Poplin, sometimes called tabinet, is a type of medium- to heavy-weight, durable fabric that is now most frequently made of cotton or a cotton/polyester blend. The name derives from the French papelaine, a fabric normally made with silk, that used in the 1400s. Until about the 20th century, different types of poplin were often used to make dresses suitable for winter wear. It was also a popular upholstery fabric.
References to this fabric can be found in many books, most particularly Little Women. Joe and Meg are invited to a ball early in the book and must wear their best dresses made of poplin. Both are conscious that the dresses are not really dressy enough for a dance, and Meg longs instead for a silk dress.
The dresses in Little Women were likely made partly of silk, but silk fabrics used for dressier purposes were often distinguished from poplin. The difference lies primarily in the weave, which produces a heavier fabric, and in the fact the silk would have been combined in weaving with a worsted wool or cotton yarn.
Poplin in its early days was made by using a silk warp weave and a worsted yarn weft. The result is a sturdy fabric that has noticeable ridges. Today, poplin is popular in shirts and pants and is often a combination of softer and heavier grades of cotton. Because of its manufacturing process, it tends not to wrinkle easily, and is somewhat water and stain resistant. Both men and women’s pants and shirts can be made of this fabric, and it often feels soft and exhibits a little shine.
Although Meg might have mourned not having a silk dress for the ball, men’s shirts made with cotton poplin are often considered the highest quality, and they can be quite expensive. The higher quality the fabric, especially when it is 100% cotton, the greater the price. The expense is usually considered worth it, since the fabric tends to wear well and is easy care.
Poplin pants are usually made in the cotton khaki style. Prices can vary, and again, the difference may reflect the quality of materials used. Fabric made of a cotton/polyester blend tends to be less expensive.