This section is from the "A Complete Dictionary of Dry Goods" book, by George S. Cole. Also available from Amazon: A complete dictionary of dry goods and history of silk, cotton, linen, wool and other fibrous substances,: Including a full explanation of the modern processes ... together with various useful tables.
Broadcloth. A fine "woolen" cloth, commonly black, with a smooth, glossy surface, principally used in making men's garments, so called from its breadth which is usually 60 inches. Broadcloth is woven of the finest grades of felting wools. When taken from the loom it does not present that polished appearance which is its distinctive feature as seen in the shops of tailors. In the loom it is rough and dull-colored, with the threads which compose the warp and woof plainly showing. All broadcloths are subject to the action of fulling or felting with the result that the wool-hairs of the weft and those of the warp become mutually entangled to such an extent that these cloths never unravel when cut by the tailor, and no hemming of a garment is required. Twelve hours in the fulling mill will reduce a piece of cloth two-fifths in breadth and one-third of its length. This shortening and narrowing result is the effect of its felting in the fulling mill during the operations of scouring and washing, every fibre of the wool of which the cloth is made having clung to its immediate neighbors (both warp and weft) and with the spirit of true friendship, they remain forever in each other's embrace, the cloth being transformed from a loose to a solid fabric.
Upon every fibre of wool are minute scales, so very minute, indeed, that it requires the aid of a powerful microscope to enable the beholder to discern them, and even then but faintly. These scales, which cover every filament of wool, are thin and pointed, overlapping each other quite similar to the scales of a fish or the shingles upon a house. On a single filament of merino wool, as many as 2400 barbed scales, like teeth, projecting from the center of the stem have been counted in the space of one inch. On Saxony wool there are 2,700 while other wools fall to 1,600, 1,700 and 1,900, and none have been found to have so few as 1,000 to the inch.
The cause of that mysterious and curious operation called felting, is the existence of these scales. Of all the fibres only wool can be felted, because none of the other fibres possess these minute scales. Till lately the best posted manufacturers and the investigating philosopher were equally at a loss to explain upon what principle the felting effect was produced. Take, for instance, a handful of wet wool; squeeze and press it, work it a little with the hand, and then observe the effect; for immediately upon pressing it a certain locomotion is thereby conferred upon every fibre of the handful, which is increased by every turn of position that is given. The rolling and pressing change the position of each fibre. A friction is produced upon every member composing the mass; a footing, as it were, is obtained from the scales of each, and the wool being all bent or curled, a progressive motion goes on, interlacing each other in their travels, resulting in a compact, dense body, which challenges the patience and perse-verence to undo. Every hair has been traveling in its own individual direction, boring, warping, grasping, holding and twisting amongst its fellows like a collection of live worms. This is "felting." After the felting process is carried to the desired extent, the cloth is slightly napped, and sheared to produce an even smooth surface; and wetted, steamed, ironed and pressed many times to make the polished surface. "Steaming" consists in passing hot live steam through the rolled piece, and alternating with cold water, just as a barber acts when shampooing a customer. This fastens the bloom and nap, and preserves the beautiful peach-like appearance of the finish. After being carefully dried it is sheared and cropped, so that the top hair or down is taken off, and the under growth of down made a regular length.
The finest piece of broadcloth which ever left a loom was manufactured at the woolen mills of Vassalboro, Maine. It was first exhibited at the World's Fair in London in 1851, and next at the Centennial in 1876, being pronounced by the judges in that line of goods as surpassing anything of the kind ever displayed; in fact there is no record of the manufacture of any broadcloth superior in either texture or finish, and the only reason, as assigned, why these superior fabrics have not been made on a commercial scale, is because of their extremely high price.
Broadcloth is also the name given to a wide fabric made of "woolen" yarn, with a slightly napped face, exclusively used for ladies' dresses. Its origin is derived from the material used for men's wear, from which it differs chiefly in weight and finish. Broadcloth and ladies' cloth are terms often used to signify the same fabric, and, while the two are practically the same cloth, there is a difference between them. Broadcloth has a twilled back, and is of heavier weight and closer shorn than ladies' cloth, while ladies' cloth is a plain weave, with a heavier nap. [See Wool, Woolens]