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What is Henrietta Cloth?

Mary McMahon
Updated Feb 16, 2024
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Henrietta cloth is a type of fine woolen fabric which was often used to make women's dresses and gowns until the early 20th century, when it was supplanted by other materials, including synthetics. You may occasionally see Henrietta referenced in Victorian mourning guides, because it was deemed to be an appropriately somber fabric choice for recently widowed women, and it was also worn on more festive occasions, like winter weddings. As a general rule, Henrietta cloth tended to be rather expensive, restricting its ownership to the upper classes.

This fabric is named for Henrietta Maria, the French consort of Charles I of England, who lived during the 1600s. The fabric is typically made in a twill weave, which means that it has subtle parallel diagonal ribs. This weave is particularly sturdy, and it can be used to create a variety of effects in fabric, since it is difficult to pull out of shape. Classic Henrietta cloth is black, although it can come in a variety of colors.

Most typically, Henrietta cloth has a faint luster to it, which may be enhanced by special treatment of the fabric. In order to be considered true Henrietta cloth, the fabric must be made from wool, which is typically finely combed to achieve the desired weight and luster. As a result of the fine combing and special treatment, the wool typically turns out extremely soft, making Henrietta cloth almost like cashmere, a far cry from the scratchy, coarse texture many people associate with wool.

This fabric is not generally deemed to be appropriate for men, and it was sometimes not recommended for older women, as well, because it could be deemed too flashy with its extreme softness and luster. Many widows wore Henrietta cloth because it could be made to look very stylish while remaining plain, and the distinctive look and drape of the fabric suggested that a widow was both wealthy and stylish, even in her grief.

It can be a bit of a challenge to find this material these days. It is certainly possible to find vintage dresses and gowns made from Henrietta cloth, and it is sometimes possible to obtain old bolts of material, which should be inspected carefully for signs of decay. Most fabric manufacturers do not manufacture this particular style of wool today, however; you may want to ask a fabric specialty store if you have a specific need for Henrietta cloth in particular.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WiseGeek researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By lovealot — On Oct 29, 2011

One question - the article says that this fabric was worn in dresses made for a widow, which I can understand. But most of the fabric was made in black and dresses made out of this fabric were worn to winter weddings. It seems a strange color to wear to a wedding. Was black the accepted color for women to wear to weddings?

This must have been a comfortable cloth to wear. It was combed to a nice light weight, it felt very soft, and it probably fit the curves of a woman very nicely.

By B707 — On Oct 28, 2011

Henrietta cloth seems like it is a very beautiful fabric. It's too bad that they don't make it anymore. I can just picture the diagonal lines and the luster of a garment made out of this cloth.

It's amazing that it was made and worn from the 1600s way until the 20th century. Since it was expensive, I wonder how many garments were eaten by moths. Their closets were probably be filled with moth balls.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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