What Is Canvas Made Of And How Easy Is It To Work With?

Canvas is everywhere. Heavy duty canvas fabric is a traditional staple of outerwear and outdoors equipment, while lighter weight versions are popular for clothing and bags. Versatile, hard-wearing, and incredibly easy to work with, it’s no wonder canvas fabric has become part of the fabric of our lives.

What is Canvas Fabric Made of?

The name “canvas” refers to a variety of durable, heavyweight, natural woven fabrics.

Historically, canvas was made from hemp fibers. Today, you’ll find canvas made from not just hemp, but also cotton or flax fibers. Today’s manufacturers may also add a polyvinyl chloride (PVC) coating for weather proofing. You may also find waxed canvas fabric.

Canvas is a woven fabric that’s produced using a plain weave, like linen, which is portrayed in the image below:

thread crossing pattern plain weave fabric

There are numerous variations on the arrangement of fibers within the weave. These variations affect the weight and refinement of different canvas fabrics. We’ll discuss these in greater detail below.

How is Canvas Fabric Used?

Unsurprisingly, a material that is easy to make, easy to work with, sustainable, and incredibly durable will find myriad uses. Here are just a few ways we use canvas.

Clothing

womens waxed canvas jacket

Natural, sustainable cotton canvas fabric is also breathable and weather-resistant. Although it might not be the first fabric that springs to mind when you think of clothing, it excels in certain kinds of apparel, particularly hats and outerwear.

Waxed canvas coats and jackets are the original waterproofs, and they’re a staple of country life today. Canvas shirts and trousers also make durable, comfortable, and even fashionable choices for workwear and outdoor casual wear.

Canvas is also a fashionable choice for belts, hats, and watch bands.

Shoes

keds canvas shoes

Before synthetic materials became widespread in shoe construction, canvas was the go-to alternative to leather. Because it’s so durable, you’ll still find it in use today in shoes and boots. 

Timeless Keds sneakers are made from canvas. But canvas isn’t just for delicate types of shoes. It’s rugged enough for outdoors boots, as well. 

Bags and Luggage

canvas handbag

From duffel bags to handbags to backpacks, heavy-duty canvas is an excellent choice for hauling your stuff.

Upholstery

canvas furniture

Canvas upholstery fabric is durable and fashionable. Because cotton canvas takes dye well, you’ll find it in a variety of colors and patterns. Waxed or coated outdoor canvas fabric makes an excellent choice for patio furniture.

Sports Equipment

canvas martial arts uniform

Canvas fabric, especially waterproof canvas fabric, has long been the first choice for a wide variety of sports equipment, including:

  • Punching bags
  • Martial arts uniforms
  • Canoes
  • Tents
  • Gear bags
  • Vehicle covers
  • Tarpaulins
  • Sails

And more.

Painting Surfaces

art canvas

Since the 17th century, canvas has been the favorite painting surface for painters worldwide. Today, many of us will call any stretched fabric painting surface a “canvas,” regardless of what the fabric actually is.

The Pros and Cons of Canvas

We love canvas. But that doesn’t mean it’s perfect for every application. Here are the ups and downs of it.

Advantages of Canvas

What’s so great about canvas? Here are a few things.

Durable

Canvas’s tight weave makes it incredibly hard-wearing. This, in turn, makes canvas an outstanding material for tents, bags, shoes, upholstery, and other heavy duty applications.

Easy to Work With

Sewing canvas is easy, thanks to its tight weave. The weave makes canvas fray resistant and means that it will hold its shape well.

Natural

Canvas is made from natural fibers. This means that it’s more sustainable and less polluting than synthetic alternatives.

Breathable

Canvas’s natural fiber content, along with its plain weave, makes it a breathable fabric.

Water and Wind Resistant

At the same time, canvas’s tight weave makes it naturally wind-resistant. In addition, when it gets wet, the fibers swell in order to seal the fabric against the moisture. Manufacturers can augment this natural water resistance with a variety of coatings, including wax and polyvinyl chloride.

Takes and Retains Dye Well

Canvas cotton fabric takes and retains color very well (linen canvas to a lesser degree). This means your cotton canvas items will stay looking sharp for a long time to come.

Disadvantages of Canvas

Some of the qualities that make canvas so excellent for some applications may make it unsuitable for others. 

Rough

Heavier canvas, especially double-fill duck, has a very rough texture. This texture is generally too rough for clothing applications, save for outerwear.

Heavy and Bulky

Canvas can also be very heavy and bulky. Although canvas tents, for example, provide excellent protection against the elements, they’re a lot more difficult to pack in and out. This is why synthetic tents are so much more popular.

Doesn’t Drape Well

Canvas fabric tends to be stiff. This means it holds its shape well — a bit too well to provide an attractive drape.

Prone to Shrinkage

Like many natural fiber fabrics, canvas is prone to shrinking. In fact, canvas can shrink between 10 and 15 percent.

Canvas vs. Duck: What’s the Difference?

You might hear the two words used interchangeably. There is a difference, though. Granted, that difference can be subtle.

