Understand The Canvas Fabric

May 19, 2018 · 6 min read
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Image from *Me*

We all know the importance of materials in the conception of art. For a long time, I have grown a strong interest in the way art is created and the material and tools that goes into *The process* of creating such engaging and spiritual assets. I recently went at the SSENSE store to buy a gift for my sister’s birthday and stumbled upon a Maison Kitsuné canvas tote bag. The canvas used for the bag was great and made the printed artwork pop out very well. Or maybe it was the quality of the paint who knows? I didn’t buy it unfortunately but I brought home some interrogation on why this material was used for totes, shoes and and also for painting surfaces. I did a little bit of research and here’s what I found.

What is canvas anyway?

First, let’s understand what we are talking about. Canvas is a type of fabric obtained by tightly weaving material, mostly cotton and linen. But this definition has not been that precise forever since the word canvas has come to signify any type of durable simply woven natural fabrics. Canvas differs from other fabrics by the weaving method. Like said above it is simply woven not twill woven like denim for example.

Different sorts of canvas

There are different forms of canvas. Those differences are seen mainly in the fabric used for weaving and the chemical used for added capabilities.

Canvas Basics (Simple Weave)

Simple weave means that each string goes under, then over the next perpendicular string; it is the simplest and tightest possible weave. The simple weave not only means that canvas is cheap and easy to make, but that it dries quickly, which is important for a fabric that is often used and stored outdoors. It is also easy to oil (to make it temporally waterproof), and easy to remove the oil when it is no longer necessary.

Cotton and Linen canvas

Linen is made from fibers of the flax plant. Linen is harder to work with than cotton which make it harder to size for clothing, and harder to stretch over a frame but the finished product lasts longer. Linen can also be worked up into a wider variety of thread than cotton can. This means that there is a wider selection of linen canvases in terms of smoothness and roughness than cotton canvases. The great advantage of cotton over linen is that cotton is significantly cheaper.

Duck Canvas

Duck is the heaviest grade of cotton canvas. It is typically made with twice as much fiber going in one direction as in the other direction. It is graded by numbers that run from 1 to 12; the higher numbers are for the lighter grades. The grades are determined by the number of ounces in a 36-by-22-inch patch. Grade 1 (18 ounce) is the heaviest grade, and is used for cots and hammocks. Grade 5 (14 ounce) is used for heavy work clothes, and Grade 12 (7 ounce) is used for light clothing like windbreakers.

Art Canvas

Before painting on canvas became popular, artists painted on wood. The earliest examples of canvas paintings are found in the 14th century, but it really became popular in the 15th century. The canvas is usually stretched over a wooden frame and prepared with a coating of gesso, a mixture of chalk and gypsum.

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Image from http://collections.rmg.co.uk/collections/objects/12497.html

The original usage of canvas

In earlier times, hemp was popularly used to make canvas. Hemp is thought to be the oldest fiber-yielding plant. People in China were making cloth out of hemp fiber around 3,000 B.C. Hemp fiber has great strength and makes good ropes and cordage. By 1500 B.C., the natives of India were weaving cotton into fabrics. The Saracens and Moors brought cotton from North Africa to Europe in the eight century. ​In Barcelona and Venice, cotton was made into cloth for the sails of ships. The cotton canvas was quickly adapted by boat builders throughout Europe. Modern sails are made out of synthetic materials generally known as sailcloth.

Today usage of canvas

Due to its durability and many attributes that can be added to the material. Canvas still remains an important material in art production. A canvas can be subjected to unhealthy usage such as humidity, scratches etc. It is also time resistant and can be used a lot in veiling or covering other products. The use of correct synthetic materials can also provide an excellent weather-resistant canvas fabric. This has made it an ideal choice for architectural, industrial applications.

In Painting

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Image from http://unsafeart.com/kaws/

Canvas color retention quality is one of the best among woven fabrics. This makes the canvas the ultimate choice for painting. Many artists for years has used the surface as a painting platform for its durability and ability to sustain chemical treatments.

Here is a video of Alex Katz painting on canvas

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Image from https://leprix.com/shop/louis-vuitton/travel/vintage-louis-vuitton-brown-monogram-canvas-leather-keepall-50-duffel-bag

In Fashion

One of the most well known canvas if not the most recognizable is the Louis Vuitton Damier pattern. The Louis Vuitton canvas bag is made with a layer of cotton canvas and is treated with a plastic derivative called PVC (polyvinylchloride). Such giant brands using this fabric for their most iconic items show what canvas can achieve in term of quality and reliance and its multitude facet in usage.

In the fashion industry Canvas is also used for manufacturing shoes and Backpacks. Notable items that most if all of us have probably worn used it, such as Chuck Taylor and Vans.

History of chuck Taylor

Canvas has always been known as one of the sturdiest weaves. In 1892 the US Rubber Company had an idea to make, arguably, the world’s first pair of sneakers. The process used to make rubber shoe soles had already been invented for use on croquet shoes, so all that was left for them to do was pair the rubber sole with something that would breath and flex, unlike leather. Cotton canvas was the final choice. The densely woven fabric would be tough enough to withstand the abuse, while the breathability and absorbency of the cotton made it the perfect thing for vigorous activity. They named the shoes Keds, and by 1917 they were in mass production. That same year another iconic canvas shoe was born when Marquis Converse’s basketball shoe started to make waves, it blew up a few years later when it was endorsed by a basketball star named Charles Taylor.

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Image from Google

Canvas shoes soon transitioned away from being specific to sports. Cotton canvas eventually became the go-to for casual footwear for brands like Nike & Air Jordan.


After writing this, I realized I could make this a series and write other articles on subjects like these, in which we try to understand the element used in creation of various objects of our daily lives. Feedbacks are really important to make this a great series, so feel free to add suggestions in the comment section. Thanks for your time!

Bonus: While searching for information I found this video about an Australian women who started painting at the age of 78. And by the time of her death she left behind a collection of more than 3000 unique artworks and is now considered one of the biggest female Australian artist.


Textile design : principles, advances and applications, edited by A. Briggs-Goode and K. Townsend.Oxford ; Philadelphia : Woodhead Pub. ; [Manchester] : The Textile Institute 2011

Art & textiles : fabric as material and concept in modern art from Klimt to the present, edited by Markus Brüderlin ; with contributions by Hartmut Böhme [et onze autres] ; translations, Amy J. Klement, Camilla R. Nielsen, Miranda Robbins, Michael Wolfson. Ostfildern, Germany : Hatje Cantz [2013]


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