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

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

Fabric name Shantung
Fabric also known as Silk shantung, ribbed silk
Fabric composition Silk or synthetic fibers
Fabric possible thread count variations 300-600
Fabric breathability High
Moisture-wicking abilities Medium
Heat retention abilities Low
Stretchability (give) Low
Prone to pilling/bubbling Low
Country where fabric was first produced Shandong, China
Biggest exporting/producing country today China
Recommended washing temperatures Cold or cool
Commonly used in Dresses, wedding gowns, blouses, men’s shirts, vests, tailored pants, evening wear, girl’s dresses

What is shantung fabric?

Shantung is a type of silk fabric with characteristic irregular ridges known as slubs. Despite its subtly irregular texture, fabric connoisseurs consider shantung to be the gold standard of silk fabrics, and this textile is a popular choice for high-end wedding gowns.

Like many silk fabrics, shantung is crisp, and its lightness causes it to drape elegantly. It is one of the thinnest forms of silk fabric on the market, and stantung’s slightly fluted texture provides this fabric with excellent contrast with other types of silk textiles.

While it is less appropriate for tight-fitting garments, shantung is an ideal fabric for bunched, draped, or flowing clothing. Shantung also has the association of being one of the most natural or “wild” forms of silk even though silk textiles are generally produced without the use of pesticides or fertilizers.

History of shantung

Shantung originated in the Chinese province of Shandong. Estimates vary regarding when shantung fabric was first woven, but there are records of this fabric reaching Western populations that date back to the Renaissance period. Shantung is named, quite simply, for the area where this fabric originated, but it is unclear whether Chinese or Western cultures provided shantung fabric with its name.

The majority of silk production takes place in the southern parts of China, which has contributed to shantung’s exotic appeal. Adding further to the mystical allure of this flowing, lightweight fabric, Shandong Province is considered to be one of the holiest areas in China, and it holds great significance within the Taoist and Confucian spiritual systems. Shandong is also where China’s first ruler declared himself emperor more than 2,000 years ago, so this region is steeped in rich history that makes shantung fabric even more enticing.

While fabric connoisseurs now consider shantung to be one of the most luxurious and desirable silk fabrics, smoother weaves originally overshadowed this textile during the era when silk was an incredibly valuable commodity in the West. It’s only relatively recently that shantung’s unique texture and appearance have accorded it widespread acclaim. Now that there are so many different types of silk on the market, textile producers and consumers are on the lookout for variety, and it’s no longer as common to simply opt for the smoothest option.

Until the 20th century, all of the shantung garments in the world consisted of natural silk fibers. With the rise of synthetic fibers, however, textile producers gained the ability to recreate the characteristic attributes of shantung with polyester and other substances. Synthetic shantung, however, lacks the fineness and durability of genuine silk shantung.

Shantung today

Today, shantung has carved out a place for itself within the wider silk market by becoming a go-to fabric for wedding gowns and certain types of dressy men’s clothing. The silk market makes up less than 1% of the global textile market, and shantung only takes up a tiny portion of the overall silk market. Nonetheless, the lasting power of shantung seems assured due to this fabric’s unique viability for certain types of classy garments.

While synthetic versions of this fabric now compete with genuine shantung, synthetic textile manufacturers have been forced to realize that there is no effective synthetic alternative to silk. This natural fabric has unique properties that synthetic materials cannot faithfully mimic, so genuine silk shantung remains the primary form of this distinctive textile weave available within the fabric market.

How is shantung fabric made?

The process of manufacturing shantung fabric begins with the cultivation of silkworm cocoons. Silkworms have been present in many parts of Asia throughout recorded history, and over the centuries, human beings have domesticated these insects to harvest the extremely strong and lustrous fibers contained in their cocoons.

Silkworms only live on mulberry trees, and they develop cocoons on these trees during the latter stages of their maturation process. Silkworm cocoons are composed of fibers that these insects emit out of special glands, and silkworms wrap these fibers on top of each other in a spiraling design to form their cocoons.

To harvest silkworm cocoon fibers, silk workers begin by removing silkworm cocoons from trees and boiling them to loosen their fibers. Then, an industrial machine brushes the cocoon to find its loose end. A silk worker can also find the loose end of the cocoon by hand.

Next, the silk worker or industrial machine loads the fiber through an eyelet and onto a reel. As the reel spins, it unravels the cocoon. The fiber of one cocoon is attached to the next to produce a continuous string. Once this continuous string has reached an adequate length, a silk worker will twist it together with other strings to make yarn.

