From sailboats to tennis shoes to fine art, there are hundreds of places that canvas fabric shows up in the modern world. There are many different kinds of canvas, but they all have some things in common. So what is canvas fabric, and how do you use it?
Canvas fabric is a plain-woven cloth, usually made with cotton or linen. It is known for being durable, water-resistant, and lightweight despite its strength. It has a tighter weave than other woven fabrics, which makes it stiffer and more durable.
Whether you’re looking for the perfect material for a new tote or the right fabric for a work jumpsuit, canvas fabric is a great place to start. There are plenty of varieties, from industrial to commercial. This guide will tell you everything you need to know to find the canvas fabric that works best for your project.
What Is Canvas Fabric?
Canvas is a plain-woven fabric made of cotton, linen, or occasionally polyvinyl chloride (known as PVC) or hemp. There are multiple types of canvas and dozens of uses for it, including fashion, home decor, art, architecture, and more.
For centuries, people have used canvas because it is a hard-wearing fabric that’s relatively easy to make. The plain weave is strong and the use of natural fibers like cotton, linen, and hemp makes it durable in various conditions. While canvas isn’t a glamorous fabric, it is incredibly useful and versatile.
What Is Canvas Made of?Early canvas was made from hemp. Researchers believe that the word “canvas” originates from the Greek word cannabis, meaning “made from hemp.” However, after the rise of the cotton industry in India in the 1500s B.C., more cotton canvas entered the market.
Modern canvas is rarely made with hemp. Now, the majority of canvas is cotton. Depending on the utility, some canvases have other fibers included, like PVC, to add strength or weatherproof the fabric. Linen is still commonly used for art canvas, as the texture is good for paints.
Because there are multiple types of cotton and the size of a strand of cotton yarn is easily adjustable, cotton makes sense for canvas. By changing the type of cotton yarn used in the weave, manufacturers can adjust the canvas fabric for various purposes.
The cotton industry is also a robust, thriving industry, so the raw materials are readily available worldwide. Cotton isn’t just durable. It’s also incredibly soft in higher thread counts, like duck canvas, making it the perfect fiber for canvas’ many uses.
How Is Canvas Made?
Canvas is a plain-woven fabric, which means it has a simple weaving pattern. Plain weave is all right angles. The warp threads wrap over and under the weft threads on the loom, alternating with the other warps so that they are effectively wrapped around the weft.
Plain weave is one of the most basic weaving patterns. You can adjust it by adding more threads, changing the thickness of the threads, or plying more than one thread together into yarn to weave.
The more threads per inch a piece of plain weave has, the softer it is. Canvas typically uses thicker threads and fewer of them at a time to increase the strength of the fabric.
Some manufacturers add other fibers into the weave or treat the finished fabric to increase the strength of the fabric. Some industrial canvas, like tent material or architectural canvas, also gets a water-proof coating or a seal to harden it.
What Are the Properties of Canvas Fabric?
As simple as it is, the plain weave for canvas is a tight weave, making the fabric stiff, strong, and water-resistant. Coarser canvas fabrics with thicker threads have a rough texture, but canvas fabrics with a higher thread count get progressively smoother.
Despite its sturdiness, canvas is a lightweight fabric. It has a range of weights, but proportional to its strength, it’s considered a light fabric. This means you can use very large pieces of canvas easily. For example, it makes excellent fabric for sails for ships. The huge pieces of fabric you need for large vessels won’t weigh the boat down.
Canvas fabric can lose its stiffness over time, particularly when it is made with cotton or linen. Repeated washing and general wear-and-tear will soften natural fibers over time. It’s possible to delay this effect with starches or other treatments, but for some uses, the gradual softening is a benefit, not a drawback.
Generally, canvas is a neutral color. It can be dyed easily, but for many uses outside of garments, it is not treated at all. The natural color of most canvas fabric is an off-white or ecru color. For garment uses, however, it can come in a wide variety of colors and prints.
What Is Canvas Fabric Used For?Canvas is used in a wide variety of industries. It’s a common fabric in many people’s everyday lives. There aren’t many canvas garments, however. Most garments made of canvas are outerwear or work coveralls rather than fashion pieces.
However, canvas fabric is a very popular choice for shoes. Tennis shoes, such as Converse, are frequently made in various colored and patterned canvas. It’s also used in sandals and slip-on shoes. The gradual softening of canvas means these shoes tend to conform to the wearer’s foot, making them very comfortable.
