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What is Brocade Fabric: Properties, How its Made and Where

by Boris Hodakel  • October 30, 2020 • 7 min read

Fabric name Brocade
Fabric also known as Embossed cloth
Fabric composition Patterned, woven textile yarn
Fabric possible thread count variations 100-600
Fabric breathability Depends on the fabric used—usually low
Moisture-wicking abilities Medium
Heat retention abilities Medium
Stretchability (give) Low
Prone to pilling/bubbling Depends on the fabric used
Country where fabric was first produced China
Biggest exporting/producing country today China or Australia
Recommended washing temperatures Depends on the fabric used
Commonly used in Dresses, ecclesiastical vestments, costumes, trousers, jackets, suits, upholstery, drapes

What is brocade fabric?

Brocade is a patterned, woven fabric. Unlike embroidered fabrics, the patterns in brocade are woven into the fabric. Brocade has a long history, and it has been used in various cultures. Traditionally reserved for ornamental garments, brocade is now more commonplace.

Silk has been the default fabric for brocade garments during most of this fabric’s history, but it’s now possible to find brocade garments made with wool, cotton, or even synthetic fibers. Even when made with inexpensive fibers and used for casual garments, brocade emits a distinctive aura of beauty and sophistication.

Brocade weaves vary widely in complexity, and the simplest brocade patterns simply consist of a single added color. Complex brocade patterns, on the other hand, can consist of a veritable kaleidoscope of multicolored threads.

History of brocade

The first historical records of brocade fabric date to China’s Warring States period, which lasted between 475–221 BC. Use and production of brocade fabric appear to have been limited to China until the first few centuries AD, when relative cultural stability prompted the revitalization of this ancient nation’s silk trade.

As brocade and other silk fabrics became more well-known throughout the Eurasian continent, rivalling powers aimed to initialize their own silk industries to reduce their trade dependence on China. Records indicate that it was during the 6th century AD that intrepid monks from the Byzantine Empire successfully smuggled the secrets of sericulture (silk-making) out of China.

Almost overnight, Byzantium became a prodigious producer of silk fabric, and this empire, which spread throughout much of the Near East and Eastern and Southern Europe, focused heavily on producing brocade fabrics. As a result, Byzantium, not China, became the culture primarily associated with brocade production throughout the Middle Ages.

Byzantine brocade was the default apparel of the nobility throughout Europe and Central Asia, and China maintained its stronghold of brocade trade throughout East Asia. Brocade made in Byzantium often featured Christian iconography, and some brocaded Byzantine tapestries have been preserved to the present day.

Brocade fabric remained reasonably popular among the European nobility throughout the Late Middle Ages, and this textile enjoyed a major revival in Renaissance Italy. Italian weavers pushed the complexity of their brocade designs to the absolute limits, and proof of the beauty of Italian brocade remains preserved in Renaissance-era paintings.

While using brocade in apparel lost significant popularity as the Renaissance period came to a close, this fabric remained a default material for curtains, drapes, and upholstery. Brocade also enjoyed a resurgence in popularity in women’s clothing during the Victorian era.

Brocade today

With the invention of the Jacquard loom in the early 19th century, the production of brocade fabric became much more efficient, and this textile material began losing its association with nobility and the upper class. At the same time, the Jacquard loom made it possible to create more complex brocade patterns than ever before, and this fabric remains coveted for its rich ornamental beauty.

The use of brocade in apparel remains relatively rare, but this fabric is a common sight in modern upholstery and drapes. Brocade is also reasonably popular as a material for ceremonial Indian clothing, and vestments worn by priests commonly feature this fabric.

How is brocade fabric made?

Brocade fabric consists of three yarns woven together. In addition to the mandatory warp and weft yarns, which compose the basic structure of any woven textile, brocade features a supplementary weft yarn that creates the patterns that characterize this ornamental fabric.

Traditionally, weavers made brocade fabric on conventional looms, which required painstaking effort and attention to detail. With the invention of the Jacquard loom, however, brocade production was dramatically simplified, and in almost every case, contemporary textile manufacturers weave brocade using computerized Jacquard looms.

Brocade can feature a wide variety of base materials. Silk is the traditional fiber used for brocade fabric manufacture, but during periods of reduced silk imports, Western brocade weavers made do with wool. As cotton imports from India became more common during the Enlightenment period, brocade weavers in Europe started using this versatile and inexpensive material as well.

In the modern era, synthetic fibers have become the darlings of the international textile industry due to their inexpensiveness and similarity to various natural fibers. As a result, some brocade fabrics now feature synthetic materials like polyester and rayon, but brocade purists still swear by making this fabric using silk.

Whichever material brocade weavers choose, the yarns used to make this fabric are invariably dyed before weaving. Dyeing a piece of brocade fabric after the weaving process would obscure its beautiful, multicolored pattern.

How is brocade fabric used?

