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Behind the Scenes in Conservation: Getting technical with textiles! What’s “selvage”?

by Obie Linn, Conservator of Textiles


CAMConservation , selvage , Art Deco , fabric , textile conservation

We’ve got it all! All the width of this 1920s embroidered voile (fine soft sheer fabric), that is. How do we know? The textile includes selvages. If you’ve never worked with fabric before, you may not know this peculiar term, but it’s important for describing and using woven fabrics because it tells us a lot about how the fabric was made and how it will likely behave.

Selvage (US English) or selvedge (British English) is the proper name of the bound, finished-looking edges of the fabric created where the shuttle turns back on the loom during the weaving process. If you have both selvages (as we do for this object), you know you have a full loom-width! Look for the thicker, darker lines on the left and right side edges: those are selvages. These clues tell us this voile was woven at 47 inches wide and was cut on the cross grain (the side perpendicular to the selvage), creating a piece 71 inches long.   

Selvage is important to understand if you use fabrics for creating works such as quilts and clothing because they indicate the grain of the fabric, the direction of natural tension where it “prefers” to hang straight. The grain always runs parallel to selvage.

Selvage can give us other clues, too. For instance, usually selvage was intended to be discarded when a fabric was used, sort of like its “packaging,” there to protect the “product” and keep it looking its best prior to use. This is almost certainly the case here where the weaver has included wide, undecorated bands between selvage and the decorated part of the voile. These bands provide a transitional space between the natural tension caused by the fabric edge and the airy, light central section, which probably made the machine embroidering easier by keeping the embroidery away from the tighter tension of the edge. All that space has helped protect this fabric, and this unused fabric remains as perfect as the day it came off its loom.