Totes and bags are another major use for canvas fabric. Manufacturers use canvas fabric for everything from reusable grocery totes to sandbags. The weight to strength ratio of canvas makes it perfect for carrying heavy or bulky items without adding to the weight.
Another widespread use of canvas is in fine art. The Italian Renaissance saw the rise of canvas instead of wood panels for paintings. It was more durable and easier to paint on in the humid climate than wood. Canvas is now the most widespread support medium for painting in the world.
Tents and other semi-permanent structures are another great use for canvas fabric. Modern tent canvas tends to include PVC or weatherproof coatings to increase the strength and water-repelling qualities of the fabric. The tight weave means that even when stretched over tent poles, the canvas is still strong.
Similar to tent canvas is the canvas used for outdoor furniture like camp beds or cots. Camping gear uses canvas frequently because it is easy to pack in and out of campgrounds, doesn’t take up much space, and is durable in the outdoors.
Sails are another common use for canvas, for both historic and modern sailing vessels. The tight weave lets the fabric catch wind instead of letting the air through, but it is light enough that it doesn’t weigh boats down significantly. It’s also easy to collapse when the sails aren’t in use.
What Are the Different Types of Canvas?
One of the reasons there are so many uses for canvas is that there are multiple types of canvas. Each one is tailored to highlight certain canvas properties. All canvas has a similar weaving technique and fiber content, with small adjustments.
Duck canvas is a common canvas type for garments, shoes, and other situations where you want a smoother canvas. It has a higher thread count and finer threads than other canvas fabrics. It comes in twelve different industry-regulated weights for a variety of uses.
Waste canvas is a canvas specific to sewing and crafts. It is a much looser weave because it is made to come apart easily. It works as temporary support or grid for a project. It is useful for adding embroidery to less-sturdy fabrics. Once the embroidery is complete, you pull the threads of the canvas out of t5he project, like taking down scaffolding after construction.
An embroidery-specific canvas is a fabric known as Aida cloth. The weave in Aida cloth has more warp threads than weft, making small boxes in the weave. This canvas comes in a variety of “counts” which refer to how many boxes there are per inch of fabric. The higher the count, the tighter the weave. Aida is meant to stay stiff to keep the embroidered stitches even.
Waxed canvas refers to a wax coating manufacturers can add to any kind of canvas. Adding a coating of wax to one or both sides of canvas fabric makes it waterproof. The tight weave means manufacturers can wax one side without the wax bleeding through. Manufacturers can also coat the threads in wax before weaving for a similar effect. This is common for waterproof bags or equipment covers.
Canvas for Painting
Canvas for painting is another common type of canvas. You can buy it in rolls or already stretched over a frame. There are various weights and thread counts, depending on how much canvas texture you want to show through the painting. Some artists prefer cotton duck for their canvases for a smoother surface, for example.
Is Canvas Fabric Waterproof?
Canvas is not waterproof on its own, but it is water-resistant. The tight weave keeps a lot of moisture out. The tight weave makes it easy to add coatings or treatments to the fabric after weaving to make it more waterproof.
Waxed canvas is waterproof. When a manufacturer coats the threads in a wax or paraffin coating before weaving the fabric, it makes the canvas incredibly waterproof. Using PVC fibers or coatings has a similar impact on the fabric.
Is Canvas Breathable?Compared to other cotton or linen fabrics, canvas is not very breathable. The tighter the weave, the less breathable the material will be. The goal for most canvas is to be sturdy and as close to water-proof as possible, so not much air will circulate through the fabric.
However, canvas made with natural fibers like cotton or linen will be more breathable than canvas made with PVC or synthetics. Linen and cotton fibers can absorb water easily and dry quickly, two factors that contribute to fabric feeling breathable. The less air in a weave, the harder it is for the fiber to do this, but it isn’t impossible.
Treated canvas, like waxed canvas, is not breathable. The coatings that make it water-proof and weather-proof prevent all breathability. However, for most canvas uses, breathability isn’t a property that manufacturers want, so this is a strength, not a drawback.
Duck Cloth vs Canvas
Duck cloth is a type of canvas fabric. Not all canvas is duck cloth, but all duck cloth is a canvas. There are specific traits that duck cloth has that separate it from other canvas fabric. Like all canvas, duck cloth is a plain-woven fabric.
