For centuries, silk taffeta has been the fabric of choice for elegant party dresses, celebratory fashion, and luxury wear. But what is taffeta fabric, and why is it still so popular for special occasion garments?
Taffeta fabric is a stiff, shiny fabric usually made with silk or polyester. It has a crispy finish that helps it hold its shape well and a smooth texture, so it is soft to the touch. It rustles when it moves, giving it a distinct sound as well as a distinct look.
Taffeta gets these characteristics from the weaving method rather than from the fibers themselves. While silk is still the traditional fiber, there are multiple types of taffeta fabric available today. This guide will tell you all about them and the many uses and benefits of taffeta.
What Is Taffeta Fabric?
Taffeta fabric is a luxury fabric known for its stiffness, shininess, and rustling noise it makes. There are multiple types of taffeta, but they share these characteristics and a particular weaving technique.
It’s a plain-woven fabric made with twisted yarns to give it the stiff, crisp texture it’s known for. The fabric holds its shape well despite being lightweight. It’s also often shiny, which makes it a popular choice for formal wear, especially dresses.
The sound taffeta makes is one of its most noticeable characteristics. Because the fabric is so crisp and stiff, it rustles as you move when you wear it. Some fabric experts refer to the sound as “scroop”—a blend of two other sounds, “scrape” and “woop.”
The word taffeta comes from an old Persian word, “taftah.” Its meanings include “woven,” “crisp,” and “twisted.” The fabric originated in the Middle East around the 12th century, though it isn’t certain how similar that original fabric was to modern taffeta.
What Is Taffeta Fabric Made of?
Today, taffeta is most commonly polyester, acetate, rayon, or another synthetic fiber. A few taffeta fabrics also have a bit of spandex in the fabric to give them stretch. The vast majority of modern taffeta is polyester or a blend of polyester with another fiber.
Historically it was made with silk. High-end taffeta fabric is still made with silk, though this is rarer. Today, raw silk taffeta is manufactured in India and Pakistan, not far from its Persian origins. Synthetic taffetas are made all over the world, but particularly in France and Italy.
There are also some nylon taffeta fabrics, historically used for items like parachutes. Today, these taffetas are used for items like umbrellas or handbags that need more durability than other taffeta fabrics.
How Is Taffeta Made?Taffeta is plain-woven, meaning there is a single warp thread for every weft. Manufacturers will weave these threads around each other in a checkered pattern, so all the threads are at right angles to each other.
What sets taffeta apart from other plain weave fabrics are the twists and the size differences between warp and weft threads. As the weavers make the fabric, they twist each thread tightly. This twisting is what makes the fabric so stiff, regardless of the type of fiber they use.
The other aspect that gives taffeta its characteristic texture is that the warp and weft threads are different sizes. When they’re woven tightly together, the size imbalance in the threads makes the fabric stiff and textured.
For centuries, taffeta was an exclusively hand-woven fabric, which adds to its status as a luxury fabric. However, manufacturers started using industrial looms to make taffeta in the 1990s. The rise of these looms and the production of polyester taffeta have made the fabric more affordable and accessible.
Taffeta Fabric CharacteristicsTaffeta’s most distinctive characteristics are stiffness, sheen, and sound. The tight weave and twist technique keeps it stiff, gives it a subtle shine, and creates the recognizable rustling sound it makes as it moves.
The shine in taffeta fabric doesn’t come from metallic or glittery fibers. Instead, the subtle size difference between the warp and weft threads creates patterns of shadow and light as the fabric moves, giving it a shine effect.
Despite its characteristic stiffness, taffeta is not a durable fabric. It is prone to damage and snagging and can wear out quickly with improper wear and care. Taffeta has very little natural elasticity or stretch, so too much pressure on it will tear it.
The high twist the yarn gets as weavers make it puts stress on the fibers. This is particularly true of silk or rayon taffeta. The stronger the fibers are, to begin with, the stronger the taffeta will be.
Taffeta is, however, a lightweight fabric, especially considering how well it holds its shape. It’s stiff enough to provide some structural support for garments without weighing the wearer down. The lightness also makes it possible to use many layers of taffeta to create large silhouettes without the weight misshaping the garment.
It’s also breathable, particularly silk taffeta. Natural fibers are more breathable than synthetic, but taffeta fabric is so thin that even polyester versions are more breathable than other fabric styles.
Advantages and Disadvantages of Taffeta Fabric
The advantages of using taffeta come from the contrast between how well the fabric holds shape and how light it is. Other stiff fabrics tend to be heavy and thick, but taffeta is thin and breathable.