Shantung contains two separate kinds of silk yarn. The first type of yarn is run through a roller to provide it with a uniform appearance. The second type of yarn, however, is not rolled. It is called slub yarn, and it has irregular nubs along its surface.

In most cases, silk producers use normal, uniform silk yarn for the weft of shantung fabric and slub yarn for the warp. Once these two types of yarn are woven together, the resulting fabric has a slightly irregular or nubby appearance while remaining largely uniform.

Most types of shantung fabric are dyed, and this dyeing process usually occurs before silk yarn is woven into garments. Shantung fabric may also undergo chemical treatments to improve its fire resistance.

How is shantung fabric used?

Despite its somewhat irregular appearance, shantung fabric is prized as a luxury material, and textile manufacturers commonly use this fabric to make classy garments for both men and women. Wedding gowns are one of the most common applications of shantung silk, and when used for this purpose, shantung offers a crisp, elegant drape with an eye-catching texture.

Another popular application of shantung is ladies’ evening wear. Due to its lightweight attributes and excellent drape, shantung is uniquely appropriate for garments that flow and subtly accentuate the curvature of the female body.

In the arena of menswear, shantung is a desirable fabric for dress shirts, vests, tailored pants, and even suit jackets. Shantung is more common in women’s clothing, however, than it is in menswear.

Lastly, shantung has also carved out a place for itself as a material for classy girl’s dresses. This fabric’s irregular texture provides it with a whimsical appeal, and shantung’s drape makes it ideal for loose, flowing garments for girls.

Where is shantung fabric produced?

China is currently the world’s preeminent producer of silk. India is also a major silk producer, but Indian silk manufacturers are unlikely to produce shantung due to this fabric’s origins in Northern China. Shandong is no longer a major area of silk production in China, but knowledge of how to make this province’s trademark silk fabric has spread to other regions within this textile production superpower.

How much does shantung fabric cost?

Silk is one of the world’s most expensive fabrics. It is impossible to speed up or improve the production of this fabric with pesticides or fertilizers, and industrial machinery can only improve the efficiency of silk production to a limited degree. Among the various types of silk fabric, shantung can be slightly more expensive due to its unique texture and limited supply.

What different types of shantung fabric are there?

There are a few different types of shantung and similar fabrics you should know about:

1. Silk shantung

As the traditional form of shantung fabric, this type of shantung remains the most popular despite its hefty price tag and somewhat unusual appearance.

3. Synthetic shantung

While relatively uncommon, synthetic fabrics exist that loosely approximate the texture and appearance of shantung. Despite the initial optimism of synthetic textile producers, however, it is very difficult to accurately replicate the desirable attributes of silk with artificial fabrics.

2. Dupioni

The Italian silk fabric Dupioni is similar to shantung, but it has more distinct slubs, providing an even more irregular appearance. Dupioni is also usually thicker than shantung with a less-pronounced drape.

How does shantung fabric impact the environment?

Silk is generally one of the most environmentally friendly fabrics. The production of silk does not involve any pesticides or fertilizers, and silk production also does not degrade soil quality even though it is technically a form of monocropping.

The only potential environmental downsides of shantung production are harm to insects and worker exploitation. PETA, for instance, has popularized the position that boiling silkworms to produce silk fabric is unethical. Additionally, silk production largely takes place in parts of the world characterized by labor conditions that border on slavery, and the silk industry is not exempt from the worker exploitation that is rampant throughout the Asian textile industry.

Regardless of these potential ethical and sociological issues, shantung production remains far more environmentally friendly than synthetic textile or cotton production. Silk is even biodegradable, so it does not contribute to pollution.

While production of synthetic shantung is relatively rare, it’s worth noting that synthetic textiles release toxic substances into surrounding ecosystems at every stage of the production and use cycle. Textile manufacturers use caustic chemicals to produce synthetic fabric fibers, and synthetic textiles release microfibers into the water supply with every washing. Additionally, synthetic fabrics are not biodegradable, so they are significant environmental pollutants.

Shantung fabric certifications available

The most notable silk-specific fabric certification organization is Silk Mark. Based in India, this organization only provides certifications to garments that it has verified as containing genuine silk. You may choose to prefer silk certified by the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS), however, if you want to make sure that this textile was produced without using exploitative labor practices. Only a tiny amount of silk is produced in the United States and the European Union, but silk textiles manufactured in these areas may also be eligible for USDA or European Commission certification.

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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.