It has a much higher thread count than other canvas, and the threads are typically thinner. This makes it a smoother texture on both sides of the fabric. Duck is also almost exclusively cotton. There are some linen duck cloths, but that is rare.
Duck cloth is the canvas of choice for garments and painting canvases because of the smooth texture. It’s easier to print designs or patterns onto the smoother surface or cover up the weave with paint than on a rougher canvas.
What’s the Difference Between Cotton and Canvas?
The difference between cotton and canvas is cotton is a fiber and canvas is a type of fabric. While cotton is frequently the fiber manufacturers use to make canvas, it is not exclusive to canvas fabric.
Cotton fabric comes in a wide variety of weaves and knits. For example, many plain cotton t-shirts are made with jersey fabric, which is a machine-knitting technique. Flannels and other woven fabrics can also have cotton fibers without being a canvas.
Not all canvas is cotton, either. Linen, hemp, and some synthetic fibers are also used for canvas production. For a fabric to qualify as canvas fabric, it has to be a plain weave and a stiff fabric. Cotton and linen canvas does soften over time but will still be stiffer than cotton sheets or a jersey knit t-shirt.
Tips for Sewing with Canvas Fabric
When you’re sewing with canvas, it is important to know what the fiber content is and what the weight of the fabric is. For heavier canvas fabrics, especially waxed canvas or PVC-enforced canvas, you will need a much stronger needle than a light cotton duck canvas.
Denim needles and a slight amount of pressure on your pressure foot will help you sew canvas easily with a machine. Whether you are sewing by hand or machine, using a heavy-duty thread like a polyester or poly/cotton blend thread will set you up for success.
Thinner threads can snap too easily as they cannot take as much pressure as the fabric can. Since canvas is heavier than many garment fabrics, treating it the same way as denim will give you the best results.
For machine sewing, you should also keep a careful eye on thread tension. The thicker fabric combined with, the heavier thread may be hard on your bobbin. Longer stitches and looser tension can help avoid bobbin issues and broken threads.
Go slowly in thicker areas and curved seams. It may be difficult to pin these seams with standard sewing pins, so you can try clips or tape instead to help make it easier. Clips are less likely to slide out when you’ve got a bulk of fabric in your machine.
How to Care for Canvas Fabric
How you care for canvas fabric depends on whether or not it has any treatments. Waxed canvas, for example, cannot go in the washer or dryer without risking melting the wax. Make sure to check any garment tags or care labels before washing canvas.
For non-treated canvas, use a warm-water gentle cycle in the washing machine with mild detergent. Tumble dry on low heat to avoid shrinkage, or air-dry it to avoid shrinking entirely. Cotton and linen can both withstand fairly high heat but are prone to shrinkage.
Most treated canvas fabric cannot be machine dried and shouldn’t be machine-washed. Waxed canvas or water-proofed canvas is usually resistant to staining. Any dirt or debris should slide off easily. If it doesn’t come off on its own, you can wipe the canvas down with a damp cloth.
Canvas garments will soften faster the more you launder them. If you want to avoid losing stiffness, you can iron and starch your canvas items after washing them. This will help them keep their original sturdiness.
Canvas Fabric by the YardCanvas prices vary widely depending on what type you’re purchasing. Plain, untreated duck canvas is between $6 and $8 per yard, depending on the weight. Lighter weights are slightly cheaper.
Dyed or treated canvas is more expensive, ranging from $9 to $15 per yard. Heavy canvases with both dye and treatment (i.e. a blue canvas with a wax treatment) will be on the higher end of that scale.
Most canvas is sold by the linear yard. The width of a standard canvas bolt is in the range of 54 to 60 inches. Industrial canvas can be much wider, but most commercially available canvas fabric will not be wider than 60 inches.
Canvas is common enough that your local fabric or craft store will carry a range of canvas types. However, there are plenty of wholesale and specialty fabric stores online. These retailers have a much wider selection of colors, treatments, and weights for you to choose from.
Canvas fabric is one of the most useful, widespread fabrics in the modern world. It has endured throughout history because of its usefulness. From art to garments to tents and sailboats, canvas is the best choice for a lightweight yet durable fabric.
Have you ever done a canvas project? What type of canvas did you use? Let us know in the comments how it went!