Design, Photography, & Fashion

What Is Canvas? Understanding How Canvas Is Made and the Difference Between Canvas and Duck

Written by MasterClass

May 17, 2019 • 3 min read

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Canvas, known for its strength and versatility, is a textile with several practical uses that apply to people from painters to handbag designers and sailors.

What Is Canvas?

Canvas is a plain-woven fabric typically made out of cotton and, to a lesser extent, linen. Canvas fabric is known for being durable, sturdy, and heavy duty. By blending cotton with synthetic fibers, canvas can become water resistant or even waterproof, making it a great outdoor fabric.


Where Does the Word Canvas Come From?

Canvas was originally woven with hemp instead of cotton, and the word canvas ultimately derives from the latin word “cannabis”, which means “made of hemp.” People in ancient India began weaving cotton into canvas around 1500 B.C. As cotton plants and canvas fabric were traded around the world, cotton canvas production spread to Europe in the eighth century.

How Is Canvas Made?

Canvas is made by tightly weaving yarns together in a plain weave, which is a very basic textile weave. The warp (vertical) threads are held steady on the loom, while the weft threads cross over and under each warp. The fibers used in canvas are thick, usually medium to heavy weight threads. The thread weight and the plain-weave technique separates canvas from other cotton fabrics.

Most cotton canvas is made with two-ply yarns, or two single yarns twisted together, which adds weight, texture, and creates an even thickness throughout the fabric. Canvas used for art is single-warp canvas, which uses a single-ply yarn.

9 Ways to Use Canvas

Canvas is an incredibly versatile fabric, and it has many uses from fashion to sailing to home decor. Here are some of its most popular functions:

  1. Sails. Sails on boats were originally made from canvas though today, most sails are made out of a synthetic sailcloth.
  2. Tents. Heavy-duty canvas is great for building shelters, and it is a popular material for tents and other camping supplies.
  3. Bags. Canvas is a popular material for use in bags, from tote bags to backpacks. Canvas is durable, water-resistant, making canvas bags great for everyday use.
  4. Shoes. Canvas is both flexible and durable, making it great for footwear. Converse sneakers and Tom’s espadrilles are both examples of canvas shoes.
  5. Painting. Canvas stretched over a wooden frame is a fantastic painting surface. Canvas became popular for painting in the 15th and 16th centuries.
  6. Backdrops. Lightweight canvas is popular with photographers for use as backdrops because it is light and easy to carry.
  7. Coverings. Many industries, including the military and construction, use waterproof canvas fabric as a cover for everything from boats to doorways.
  8. Clothing. Jackets and outdoor wear are often made from canvas. The durable and water-resistant qualities made it great for camping and sailing gear as well.
  9. Furniture. Canvas is used to upholster furniture because its strength and durability lends itself well to repeated use.

What Is the Difference Between Duck and Canvas?

Canvas comes in two forms: plain canvas and duck canvas. Duck canvas gets its name from the Dutch word, doek, which means cloth, and duck fabric is a heavy-duty cotton fabric. Duck cloth is a type of canvas, and duck and canvas can be used for similar projects, depending on the weight and strength of textile needed. Duck is usually even more sturdy and holds shape better than standard canvas.

Both canvas and duck are plain-woven fabrics, but there are a few differences between them:

  • Duck is more tightly woven than standard canvas.
  • Duck also has a classification system, established in the 1920s. Duck is graded on a scale of 1 to 12, with 12 being the lightest fabric and 1 being the heaviest.
  • Duck is made only from cotton, hence it is sometimes referred to as cotton duck canvas or cotton duck fabric.

Learn more about fabrics and fashion design in Marc Jacobs’s MasterClass.