If you love athleisurewear, chances are you own at least one piece made with french terry. This lush fabric features a series of loops with a softer, cozier side, which you wear against your body. It’s typically made from cotton, but sometimes a bit of spandex, polyester, or rayon is mixed in to give french terry a little more stretch.
French terry is commonly used for joggers, shorts, and sweatshirts. It’s the perfect fabric to throw on to hit the gym or pop by the store and run a few errands. But where did this breathable and lightweight fabric come from? How did it gain popularity and end up in our closets?
In pre-industrial France, terrycloth was born. The word is derived from the French verb “tirer,” which means to pull. The fabric is created when weavers use two warp threads rather than one. They pull one thread through to create a “dense weft” or formed loops on either side of the fabric.
If you’re having trouble imagining what this looks like, grab one of your bath towels. Cotton bath towels are traditionally made of terrycloth. Initially, the French produced terrycloth from silk; however, as cotton gained popularity, that became the go-to choice in terrycloth production. By 1850 Samuel Holt had invented the terrycloth knitting machine, which revolutionized the production of this iconic fabric.
French Terry vs. Terrycloth
French terry is the wearable version of terrycloth and is made with the same basic principles. The difference is that, unlike terrycloth, which has formed loops on both sides of the fabric, french terry is smooth on the outside and soft on the inside. French terry is moisture-wicking but less absorbent than terrycloth. That is why terrycloth is ideal for drying off after a bath, and french terry is better suited for throwing on for a morning run.
French terry began gaining popularity about a hundred years after the industrialization of terrycloth. It first popped up in France and was worn by wealthy beachgoers on the French Riviera in the 1970s. Men wore chic french terry t-shirts with the fuzzy side facing out. The light and breathable fabric made it the perfect top for affluent men to sport if they weren’t swimming too much.
The 1980s and the Rise of the Athletic Wear
In the 80s, the fitness craze that had been gaining popularity since the late 60s was starting to boom. French terry became the go-to material for sweatpants, joggers, and sweatshirts. Flipping the fabric’s looped, or piled side, to the garment’s interior created a sweat-absorbing effect.
Rocky’s iconic look when he runs up and down the stairs in a tracksuit is made from french terry. As the material gained popularity, designers used it in various other casual clothing items like tank tops and skirts. Hip-hop artists took the tracksuit from the gym to the stage, making it a staple in pop-culture apparel.
The Early 2000s and The Juicy Couture Tracksuit
If you were alive during the early 2000s, you knew the Juicy Couture Tracksuit was the epitome of it-girl chic. Juicy Couture’s fitted design brought a new level of sex appeal to a classic style.
J-Lo, Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan, and all the stars of the age had their photo snapped by paparazzi sporting this look while casually bopping around LA or New York.
Obviously, this meant everyone had to have a signature suit with Juicy bedazzled on their booty. A french terry tracksuit was the perfect causal fit to throw on to watch a football game or swing by the store. It slowly filtered down into ready-to-wear brands bringing french terry into the new millennium.
French Terry Today
Celebrities continue to sport this soft, breathable fabric in unique ways. Billie Eilish favors oversized and baggy french terry style pants and sweatshirts. She says this gives her the confidence to make her shows about her music rather than her body. Other artists like Rhiana have worn chic french terry multi-piece suits that show a little more skin. Ariana Grande loves styling a trendy oversized hoodie as a mini-dress with over-the-knee boots.
French terry isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. It provides a casual and comfortable material that can be styled ultra femme a la Juicy Couture or baggy and masculine. It’s the perfect mid-weight fabric for when it’s just a little cool outside, but you don’t want to get too hot.
This summer, the resort wear look of the 70s featuring fuzzy piles on the garment’s exterior is making a comeback. Try out a french terry bucket hat for a day by the pool. Throw a french terry maxi dress over your swimsuit and head to the beach. Wherever you go, french terry will help you curate an effortlessly chic sportswear look.