Wedding dresses stand up to a lot of pressure, literally and figuratively. They have to help you look gorgeous and shape your body well… while being comfortable and breathable for the weather… withstand rain and sweat and not stain easily… and not break the bank.
Whether you are buying a wedding dress off the rack, or having one custom made, whether you are having a summer or a winter wedding, and whatever your budget for the dress, it helps to understand what to expect from a dress made of different fabrics.
First, let’s focus on the fibers – the actual yarns that are weaved into a continuous expanse of fabric. Fibers matter because they bring comfort. We’ll talk about silk and artificial silk-like fibers – rayon / modal and polyester. We’ll talk about other natural fibers – linen and cotton. We’ll note some other common synthetic fabrics. Because we live in the 21st century, and so we (should) know better, let’s also talk about ecological sustainability aspects of fabrics.
Ultimately, though, there are no right and wrong answers. Like with many other things in life, no fabric is perfect, they come in different price points, but all of them make beautiful wedding dresses. Quality silks are most expensive, high-end linens and cotton moderately expensive, and artificial fibers relatively affordable. After you compare the different options, you can feel good about your choice of fabric regardless of what it is.
We have to start with the ‘queen of fibers’ – silk. “Silk has such a seductive, luxurious, and desirable fiber that its price has, at times, exceeded that of gold”. Silk fiber is light and soft, smooth and incredibly strong. It is stronger than steel, and was used to make body armour and bulletproof vests centuries ago. Using different weaving methods, silk can look like almost anything: weightless or heavy, liquid-like flowy or stiff and sculptural. Everyone knows that silk has a beautiful natural sheen. Silk is hypoallergenic and comfortable and cool to the touch in warm weather.
As we said, silk is not perfect. In sweltering heat, silk is actually not as comfortable as some other fibers. It does not absorb water and wick it away from the body, so that it stays on the body. Silk fabric loses its beauty when it’s wet – it puckers and starts to look rough around the area of sweat stains (try wearing a silk blouse on a hot day and see for yourself). That’s why it’s supposed to be dry cleaned. It is also prone to wrinkling and retaining body odours.
You may not know this – in fact, you probably don’t want to know this… But generally (with some exceptions) silk moth larvae are actually killed in the process of harvesting the yarns. Boiled alive. Sorry. Each cocoon has about 1.5km of filament, but it takes about 12 pounds of cocoons to generate 1 pound of raw silk. Furthermore, from the sustainability and agricultural perspective, silk cultivation requires a lot of land – 1 hectare of mulberry trees yield 88 pounds of raw silk.
Artificial silk – rayon and modal.
Artificial silk made from wood pulp goes by a number of names – the most popular among those are rayon, viscose, and modal. It looks and feels like silk, is breathable and actually better at absorbing moisture than real silk. Although it is an artificial fiber, because it is made of natural wood, it is biodegradable. There are some concerns with this fabric that we will address a little later, but of the three types listed, modal is the ‘second-generation’ rayon, superior to the other kinds.
These types of artificial silk are prone to stretching and stains from sweat and body oils. Rayon and viscose should be dry cleaned (the fabric weakens when wet), but modal can be washed. From the sustainability perspective, on the one hand, wood pulp artificial silk is great because its production uses wood that otherwise would go to waste, but on the other hand, chemicals used to produce some types of artificial silk are polluting the environment. Modal, being the new and improved artificial silk, does not cause pollution of the environment.
Synthetic silk from polyester.
Synthetic silk made from polyester is one of the cheapest silk alternatives suitable for wedding dresses. It can be engineered to be almost as soft and smooth as real silk. It can be processed to outshine real silk, kind of like moissanite can outshine a real diamond (see our primer on affordable engagement rings, by the way). Wrinkle-free, strong and durable, machine washable, and resistant to stains, stretch and shrinkage, polyester has a lot of what natural fibers lack.