Today, brocade is more commonly used in decorations and homewares than it is used in apparel. For instance, curtains and drapes frequently feature brocade patterns, and heavy, silk drapes are almost always brocaded.

Brocade is also a common choice for furniture upholstery. Classy, ornamental chairs frequently feature brocaded cushions, and it isn’t uncommon to find sofas that feature brocade patterns on every surface.

Beyond full coverings for pieces of furniture, brocade is also a fabric of choice for throw pillows. Regardless of the type of upholstery your couch features or the material you chose for your bed covers, a few brocaded, ornamental pillows lend a sophisticated ambiance to any setting.

Where is brocade fabric produced?

China is the world’s overall largest producer and exporter of textile products. Except in the rare case of wool brocade, therefore, this East Asian nation is the most prodigious producer of brocade fabric. Australia holds the distinction of being the global capital of wool production, but many Australian wool producers ship their raw material or yarn to Chinese factories for finishing.

How much does brocade fabric cost?

Brocade is usually significantly more expensive than other woven fabrics made with similar materials. While computerized Jacquard looms have made brocade production significantly more efficient, there’s no denying that producing brocade is still more complicated than producing practically any other type of fabric. Brocade producers have to come up with and execute intricate designs, and Brocade’s aesthetic appeal alone more than justifies the premium price this fabric commands within the international textile market.

What different types of brocade fabric are there?

Over the years, quite a few different types of brocade fabric have emerged within the global textile market. Here are a few examples.

1. Silk brocade

As the most traditional form of brocade fabric, silk brocade still accounts for a significant portion of the world’s brocade supply. Silk is simply one of the smoothest and most lustrous textile materials on the face of the planet, and this fiber is also extremely tensile and durable.

2. Cotton brocade

While significantly less elegant in appearance, cotton brocade is much simpler to produce than silk brocade. In most cases, the patterning in cotton brocade is less complex than the patterns featured in silk brocade, and textile manufacturers commonly use cotton brocade to make casual garments.

3. Himru brocade

This type of brocade fabric features a mixture of silk and cotton. As a result, it is reasonably stretchy, breathable, and soft while still featuring the durability and attractive sheen of silk. Himru (himroo) brocade is mostly produced and used in India.

4. Synthetic brocade

While less common than cotton and silk brocade, synthetic brocade is one of the least expensive types of brocade to produce. However, brocade fabrics containing polyester or other synthetic fibers are less comfortable and can be harmful to workers and the environment.

5. Continuous brocade

Continuous brocade is a type of brocade weave in which leftover threads are left hanging on the back side of brocade fabric or cut off.

6. Discontinuous brocade

With discontinuous brocade, textile manufacturers weave leftover threads into brocade fabric to create additional patterns.

7. Zari brocade

Zari brocade traditionally featured threads of actual copper, silver, or gold. These days, however, this type of brocade more commonly features synthetic materials that approximate the appearance of these precious metals.

How does brocade fabric impact the environment?

The environmental impact of brocade fabric varies significantly depending on the types of textile materials it contains. Brocade traditionally contains silk fibers, and silk is the planet’s most environmentally friendly fabric.

Silk production does not require pesticides or fertilizers, and all that is necessary to produce this fabric is the presence of mulberry trees. Silkworms naturally create cocoons on the branches of mulberry trees, and silk workers then harvest these cocoons, boil them, and unreel them without the use of any agrotoxins or chemicals.

Depending on how it is produced, cotton can also be sustainable and environmentally friendly, but plenty of cotton farmers use harmful pesticides and fertilizers to grow this crop. Wool is in a similar situation: While it’s possible to produce wool sustainably, some wool producers engage in improper land use and animal cruelty.

Among all the fibers used to make brocade, polyester and other synthetic textiles are by far the worst for the environment. Silk, cotton, and wool are all highly biodegradable, but synthetic textile fibers do not naturally degrade when released into the environment. Even worse, synthetic fabrics release tiny fibers with every washing that contribute to plastic pollution worldwide, and the production of synthetic textiles involves highly toxic chemicals that can harm workers and surrounding ecosystems.

Brocade fabric certifications available

There are no organizations that specifically certify brocade fabric, but various organizations certify the textile fibers used to make this ornamental fabric. Chief among them is the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS), which is the most respected certifier of organic textile fibers. Genuine silk fabrics are also eligible for Silk Mark certification, and wool fabrics may be eligible for certification from Woolmark.

Brocade fabric made with pima cotton grown in the United States may be eligible for American Supima Association (ASA) certification, and the Global Recycle Standard (GRS) certifies synthetic fibers that it can verify as being recycled. GOTS certifies recycled synthetic fibers as well.

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About the author:

Boris Hodakel is the founder and CEO of Sewport - an online marketplace connecting brands and manufacturers, former founder of various clothing manufacturing services. He is passionate about e-commerce, marketing and production digitisation. Connect with Boris on LinkedIn.