It also has a natural sheen. Silk, and the synthetic fibers manufacturers use to mimic silk, are naturally a bit shiny. When manufacturers twist and weave it into taffeta, the fiber gives the fabric a subtle shine. Using multiple colors of thread, manufacturers can even create an iridescent effect without beading or crystal work.
While taffeta has a slightly uneven surface, the fiber content means it still feels smooth to the touch. It also won’t pill, so it will stay smooth even after extended wear. This helps add to the look and feel of luxury the fabric has. The combination of these traits is what makes taffeta so popular for formal wear.
Some of the features that make taffeta desirable can also make it hard to work with. The stiffness makes it tricky to sew with, and the lightness means it is prone to damage from snags.
It can also be more expensive than other synthetic fabrics as you generally need more yardage to complete a taffeta project, as it is technically a napped fabric. Silk taffeta is even more expensive than synthetic versions, as the production cost of the fiber is higher.
What Is Taffeta Used For?Taffeta’s primary use is for evening wear, such as wedding gowns, prom dresses, and other formal wear. Because of its luster and the way it holds its shape for long periods of time, it’s also popular for costumes in theatrical productions.
While taffeta is fairly delicate and won’t stand up well to daily wear and tear, it’s stiff enough that it will hold its shape without wrinkling or sagging for the length of a play, a wedding, or a party. It’s easy to make elaborate shapes and silhouettes with taffeta that won’t weigh down a garment, so many huge ballroom gowns and red carpet looks feature this fabric.
Many Allied troops used silk taffeta parachutes in World War II because the fabric was light enough to carry but strong enough to function as a parachute. Many women repurposed those same parachutes after the war to make wedding dresses. By the end of the war, parachutes were made of much stronger nylon fabric, as the taffeta was more suited to garments than military equipment.
The stiff fabric is also useful for certain undergarments, like corsets, that need to hold their shape well without being rough against the skin. Linings for jackets or heavy skirts are also commonly taffeta, as it is smoother against the wearer than the rough outer fabric.
Outside of garments, taffeta is useful for medicine and consumer goods. Nylon and other synthetic taffetas are common in umbrellas and handbags. Silk taffeta is thin and strong enough that some doctors have used it as synthetic blood vessels in patients.
Heavier taffetas, made with thicker yarns, are common in upscale interior design. Wall hangings, curtains, and even some wallpapers are made out of taffeta fabric.
Types of Taffeta Fabric
There are six main categories of taffeta fabric, each with a unique look. They all use the same basic weaving and twisting technique, but there are subtle differences in the type of yarn the weaver uses that create differences in texture, shine, and color pattern.
Fashion designers and sewists use all six types in garment construction and design. Some of the techniques date back to the beginning of the fabric’s history, while others like polyester taffeta are newer.
Moiré taffeta has a distinct watermark effect. It’s usually made of silk fibers. The watered silk effect can be permanent or temporary, so you should never wash moiré taffeta as you could damage the look.
To get the watery effect, manufacturers run the fabric through copper rollers. Heat, pressure, and the rolling motion compresses some of the threads more than others so that light interacts differently across the fabric’s surface. Some of the fibers are more polished than others, so the natural sheen of taffeta fabric is elevated with moiré.
Antique taffeta isn’t necessarily old, as the name implies. Instead, it refers to taffeta that has uneven yarn in the weave. The uneven yarns create small, irregular lumps on the surface of the fabric. This is sometimes called slub fabric.
This is a stiffer form of taffeta, but the lumps are usually very soft. The bumpy texture adds to the iridescent effect of the weave. While this type of taffeta has been popular throughout history due to the imperfections of hand spinning and weaving fiber, its elegant look means it is still used today for formal wear and wedding gowns.
Faille taffeta can be a variety of natural fibers, including silk, wool, or cotton. Faille is a weaving technique for staple fibers rather than filament fibers. Staples are short fibers that need to be spun before you can use them for weaving. Filaments are continuous fibers that don’t need spinning.
Silk is the only natural filament fiber. However, manufacturers will cut it into staples and spin it to make faille taffeta. Faille taffeta is also the term for any taffeta fabric made with wool or cotton.
Polyester taffeta is one of the most common forms of modern taffeta fabric. For polyester taffeta, manufacturers make a thin, silk-like filament fiber to use for the weave. Synthetic fibers like polyester are easier and cheaper for manufacturers to produce than silk fibers, so this taffeta is more affordable than other versions.
Polyester also makes it easier for manufacturers to add spandex or other fibers to the weave to give taffeta better stretch and movement. The combination of affordability and variety makes polyester taffeta a popular fabric, particularly for formal wear such as prom dresses or evening gowns.
