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A history of Corduroy and Moleskin

A history of corduroy and moleskinThe origins of fabrics known as corduroy and moleskin are obscure, but together with other types of fabric, such as velveteen, they belong to a group once widely known as fustians. Most of the production of these fabrics was in the East Lancashire and West Yorkshire districts of England. The Calder Valley in West Yorkshire, in which Brisbane Moss is situated, had a high concentration of fustian weavers, dyers and finishers from the first half of the 19th Century. Within the last few decades virtually all of the companies engaged in this type of production have closed down, and Brisbane Moss is now the largest remaining stockhouse of corduroys and moleskins in Great Britain.

history of moleskin and corduroyThe term fustian is itself very general in its meaning, and in the early 19th Century was a description of a strong, hard wearing woven cloth made with a linen warp and cotton weft. During the latter part of the Century and the early part of the 20th Century it came to describe that group of woven cloths having a high ratio of weft threads to warp threads, thus giving the appearance of a smooth weft faced fabric, usually thick and strong, and mostly made of 100% cotton. In some cases the smooth face of the fabric was interrupted by equally spaced ribs, or races, running the length of the piece, and these could be cut on specialised machines, prior to dyeing, to form ribs of raised pile, characteristic of corduroy as it is now known. Depending on the number of ribs per inch, or the weight, or the characteristics of the weave, the different varieties of corduroy were given particular names, such as Genoa, Constitutional Cord, Thicksett, Twill Back, Jean Back, Calico Back, Needlecord. These names were often descriptive of the woven construction, for instance 'Twill Back' corduroy would mean a cloth woven with its backing picks comprising a two and two twill, whereas the 'Calico Back' corduroy would have a plain back - calico being a generic term meaning cloths of a plain construction.

Moleskins were generally fabrics without prominent ribs, but had a smooth overall appearance, and as with corduroy there were many varieties, again being known by various terms such as Imperial, Swansdown, Patent, O'Neil. The loomstate fabric, coming directly from the loom, could be dyed and finished in many different ways and shades, depending on the particular end use it was destined for.

Some moleskins were made with extremely strong warp yarns and very high weft density, in some cases over 400 threads per inch, which requires a special type of loom, of which very few survive.

The common factor in all the above fabrics was the use of good quality cotton yarns, usually ring spun ply yarns in the warp and relatively soft mule spun or ring yarn in the weft. Mule spun yarn was still being produced, in England, until the 1960's but cotton mules finally disappeared and now, in addition to ring yarns, the latest generation of yarns spun on open end machines are used in some moleskin fabrics. However, the high quality fabrics processed to give a fine sueded finish use only soft spun ring yarns for weft and are usually of a woven construction to throw a large amount of weft onto the surface. Such weaves as reversible four by four imperials are typical of this type of cloth.

MoleskinToday most sueded moleskins are used for apparel, the heavier qualities up to 400 gms per square metre being used largely for trousers, breeches, waistcoats and similar purposes.

Lighter weights can be seen in shirts, fashion trousers, skirts and, often when quilted or combined with other fabrics, leisure jackets of various types. All weights of both moleskin and corduroy are used as trim, in combination with other fabrics, on collars, cuffs etc.

In some cases the surface of the face of the cloth was sueded to give a soft supple appearance and handle, and it may be, that in this particular finish, its likeness to the fur of a mole gave the fabric its name, but this is pure speculation.

Finishes and colours used on corduroy and moleskin are varied, depending on specific requirements. Silicone, water repellent and softening finishes can be applied, but mostly these are kept to a minimum as the fabrics, if made to a good initial specification, have a characteristic appearance and handle which is comfortable and wears well. It is not surprising that, with reasonable care, garments made from such fabrics have a long life. The best qualities made by Brisbane Moss have weaving specifications, unchanged, going back many decades and still today only the finest available yarns and dyes are used.