
The continuing popularity of plain weave is due to its simplicity as well as to the many possible variations in color, texture, and yarn count. Plain weave is the least expensive fabric to produce. At the same time, weavers often purposefully use this pattern to avoid visual competition with other aspects of the cloth: textured fibers (such as linen and silk dupioni); novelty yarns (such as tweed, chenille, and bouclé); printed patterns (on fabrics such as calico and chintz); and dyed patterns (on fabrics such as batik, ikat, and tie-dye). Textiles that have a specialty finish, including flannel (napped), organdy (parchmentized), ciré and moiré taffeta (embossed), are also frequently plain weaves.
Georgette, chiffon, and voile (sheer fabrics that are used for scarves, bridal veils, and decorative overlays on full skirts and dresses) are plain weave fabrics made with tiny, highly twisted silk or manufactured yarns. The twisted yarns create minute spaces in the fabric allowing light or another color to show through. Softer fabrics used for dresses and skirts, such as cotton lawn and rayon challis, are made with yarns that have a very light twist. This helps make the surface of the finished cloth feel very smooth. China silk, a popular fabric for women's blouses, is a fine cloth with a high yarn count (large number of threads per inch). Buckram and crinoline, plain weave fabrics with a low yarn count, are used as stiff linings in the construction of elaborate hats and dresses. Muslin is a cheap, medium-weight plain weave fabric that is often used by tailors and designers to make a test garment before working with more expensive material.
Striped and plaid fabrics, such as tartan, madras, and gingham, are made by changing the color on sections of filling and/or warp yarns. Gingham, for example, usually has thin stripes of red and white or blue and white threads in the warp and identical stripes in the filling. In the finished cloth the stripes create a checkerboard pattern. This look can be imitated by printing the same pattern on a plain weave fabric. Chambray, a popular cloth for button-down shirts, is made with filling yarns that are one color (frequently white) and warp yarns that are a different color. When the filling and warp have a high color contrast, the overall fabric seems to shift color as it moves on the body. This is known as iridescence. Ikat fabrics have a multicolored warp that is dyed before the weaving process begins. When the weaver uses plain weave and a neutral-colored filling yarn, the color and pattern of the warp yarns are allowed to stand out. A similar technique is used to produce fabrics such as tweed and chenille, where the goal is to highlight the texture of the novelty yarn. These bulky or fluffy yarns are usually in the filling. Simply using fewer yarns per inch in the warp and vice versa can also emphasize filling yarns.
Medium-weight plain weave fabrics are sometimes called "print cloth" because they're often used for printed fabrics such as chintz and calico. The smooth surface of plain weave is excellent for printing. These fabrics are also low-cost, which balances out the expense of printing a textile. One drawback to plain weave, however, is that other structures such as twill weave and double weave are much stronger. Plain weave fabrics are best used for clothing and household furnishings that do not take much abuse (such as curtains) or are periodically replaced (such as underwear and bedsheets).
Rib and Basket Weave
Changing the size or number of certain filling and/or warp yarns allows the creation of other variations of the plain weave. When several yarns are grouped together or larger yarns are used, a straight raised ridge called a rib or cord is formed. Poplin is a cotton or polyester fabric with very tiny ribs in the filling direction. This added thickness makes the cloth very crisp. Taffeta and faille, made of silk or a synthetic material such as acetate, are crisp fabrics with a slightly larger rib. Taffeta is often used to make ball gowns because the ribs make an elegant swishing sound when the fabric rubs together. Gros-grain ribbon is another fancy material with ridges in the filling direction. Bedford cord is a heavy fabric made as a lengthwise ribbed weave that resembles corduroy and is used for pants. Rip-stop nylon is a very strong fabric with noticeable ribs in both the filling and the warp direction. In this case, the ribs help prevent the fabric from tearing. Rip-stop is often used for sports gear such as windbreakers and athletic shoes.
Basket weave fabrics are made by having one or more filling yarns go over, under, over, … more than one warp yarn at a time. This can be used to create a fabric that has a better drape and luster than standard plain weave, but the exposed yarns are more likely to be snagged. Oxford cloth, a popular fabric for men's dress shirts, is a basket weave that has one filling yarn going under and over two warp yarns at a time. Heavier basket weaves, such as canvas and sailcloth, have been used for shoes and outdoor clothing such as jackets and overalls for construction workers, sailors, and hunters. Monk's cloth, a very soft basket weave fabric that is easily damaged, has four yarns running together in both the filling and the warp direction.
Encyclopedia of Textiles. 3rd ed. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1980.
Kadolph, Sara J., and Anna L. Langford. Textiles. 9th ed. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 2001.
Tortora, Phyllis G., and Robert S. Merkel, eds. Fairchild's Dictionary of Textiles. 7th ed. New York: Fairchild Publications, 1996.