Brocade is a non-stretch woven fabric which features a repeated pattern or motif which is “floated” above the warp threads in a satin-style weave. The pattern can be felt by hand, as it’s raised above the background. The intention is to make those patterns appear as if they’ve been embroidered on to the fabric.
The fiber composition can range from the ridiculously expensive to extremely affordable. At the expensive end are silk brocades using precious metal threads. When the history books talked about “cloth of gold” they weren’t being figurative! Us peons usually make do with brocades made from cotton/polyester blends or, if we’ve got a lot of money in the budget, silk brocades.
Brocades come in all sorts of patterns and colors. Asian motifs are popular. You can’t swing a cat in a main street fabric store without hitting a few bolts of plum-blossom brocade. It’s a very popular fabric among steampunk cosplayers, and is great for various fantasy looks, too. Generally it’s a mid-weight fabric and can be used for many garment types – from corsets and cinchers to pajamas and dresses.
Because the most affordable brocades are usually made with artificial fibers, you want to exercise the usual cautions. A medium iron, and let it air-dry whenever possible. However, the stuff will totally accept being thrown into a washing machine on cold or – at most – mid-warm and the dyes are usually pretty colorfast. Some seamsters don’t bother pre-washing brocade, but I would. The one exception would be a silk brocade, which I would take to the dry cleaners.
The biggest challenges with brocade are when you cut it and when you sew it.
When cutting, be sure to use the “with nap” layout so that the motif(s) on the fabric all run in the same direction.
The cut edges of most brocades fray very easily. All those floated fibers mean they’re just waiting for the moment to spring free and wave about, willy-nilly. You can counter this a variety of ways. as mentioned in How to Handle Fray-Happy Fabrics.
When you sew brocade, use a regular or sharp needle and lengthen your stitches, slightly. If the fabric is under too much stress when it goes through the machine, you’ll get what my friend calls “railroading” – visible lines where the fibers have parted around the entry point of the needle. They look like railway sleepers across your seam. Some of that will “shake out” as the garment is worn, but it’s not guaranteed. Using a sharp needle and longer stitches will minimize it in the first place.