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Even though it’s affordable now, damask fabric oozes the same level of luxury that it did centuries ago, when it was the provenance of royalty, nobility, and the uber wealthy. Known for elegant reversible patterns, damask can be found all over the home, from curtains, to linens, to furniture. Whether you're looking to purchase some, or are simply curious about the history of textile design, here’s a primer on the beauty of damask fabric.
What Is Damask?
Simply put: damask is a monochromatic fabric that weaves together two different types of thread to create a pattern with contrast in color, texture, and sheen. In weaving, the warp is the threads stretched across a loom horizontally, and the weft are the threads woven between them. In damask fabric, the warp thread makes the pattern, and the weft creates the background.
Since damask’s pattern is woven in, it can be seen from both sides. Damask is reversible; though there is supposed to be a “right” and “wrong” side, if both sides are beautiful, there’s no reason not to appreciate them both!
The History of Damask
Damask’s history dates back thousands of years, and was originally woven by hand. Because of its intricacies, weaving damask fabric was a laborious task, and had a price tag to match. Though damask still has the look and feel of its obscenely expensive roots, it became quick, easy, and cheap to produce with the invention of the Jacquard loom in the late 1700s.
Damask gets its name from the city of Damascus, Syria, which was a major trading post on the Silk Road. However, damask fabric’s roots are not from the Middle East, but rather from China, where it’s believed that damask weaving was invented around 300 B.C.E. The fabric, that the technique behind it, gradually migrated west across the Silk Road; by the Middle Ages, Middle Eastern artisans had turned the region around Damascus into the world capital of damask fabric production.
Damask came to Europe in the late Middle Ages, and quickly became a sensation among royalty, religion, and the well-to-do. Legend has it that Marco Polo introduced damask the the powerful nation-state of Venice in 1295; while it’s true that damask became extremely popular in what was arguably the most influential European port of the time, damask was more than likely introduced to the continent by Crusaders, who kidnapped skilled weavers from across the Byzantine empire and brought them to Italy.
Early damask fabrics were woven in silk, but as the weaving technique spread across the world, materials like linen, flax, and cotton were also used. Europe’s earliest damask patterns featured natural motifs, like flowers and fruit. Come the Renaissance, these patterns became more elaborate, incorporating more design-driven motifs like scrollwork. Many of the patterns that arose from this era are what we still associate with damask fabrics today.
After the invention of the Jacquard loom, damask became a somewhat accessible fabric pattern for clothing, wall hangings, and draperies; though it was not so cheap that it could be considered affordable to the average person, it was no longer the providence of royalty and nobility, and became popular with wealthy merchants, industrialists, and the upper echelons of the emerging middle class.
In the early 20th century, damask’s popularity expanded past the world of textiles, becoming popular with print designers. Damask-style designs began showing up on manufactured goods of all types.
How Damask Is Used Today
Thanks to computerized jacquard looms and printing techniques, damask fabrics and designs are cheap to produce, though they retain some of their elegant, old-world feel. Damask prints can be found in fashion, but primarily, it’s most popular in home décor. As a woven fabric, damask is commonly used in drapery, upholstery, and sturdy linens like tablecloths and comforters. As a printed pattern, damask is a popular choice for rugs and carpeted runners, as the complexity of a darker damask makes dirt and stains less noticeable.