Geological and geophysical evidence suggests that some crustal faults are weak compared to laboratory measurements of frictional strength. Explanations for fault weakness include the presence of weak minerals, high fluid pressures within the fault core and dynamic processes such as normal stress reduction, acoustic fluidization or extreme weakening at high slip velocity. Dynamic weakening mechanisms can explain some observations; however, creep and aseismic slip are thought to occur on weak faults, and quasi-static weakening mechanisms are required to initiate frictional slip on mis-oriented faults, at high angles to the tectonic stress field. Moreover, the maintenance of high fluid pressures requires specialized conditions and weak mineral phases are not present in sufficient abundance to satisfy weak fault models, so weak faults remain largely unexplained. Here we provide laboratory evidence for a brittle, frictional weakening mechanism based on common fault zone fabrics. We report on the frictional strength of intact fault rocks sheared in their in situ geometry. Samples with well-developed foliation are extremely weak compared to their powdered equivalents. Micro- and nano-structural studies show that frictional sliding occurs along very fine-grained foliations composed of phyllosilicates (talc and smectite). When the same rocks are powdered, frictional strength is high, consistent with cataclastic processes. Our data show that fault weakness can occur in cases where weak mineral phases constitute only a small percentage of the total fault rock and that low friction results from slip on a network of weak phyllosilicate-rich surfaces that define the rock fabric. The widespread documentation of foliated fault rocks along mature faults in different tectonic settings and from many different protoliths suggests that this mechanism could be a viable explanation for fault weakening in the brittle crust.