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Corduroy’s Tale: From Kings’ Cloth to Vintage Wear

In the days of yore, the artisans of regal fabrics wove by hand, the beautiful material called Corde-du-Roi, known as the “Cloth of Kings.” Many months of painstaking labor were spent in the weaving and processing of Corde-du-Roi, and only those of royal birth or of great wealth could afford its purchase. The French name of Corde-du-Roi is known to us in English-speaking countries as “Corduroy,” and by the advancement of mechanical processes here portrayed in part, this fine fabric is obtainable in this day and age in many colors, weaves, and patterns at a nominal cost. 

King and royal disciple both wearing corduroy garments in the style of medieval times.

Function and Durability of Corduroy

Corduroy was invented because it serves a very definite and practical purpose. It provides a fabric that has a deep “cushion of pile” to serve as a protection for the cloth itself, which is the basic foundation of the construction. In the rough and tumble play of kids, and the out-of-door rough usage by adults, this “cushion of pile” is rubbed and scraped continuously without its underlying, basic fabric suffering any wear or tear. Furthermore, it acts as a blanket to produce warmth and resistance to the elements.

Cushion of pile illustrated in the corduroy after loops are cut.
Cushion of pile illustrated in the corduroy after loops are cut.

Just as car tires build the cushion or tread of a tire to prolong its life, the “cushion of pile” in Corduroy is scientifically constructed to protect the basic fabric and to prolong the wear and good appearance of Corduroy garments.

Raw Material and Weaving Process

Factory with corduroy weaving machines from around 1935.
Factory with corduroy weaving machines from around 1935

From selected fields in the South where long-fiber cotton is raised, the raw material for corduroy is grown. The important feature of the weaving of Corduroy is the large loop, the basic fabric, woven underneath the series of loops. The end of each loop is bound, under and over the warp-ends, so that it is held tightly, and when the loop is cut in the next process, the end is still firmly held to form the fast pile, thickset weave.

Loop Cutting and Fabric Formation

Corduroy Loops zoomed in.
Illustration of Corduroy Loops zoomed in

A slender guide with two prongs extending backward is inserted under each loop and over the base fabric and when these loops are filled with guides from one edge of the cloth to the other—Circular knives are placed above them, and as this cloth passes through the cutting machine, the knives revolve rapidly and cut the loops cleanly through the center without touching the base fabric. IL

Scouring and Drying Process

Next in the process comes a thorough scouring, and many times this piece of material goes back and forth through clear and swirling water which tends to unravel and soften the cut, filling threads. 

On large trucks, this great length of wet fabric is wheeled to the large drying machine where it slowly passes over and under forty-three great rolls of steam-heated steel, and as it finally emerges, large wooden arms swing the dry fabric back and forth into even folds for easier handling. When the material is woven it can be 39 ½” to 40″ wide, and during the various wet processes through which the cloth passes, the cloth gradually shrinks to only 36″ between selvages. This final width of the Corduroy will be retained even though garments made of the Corduroy are washed regularly. 

Brushing Process for Corduroy

Now for the brushing machines where thickly bristled, strong brushes held in position by heavy straps of leather, make some hundred strokes a minute, back and forth, constantly brushing the cut strands of those “loops” into well-formed cords of “Pile” which suggests the name – Corduroy. This brushing process, sometimes back and forth, sometimes only one way, accomplishes many purposes. 

  • It completes the unraveling of the yarn. 
  • It straightens out the fibres. 
  • It forms the rib. 
  • It begins to give the cloth the “finished” look and feel which make it such a luxurious and desirable fabric. 

Singeing Techniques

Illustration of what corduroy looks like after singeing
Illustration of what corduroy looks like after singeing

Then to the great singeing machines and here, the piece is fed into careful and fast contact with a red-hot circular drum at exactly the right pressure to evenly singe each row of loops now made into ribs of pile fibers. Rather dangerous, this process seems, but experience and skill permit its use without the expectant conflagration. The singeing process has evened off the length of the fibers and burned away the lint and ragged edges that were left in the unraveling processes of scouring and brushing. Furthermore, this singeing sets the pile. The action of the great heat on the cotton fibers tends to give them the strength and character to stand upright and to perform their future part of serving as a protective “cushion of pile.”

Dyeing Process for Corduroy

The contemporary dyeing process for corduroy involves a series of advanced and environmentally conscious steps. Initially, the fabric undergoes preparation to ensure it is clean and ready for even dye absorption. For lighter shades, the fabric is bleached to provide a uniform base. Dyeing is then carried out using a variety of dyes like reactive, vat, and direct dyes, chosen for their color richness and fastness qualities. Automation and computer-controlled dyeing machines enable precise management of dye concentration, temperature, and timing, ensuring consistency and quality.

Post-dyeing, the fabric is treated with various finishing processes. This includes washing to remove excess dye, followed by drying in industrial dryers. The corduroy is then subjected to brushing, which raises its characteristic pile, lending it texture and softness. Modern techniques also incorporate sustainable practices, such as using eco-friendly dyes and reducing water consumption, along with stringent quality control measures throughout the dyeing process. These advancements ensure the production of high-quality, colorfast, and environmentally responsible corduroy fabrics.

Final Touches in Corduroy Production

After the dyeing process, corduroy fabric undergoes crucial post-dyeing final touches to enhance its texture and appearance. The fabric is passed through a napping machine, where large rollers equipped with millions of fine, sharp-edged wires, arranged in alternating directions, gently scratch and roughen the inner lining of the corduroy. This process creates a soft, woolly feel on the underside of the fabric, adding to its comfort and warmth. The napping not only enhances the tactile quality of the corduroy but also contributes to its overall thickness and insulation, making it more suitable for colder climates and adding to its aesthetic and functional appeal.

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