Cambric is a type of fabric that is also known as batiste. This fabric is either made of linen or cotton and is finely woven and then glazed or heat processed to achieve a lustrous and stiff fabric.
The origins of the cambric fabric are not clear but it is however claimed that it was invented in 1300 by a French weaver, Jean Baptiste Chambray, who was from Cambrai, a city in France. This is from where the fabric gets its name.
The weaving of cambric is different from other types of weaving. It will generally involve weaving short, twisted cotton or linen fibers. The fibers are usually raw, that is are neither bleached nor dyed. The fibers are woven tightly so that the finished product is smooth and even grained. After weaving, the fabric is calendered. Calendering is simply a process by which fabric is passed through rollers that have been heated. It is through this process that the fibers are made tighter and the glossy finish and stiffness that is characteristic of cambric is achieved. Excellent cambric retains the stiffness and glossy finish even as the fabric ages.
Sometimes a distinction is made between cambric, batiste and chambray. When a distinction is made between cambric and batiste, batiste will refer to a finer fabric which is lighter and has a higher thread count. Chambray is used to refer to cambric that has a white weft and a colored warp. Cambric was typically white fabric as the fibers were bleached.
Today, however, cambric does come in assorted colors, meaning there is no longer any real difference between chambray and cambric. Chambray is also woven differently with a colored weft and a white warp.
Historically, cambric was used in making items of clothing such as shirts, handkerchiefs, underwear, ruffles, frills, cuffs, collars, baby wear and lace. It was also used for embroidery work. Today, it is still used to make articles of clothing such as shirts and handkerchiefs, bed linen, table linen, aprons and such but it is usually in the form of chambray.
Because the cambric fabric is quite dense, it can be difficult to sew and requires a strong needle to get through it. Its stiffness however means it does not unravel easily and its flat surface can be a sewers dream.
Cambric is made of natural fibers and care should be taken of items of clothing made from it. The fabric however launders quite well. This is because it does hold its shape. You can actually machine wash it at 60 degrees (medium). It should be ironed whilst damp with a warm iron. The fabric also folds easily.
Articles of clothing made of original cambric are hard to find as chambray is preferred nowadays. However, you can find it in specialty shops or vintage clothing shops.