While writing my piece about the best waxed canvas backpacks, I was reminded that there are a ton of ways to weave cotton and that the average guy’s understanding of different types of weaves and names for fabrics could probably use a polish.
So, to get a better understanding of this somewhat complex subject, I did a quick write up about canvas vs. twill so that you can decide which is best for your own needs.
What Is Canvas?
Canvas is a tightly woven fabric made from cotton, flax, hemp, or viscose (a process for making artificial silk). But usually we’re talking about canvas when we talk about cotton.
It’s plain-woven, meaning that the warp and weft — the lengthwise or warp yarns through which the transverse weft yarns are drawn through over and under — overlap at ninety-degree angles forming squares of thread. Canvas uses a much thicker thread than other cotton fabrics, especially those that make contact with your skin. Naturally, most folks desire a softer feeling on their skin when it comes to cotton apparel, at the sacrifice of toughness.
The combo of the plain weave and thick thread produces a strong fabric that’s resistant to tears, snagging, and abrasion. So,canvas works well for bags, shoes, and work clothes and is less often used for jackets — not unlined jackets, anyway.
It’s also wind-blocking, which is why it works so well for both sails and jackets. Canvas differs from denim, which uses a twill weave — a more intricate process we’ll get to in a bit.
Plain Canvas vs. Duck Canvas
Generally speaking, canvas comes in two forms: duck canvas, and plain canvas.
Duck canvas has nothing to do with aquatic birds, as it comes from the Dutch word, doek, meaning cloth. Duck fabric is typically cotton but like plain canvas it could be linen, hemp, or another fiber. Also like plain canvas, it comes in a variety of weights or thicknesses.
Duck canvas differs from plain canvas in that it has a tighter weave, a more standardized classification system for thicknesses, and is more often associated as a cotton product.
So at the end of the day, they are basically the same thing, but with different names — duck just has a tighter weave.
Then there’s waxed canvas, one of those historical innovations that make the heritage clothes scene so wonderfully nerdy. Sailors noticed that wet canvas performs better than dry canvas as it caught more wind, but the rainwater added too much weight. They started using oils and paints to try to better capture the wind without adding a lot of water weight, until that classic yellow jacket so commonly associated with fishermen was invented by a New Zealander named Edward Le Roy in 1898. He used a combination of linseed oil and wax that produced a more breathable, pliable fabric than the other waterproof fabrics available.
That idea of adding paraffin wax to canvas to improve water resistance wasn’t extended to the clothes industry until the 1930s. Even though Karl von Reichenbach invented paraffin wax tech about 100 years before Francis Webster Ltd, the Scottish sailmaking company got around to producing paraffin waxed cotton exclusively for the New Zealand market in 1936. Other methods for waterproofing fabrics were too rigid and uncomfortable, but paraffin wax worked really well at creating a somewhat breathable, pliable fabric that caught wind and rain both.
It also looks really cool on a jacket or a backpack.
[Related: The 7 Best Waxed Canvas Jackets for Men]
3 Common Canvas Products
Waxed canvas is a classic heritage product, but plain canvas is also found in tons of products. Duck canvas comes up a lot in your heritage outdoor wear as well. So here’s a quick overview of some cool products we’ve found.
Waxed Canvas Bags
Canvas is a popular material for use in backpacks and other bags. The benefits of canvas—durability and water-resistance— naturally make it a classic material for carrying our stuff around in.
[Related: The Best Waxed Canvas Backpacks]
The Classic Canvas Shoe
Canvas is relatively inexpensive to manufacture and it’s pretty flexible and durable, so it’s not uncommon to find in footwear. Converse sneakers and Nothing News are both examples of canvas shoes, although Nothing New’s canvas is made from recycled plastic bottles.
Canvas Outerwear and Clothing
Jackets and outdoor wear are often made from canvas, especially when coated in wax for additional water resistance. Duck canvas is also a common material for workwear trousers, owing to its resistance to snagging and tearing.
What Is Twill?
Twill refers to the type of weave or structure of a fabric. There are three primary types of textile weaves: twill, satin, and plain weaves. Again, canvas is plain weave while twill is a specific type of weave.
Essentially, twill is woven into more complex, textured structures than canvas, which is a simple plain weave. A twill weave can be identified by its diagonal lines called a wale. A common type of weave is the 2/2 twill, with two warp threads crossing every two weft threads.
Twill is very tough. One can imagine that by thinking of the plain weave used for canvas and beefing it up by adding more threads in the warp and/or weft, which will have an effect on the strength. This structure produces a stronger material than the right angles found in canvas’s plain weave.
A Front and a Back
Canvas’s plain weave is reversible in so much that there is no visible difference between the front and back of the fabric, while twill fabrics can have a front and a backside. Of course, the two sides have jargony sounding names like the technical face (the front) and the technical back (the back, duh).
The front of the twill weave has the more visible wale and is usually more durable and more attractive, so it’s the side that most people are used to seeing. One of the reasons that denim is a twill fabric is that the uneven surface of the technical face, with its pronounced wale, hides stains better than a plain-weaved canvas. So twill has this cool combo of being both durable and more stain resistant.
3 Common Twill Products
Twill can be found in super-expensive houndstooth down to common work clothes and flannels.
Raw Denim (All Jeans)
Jeans are probably the most common and popular use of the twill weave. It’s rare to have something that’s both durable and aesthetically-pleasing, but that’s denim for you.
Chinos and Khaki
Yeah, chinos and khaki are a cotton twill and differ from jeans as they are lighter and obviously not dyed with indigo.
Tweed and Houndstooth
I’ve secretly always wanted to be a college professor cum spy or rogue archaeologist, so tweed and houndstooth patterns have long held a power over me. They’re basically made with different colored yarns in a twill weave — tweed is made with wool, not cotton.
As mentioned, twill creates a very durable fabric, which is perfect for outdoor and work clothes. Cotton twill jackets are as common as duck jackets in many work settings.
So there you have it. Twill fabrics are basically plain-weave canvas’s fancier, stronger cousin. Canvas is a simple, durable, and versatile fabric, while twill fabric is more ornate, and durable. Just note that the “more durable” label only applies on an ounce-for-ounce basis: canvas that’s 20 ounces per square yard will be thicker and stronger than 10-ounce denim.