Duck is a type of cotton canvas fabric. “Cotton duck” is an industry term. Most consumers would call it simply cotton canvas. Duck tends to be a medium weight fabric, while other types of canvas are medium to heavy weight fabrics.

There are two different kinds of duck: single fill and double fill. The distinction comes down to the thread count.

Single fill duck has one weft strand for every warp strand. This makes it finer than double fill duck. Double fill duck has two weft strands for every warp. This makes it thicker, heavier, and more textured.

Manufacturers grade duck two ways. They identify single-fill duck in terms of weight, that is, ounces per square yard. Double-fill duck is graded on a numerical scale from one to 12, with #1 being the heaviest and #12 being the lightest weight duck.

Single fill duck lends itself to lighter projects such as:

  • Table cloths
  • Seat covers
  • Outerwear
  • Uniforms

Double fill duck is useful for applications like:

  • Tarps 
  • Floor cloths
  • Tents
  • Boat covers
  • Painting surfaces

There are many different kinds of canvas duck, including:

Army Cotton Duck Cloth

This is a versatile double filled type of duck commonly used for tents and similar applications.

Belting Cotton Duck

As the name suggests, this thick variety of cotton duck is used in the manufacture of machinery belts. It’s made from plied, filled yarn. 

Hose Cotton Duck

Before synthetic materials became the most popular material for garden hoses, manufacturers used this thick, waterproof type of canvas.

Boot Cotton Duck

This tough fabric is made from plied, filled yarn. Both water resistant and pliable, it’s excellent for making the uppers of boots.

Biscuit Cotton Duck

This is an ultra-heavyweight cotton duck with a variety of uses, including curtains and upholstery.

Chafer Cotton Duck

Chafer cotton duck is a lightweight duck canvas that’s great for handbags, mattress covers, and linings.

Enameling Cotton Duck

This is a delicate duck canvas. It comes in single fill and double fill varieties. You’ll find it in a range of products, from book binding to aprons and footwear, and even some industrial applications.

Flat Cotton Duck

Flat cotton duck also comes in single and double fill varieties. Most commonly you’ll find it in paint canvases, but it has a wide variety of uses.

Shelter Tent Cotton Duck

As the name suggests, this extremely thick, durable duck appears in tent construction. Double weft and warp strands make it super tough, and an excellent choice for vehicle covers and bedrolls, too.

Paper Felt Cotton Duck

This type of duck has a very specific application: for conveyor aprons in paper-making equipment.

Press Cotton Duck

Press cotton duck is a heavyweight duck made with a loose, even weave. It’s incredibly strong, as it should be for its traditional use: straining cider in a cider press.

How Easy is Canvas to Sew? 

canvas luggage

Do you want to know how to sew canvas? Working with canvas isn’t hard…in theory. 

Canvas’s tight weave means that the fabric holds its shape well, unlike some other types of fabric (ahem, chiffon). You won’t have to use a stabilizer for cutting or sewing, either. And canvas is also delightfully fray-resistant.

However, working with a heavier fabric like canvas requires some special techniques and equipment. 

A Heavy Duty Sewing Machine

There’s a difference between a regular sewing machine and a machine designed for sewing heavy fabrics. Your everyday sewing machine will probably do just fine with single layers of lightweight canvas. However, if you’re working with thicker canvas or multiple layers, then you may need a stronger machine.

A heavy duty sewing machine has a sturdy metal internal frame. It may even have all-metal construction. Some may also have an external servo motor to power through heavy work. 

You don’t need a heavy-duty sewing machine for most projects. But if you’re going to be sewing sails, tents, boat covers, or similar items, it’s definitely something to consider.

Pretreat

Most natural fabrics are subject to shrinkage. So pre-wash your canvas before sewing to avoid problems.

Choose the Right Thread

A heavy fabric needs a heavyweight thread. Choose a size 40 heavy duty thread. Also, always match natural fabrics with natural fiber threads.

The Needle Matters

The correct needle can mean the difference between success and failure for your project. When sewing canvas, use a denim-gauge needle, that is, a needle size 90/16 or 100/16.

Stitching

Sew with a straight stitch of length 3.0 to 3.5.

Getting Off on the Right Foot

A heavier-weight overlock sewing foot can handle thick fabrics like denim with ease.

Waterproofing Canvas Fabric

Canvas is naturally water-resistant. In addition, some manufacturers will augment that water resistance with wax, polyvinyl chloride, or other coatings.

But what if you want to waterproof your canvas fabric yourself?

There are numerous high quality fabric waterproofing sprays on the market. Purchase one that’s specifically made for canvas and rated for marine waterproofing. Be sure to test your spray on a small piece of fabric first, and always follow the manufacturer’s instructions.

Versatile, Durable Canvas

The term “canvas” covers a variety of fabrics with different weights, textures, and uses. What unites them is this: they are all made from cotton, hemp or flax fibers, and woven in a plain weave.

Canvas fabrics are durable, breathable, and wind and water resistant. Most types hold dye well, and they’re easy to work with.

You’ll find canvas in a huge number of consumer and industrial products, including clothing, shoes, outerwear, sports equipment, and industrial belts.

Do you have a favorite project using canvas? We’d love to hear about it!

sewing with canvas

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