Paper taffeta is the thinnest type of taffeta fabric. It’s named for its paper-like thinness and delicacy. It isn’t just the width that makes it similar to paper, however. This type of taffeta is very crisp, the texture is similar to paper as well.
Full garments are rarely made exclusively with this kind of taffeta, but it is very effective for textural elements, decorations, and embellishments. Despite the delicate nature, the strength of this fabric is high compared to the weight. Medical doctors occasionally use it as a synthetic blood vessel because of this.
Silk taffeta is a category that includes the original fabric. There are multiple varieties of silk taffeta, with varying thread thicknesses, dye techniques, and weights.
Shot silk taffeta is a technique where the warp and weft threads are two different colors, which creates a rippling iridescent effect on the fabric. Warp printed silk taffeta is a similar concept. The warp threads are printed with a specific pattern or design, but the weft threads are all one color. This gives the pattern depth and movement across the fabric.
While silk taffeta is the original version of taffeta fabric, it is less common than polyester taffeta now. It is more expensive for manufacturers to produce, so it is reserved for luxury garments and high fashion rather than commercial garments.
How to Care For Taffeta Fabric
The best way to care for taffeta depends on what the fiber type is. All taffeta is fairly delicate because of the tension the extra twisting puts on the yarn. No matter what the fiber type is, you should always use delicate care for taffeta fabric.
Taffetas made with silk or rayon should be dry cleaned, especially moiré taffeta, as water could damage the watermark effect. The fiber content should be on the garment tag or care label, along with recommended care instructions.
Synthetic taffetas can usually go in your washing machine. Polyester, acetate, and spandex blends are all washing machine-safe. Use the most delicate cycle your machine has, along with cold water and a mild detergent. Or, you can handwash the taffeta.
Air-drying taffeta is best. The dryer can damage it with heat and excess motion. Laying taffeta garments out flat or hanging them up will help reshape them. You can press them with a warm, dry iron on the wrong side of the fabric to finalize any needed reshaping. Use a pressing cloth for best results.
Store your taffeta garments hanging in a closet rather than folded. The fabric will crease easily, so sitting for long periods folded will wrinkle the garment significantly.
Tips for Sewing With Taffeta
Taffeta is delicate and snags easily, so you’ll need to use a sharp, thin needle whether you’re hand-sewing or machine sewing. A size 60/10 needle for a sewing machine will work with most taffetas. Heavier taffetas will do well with an 80/12 needle.
Since taffeta is not stretchy, you can hold it taught as you sew and it won’t pucker. The only exception is if there is spandex blended in with the fiber, in which case, be mindful of how tight you hold it. Cotton or polyester thread will work nicely with taffeta, whether or not it has spandex in it.
To cut out taffeta, weights or clips work better than pins. Pins can tear or permanently mark taffeta unless you’re using ultra-fine pins and working very carefully. Smaller snags and holes from these ultra-fine pens are easier to smooth over than the large holes a standard straight pin will make.
The stiffness that characterizes taffeta and gives garments impressive shape memory can also make it a difficult fabric to use. Always prewash your fabric (when it’s machine washable) ahead of time to make it easier to cut and sew with.
Curved seams and other intricate work can be cumbersome with taffeta, so go slowly and avoid patterns with a lot of these details. Make sure to cut out your pattern pieces using the layout for napped fabric as well. This will make sure that as you seam your pieces, the shine on the taffeta is all facing the right direction.
Taffeta Fabric by the YardDue to the wide variety of fibers that manufacturers can use to make taffeta fabric, the price per yard varies widely. The more affordable polyester and synthetic versions start at just over $4 per yard, whereas the luxury silk versions can run as high as $20 per yard.
Most retailers sell taffeta fabric in widths between 50 inches and 60 inches. However, nylon taffeta is sometimes sold in double widths of up to 110 inches, as it is sometimes used for larger items like umbrellas, sleeping bags, or even tents.
Taffeta is a common fabric, so you can find it at your local fabric or craft supply store as well as at online retailers. Wholesale fabric sellers will also have a wide variety of types and colors of taffeta fabric available.
Taffeta is a beautiful luxury fabric. Its signature characteristics make it perfect for special occasion garments like wedding gowns, evening wear, and prom dresses. Whether it’s on the red carpet or a school dance, taffeta fabric adds a touch of elegance and luxury to any garment.
Synthetic fibers and commercial looms have helped make this time-tested fabric more affordable and accessible without losing any of the shine, rustle, or structure that make it so glamorous.
Have you ever done a project with taffeta? What was the best part of working with it? Leave a comment to tell us about it!