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Cambric or batiste, one of the finest and most dense kinds of cloth, is a lightweight plain-weave cloth, originally from the French commune of Cambrai, woven in greige, then bleached, piece-dyed and often glazed or calendered. Initially it was made of linen; later, the term came to be applied to cotton fabrics as well. Cambric is used for linens, shirtings, handkerchieves and as fabric for lace and needlework.
Cambric was originally a kind of fine white plain-weave linen cloth made at or near Cambrai. The word comes from Kameryk or Kamerijk, the Flemish name of Cambrai, which became part of France in 1677. The word is attested since 1530. It is a synonym of the French word batiste, itself attested since 1590. Batiste itself comes from the Picard batiche, attested since 1401 and derived from the old French battre for bowing wool. The modern form batiste or baptiste comes from a popular merge with the surname Baptiste, pronounced Batisse, as indicated by the use of the expressions thoile batiche (1499) and toile de baptiste (1536) for the same fabric. The alleged invention of the fabric, around 1300, by a weaver called Baptiste or Jean-Baptiste Cambray or Chambray, from the village of Castaing in the peerage of Marcoing, near Cambrai, has no historic ground. Cambric was a finer quality and more expensive than lawn (from the French laune, initially a plain-weave linen fabric from the city of Laon in France). Denoting a geographic origin from the city of Cambrai or its surroundings (Cambresis in French), cambric is an exact equivalent of the French cambrésine, a very fine, almost sheer white linen plain-weave fabric, to be distinguished from cambrasine, a fabric comparable to the French lawn despite its foreign origin. Cambric is also close to chambray (from a French regional variant of "Cambrai", a name which "also comes from Cambrai, the French city, where the material was originally made of linen yarn". Chambray (also spelled "chambrai") appears in North American English in the early 19th century. Though the term generally refers to a cotton plain weave with a colored warp and a white weft, close to gingham, "silk chambray" seems to have coexisted. Chambray was often produced during this period by the same weavers producing gingham.
White linen cambric or batiste from Cambrai, noted for its weight and lustre, was "preferred for ecclesiastical wear, fine shirts, underwear, shirt frills, cravats, collars and cuffs, handkerchiefs, and infant wear". Technical use sometime introduced a difference between cambric and batiste, the latter being of a lighter weight and a finer thread count. Chambray, though the same type of fabric, had a coloured warp and a white weft, though it could be "made from any colour as you may wish, in the warp, and also in the filling; only have them differ from each other.
In the 18th century, after the prohibition of imports in England of French cambrics, with the development of the import of Indian cotton fabrics, similar cotton fabrics, such as nainsook, from the Hindi nainsukh ("eyes' delight"), became popular. These fabrics, initially called Scotch cambrics to distinguish them from the original French cambrics, came to be referred to as cotton cambrics or batistes. Some authors increased the confusion with the assumption the word batiste could come from the Indian fabric bastas.
In the 19th century, the terms cambric and batiste gradually lost their association with linen, implying only different kind of fine plain-weave fabrics with a glossy finish. In 1907, a fine cotton batist had 100 ends per inch in the finished fabric, while a cheap-grade, less than 60.
In the 19th century, with the development of the interest for colour shirts, cambric was also woven in colours, such as the pink fabric used by Charvet for a corsage, reducing the difference between cambric and chambray. Moreover, the development and rationalization of mechanical weaving led to the replacement, for chambray, of coloured warp and white weft by the opposite, white warp and coloured weft, which allowed for longer warps.
USES IN POPULAR CULTURE
The English folk song ballad Scarborough Fair has the lyric in the second verse "Tell her to make me a cambric shirt, / Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme / Sewn without seams or fine needlework, / If she would be a true love of mine." It also appears in the David Bowie song, Come And Buy My Toys ... "You shall own a cambric shirt, you shall work your father's land."
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