Conversely, and unfortunately, polyester may lack the benefits of natural fibers. If you have a summer wedding, know what you are getting yourself into. While some types of polyester are more breathable than others, in general, it does not breathe, does not absorb moisture, tends to stick to the skin, and can be quite uncomfortable in hot weather. It may also cause irritation to the skin.
Someone has observed that similar shades of white in silk and polyester look different on photographs: silk looks more creamy white, and polyester looks a little bluish white. You can see comparison pictures here. It has to do with the reflective qualities of the two fabrics. The difference, however, is not at all obvious to the untrained eye, and if it bothers you, photographic editing software can of course deal with this quite easily.
From the sustainability standpoint, polyester and other synthetic materials are often unfairly prejudged. Yes, they are made from petroleum and are not biodegradable, and yes, some chemicals escape in the processing – but it requires absolutely no agricultural land to grow and very little water to process, thus freeing resources for food production.
For hot summer day, you can never go wrong with linen. It has unparalleled cooling and absorbent properties – it can absorb up to 20% of its weight in moisture, while still feeling dry, and it evaporates quickly. Linen breathes, stands away from the body and does not trap air (so it will not feel warm). It is resistant to stains and stretch. High-end linen looks silky and has a polished sheen – not as pronounced as silk, but still luxurious looking. It is washable – in fact, the more it is worn and washed, the softer and smoother it becomes. For those who love to consume local, Canada is one of main producers of linen worldwide, although the best linen still comes from Ireland and Italy.
On the other hand, linen is very prone to wrinkling and shrinking (synthetic blends or special treatments can reduce those tendencies). It does not drape quite like silk does – it is more fresh and crisp.
Flax is, hands down, more earth-friendly than other common natural fibers. Unlike silk, it is plant-based and vegan-friendly. Unlike cotton, it requires less water and energy to grow and process. It does not require plantation-style agriculture, growing best in rotation with other crops. This allows the soil to recover its nutrients and reduces the need for fertilizers and pesticides. Linen works well with natural dyes (such as sun-bleaching), reducing chemical pollution. Linen is more durable than cotton – linen shrouds and curtains have been well preserved in the tombs of Egyptian pharaohs to these days. Being a natural fiber, it is biodegradable. Linen manufacture is very efficient, using up the by-products to manufacture fuel and oil, thus educing waste.
Did you realize that the humble, democratic cotton can be a serious contender as a fabric for your wedding dress? High-end cotton from Egypt and US is silky smooth and fine, and can lend itself to sheer as well as opaque looks. Cotton naturally has a matte luster, is soft and comfortable to the touch, naturally absorbent, trans-seasonal, and machine-washable.
Cupro cotton is ultra-fine and extremely silk-like, cool to the touch, hypoallergenic and anti-static. It is often used for linings.
From the ecological standpoint, cotton cultivation leads to depleted agricultural land and requires sizable amounts of pesticides and insecticides or genetic modification. It also requires far more water to grow than any other fabric. Organic cotton addresses some of those concerns. Exploitation of cotton farmers and government subsidies is another issue, but various fair trade initiatives have been implemented to address it.
Other synthetic fabrics commonly used for wedding dresses.
Acetate. Lustrous, smooth and soft, wrinkle-free, hypoallergenic, and breathable, it is a perfect summer wedding dress fabric. It is often used to produce ‘watermark’ mesh effects called moire. Similar to modal, it is made of regenerated wood, so it is washable, biodegradable and compostable. It is not a warm fabric, so avoid it for a winter wedding.
Polyamide (also called nylon). Lustrous and soft, it resists wrinkles and stains. Although it is a synthetic fabric like polyester, it is breathable, absorbs water reasonably well, and dries up quickly. It is washable (it actually cannot be dry-cleaned). One downside that will affect the look and feel of the fabric is that it produces static.
Research for this article is based on the book Fabric for Fashion by Clive Hallett and Amanda Johnston.