Chameleon taffeta


Perhaps you have never heard about chameleon taffeta before discovering this site. This is normal, considering that this fabric has not been produced for a very long time; but we're crazy about this cloth, so we never miss an opportunity to speak about it…

Taffeta chameleon (Workshop Caméléon - France)

But let us begin by defining this fabric, for all those who are unfamiliar with the silk trade.

'Taffeta' is the word used by the silk trade to indicate a fabric woven with the canvas draft - one thread taken, one thread left. In former times it was used to describe silk cloth exclusively, but since it has been nearly a century since the advent of synthetics, it has also come to designate fabrics made of these as well.

As a consequence, 'taffeta' does not necessarily imply silk, it is good to know.

Digressing a moment, we have often noticed how certain errors of terminology have given rise to inaccuracies which, becoming widespread, have subsequently caused the original meanings of words to become obscured. One of the best examples that can be quoted is that of satin. Satin is a weave, a mode of interlacing threads; it can be made from silk, cotton, linen; or in any material...
A serge can be a satin as well. I have read hundreds of times, on the Internet, in reviews, or in books, about

silk or satin…

As if satin were a fibre, rather than a weaving structure. How confusing…

But let us return to our sheep, or rather our silkworms. Taffeta, the cloth of the silk trade, was certainly the most frequently-made silk fabric; for clothing, furnishings, or for utilitarian fabrics. Numerous taffetas bore a commercial name allowing these various fabrics to be differentiated according to their quality, their intended uses, and even the kind of silk thread of which it was composed.

So, taffeta is a silk fabric. And we understand that according to its quality and its composition, it carries one name or another; I shall be personally more restrictive (this engages only myself) and shall define taffeta as a cloth woven with both the warp and weft of organzine.

Well and good…but what's organizine?

Organzine is formed by two (and sometimes three, or more) poil thread singles which have been thrown (twisted) Z, and then plyed together S. The S twist is from 500-600 twists per metre, while the Z twist may vary according to the end use of the organzine: 300 tpm for threads used in velvet, 400 tpm for satins, and 500 for taffetas. The more the thread is twisted, the less lustrous it becomes, and the more solidly compacted. Organzine is especially used for warp.

Organzine is the the warp thread par excellence for silk fabrics and taffeta. It can be said, for the aficionados of antique fabrics, that silk taffetas are concretely characterised by a fabric hand which is like that of no other cloth. Anyone who has ever manipulated silk fabric has heard its distinctive rustle; with a fine quality silk taffeta, this tactile sensation remains unforgettable. The antique taffetas have a 'de la carte' hand, which is to say that when one rubs it or shakes it, the touch and the sound have a distinct papery quality, like the crackle of tracing paper.

The old taffetas were made using organzine as weft thread as well as that of the warp, and that is what gives them this peculiar hand.

And so what exactly is this famous 'chameleon taffeta'?

Here we arrive at a delicate point of terminology: If one speaks about chameleon taffeta, one speaks first of all about 'changeable taffeta'. Generally speaking, a changeable taffeta is one of which the aspect changes according to the angle at which the light hits it: it changes colour.

In changeable taffeta, one finds:

1- Taffeta "glacé": The warp is of one colour and the weft, another colour. This is sufficient to give it this colour-changing quality.

2- Taffeta known as chameleon: the colour-changing quality is even stronger, and consists not of two colours, but of three.
It is there that the debate begins, because chameleon taffetas were at first hand-woven. From about 1890, the industry attempted to make these fabrics on mechanical looms, without ever succeeding in bypassing the stumbling blocks which had been nevertheless surmounted by the hand of human beings - this intelligent hand which is able to differentiate cams from engines. And because the industry failed where the handweaver succeeded, the industry 'adapted' the technique to obtain a fabric of which the effect approaches that of handwoven chameleon. So they used a compound warp - for example, a blue thread, a green thread, etc….as a matter of fact the job of the two-colour wefts was given to the warp, and the weft was woven with a single colour only.

As far as we are concerned, this changeable taffeta was of a much lesser quality, and was not a true chameleon taffeta.

In handwoven chameleon, the true chameleon taffeta, a warp of a single colour is used, and one uses a special shuttle called a chameleon shuttle, which contains two quills wound with different colours, and which allows the unrolling of each of the two quills to be braked independent of one another. Indeed, it is imperative that these two weft threads are laid into each shed without ever touching each other, so as to be perfectly parallel to each other once they are beaten in.

a chameleon shuttle

In our sense, this fabric, so simple in its concept, is also one of the most difficult to weave successfully. It is a true mirror, since the slightest irregularity takes on catastrophic proportions. Numerous precautionary measures are needed: perfect regularity, and much experience in the technique. Even if this is not the case for the majority of fabrics, in this case handweaving unquestionably shows superiority over mechanical weaving, and this is why one chooses to produce it.

Chameleon taffeta requires:

  • perfectly-wound bobbins for warping
  • perfectly-wound quills
  • quills woven to exactly the same diameter
  • strong warp tension
  • well-regulated weft delivery
  • a shedding system using rising and sinking harnesses
  • the use of six shafts and a reaching-in "amalgamé"
  • the use of a regulator
  • the use of a "marcheur" (the batten is not touched)
  • supple throwing and catching of the shuttle
  • a special shuttle : the chameleon shuttle