VELVET IN FASHION | ABOUT FABRIC
In this post, I’d like to focus on one of the most glamorous fabrics of all times, Velvet, which has experienced a revival in popularity over the last few years.
Velvet has been used for ages to create some of the most splendid eveningwear imaginable. From royal robes through to the most recent haute-couture dresses, all have utilized velvet fabrics as their main material. Even accessories, such as bags and scarves, have been made from velvet throughout the centuries, proving its unique appeal and versatility.
It’s a trend with strong commercial involvement, whether considered for evening gowns or to add a tactile luxe feel to blooming hot items like the softly tailored tracksuits. Velvet is also a new option for items like the fluid wide-legged trousers or to add fabric interest to modest dress shapes – even sporty blousons.
Velvet is a name of the method of weaving fabric, not the fabric, i.e. silk or cotton. Velvet weave can be made of any fabric.
“Pile” refers to the fibers that stick up from the surface and give velvet its characteristic soft fuzzy surface.
“Nap” refers to the direction that those fibers lie.
If you are still not sure about how fabrics are made of fibers, check this BBC article on fabrics. It explains everything precisely with great illustrations and examples.
Originally velvet has been made of silk. Today much of what they sell as “silk velvet” is a actually a blend of silk and rayon. Velvet made 100% from silk is scarce and may cost several hundreds USD per yard.
Velvet can also be made from fibers such as rayon, viscose, acetate ( easily damaged by moisture and pressure), mohair, linen, wool, and cotton. The composition affects characteristics and price of velvet. E.g., the velvets with synthetic base like rayon are inexpensive.
A small amount of spandex is sometimes added to give the velvet fabric a certain amount of stretch (hence “stretch velvet”).
The base and pile are often made from different fibers. When you are shopping for velvet in a fabric market, pay attention to the tag. Usually, the pile fiber content is listed first and the backing fiber second.
Double-cloth and over-wire methods are two popular ways of creating pile fabrics such as velvet.
Velvet is woven on a special looms as a double cloth. Two fabrics are woven, one above the other, with the extra set of yarns interlacing both fabrics.
The pile yarns (in black) are made with an extra set of warp yarns. They are firmly woven into the structure of a base or ground fabric, made with a different set of yarns (in white), which holds them in position. The two parts are then cut apart to create the pile effect.
After cutting, velvet is sheared to ensure an even length all over the fabric’s surface, and then dyed.
In the over-wire method, the principle is the same – pile should be elevated over ground fabric in order to be cut evenly. When velvet is woven, wires are woven into the cloth as loops. The loops later are cut with a razor blade sliding on top of the tiny wires.
Here you can see loops (uncut yet) and pile (already cut loops) and the ground fabric.
If you want to know about velvet weaving in details check Peggy Osterkamp’s Weaving blog. It’s gold!
There are several distinguished types of velvet used for garment production:
- Silk velvet is one of the most luxurious fabrics ever made. It is soft and smooth to touch and is so shiny that it gives the impression of being wet.
- Devore velvet (burnout) – having a plain background with only part of the velvet on a specific area of the clothing. This is achieved by burning the pile away with chemicals in order to form a pattern.
Silk devore velvet garments became popular in the 60’s and 70’s by performers such as Stevie Nicks who often draped herself in tunics and shawls made from this exotic fabric.
- Crushed velvet – shiny velvet with a textured look that is produced by either pressing the fabric down in different directions or by mechanically twisting the fabric while wet.
- Cotton velvet – a medium to lightweight, without stretch; has a less luxurious look; most durable. This type of velvet is great for making jackets or trousers.
- Velveteen is made from cotton fibers and is heavier than most of the other types. A lot of trousers, suits, and kids wear are made of velveteen.
- Embossed Velvet (Gaufrage) is made by heat-stamping designs on them and used mainly to create patterns especially floral ones.
Check out this amazing tutorial on embossing velvet! 🦉
- Hammered Velvet is similar to crushed velvet to the extent that it is pressed down on the fabric but not fully, so it is semi-crushed. It has a bit of dapple and lustrous appearance.
- Panne velvet panne is made by forcing the pile in a single direction with heavy pressure. Called “velvet”, but often found as a knit*.
*Even though they may look the similar, knits are not true velvets.
- Velour is a cotton fabric used mainly for draperies and upholstery. Its pile is much deeper than that of velveteen and it is heavier. Recently it’s been popular in the production of tracksuits.
- Ciselé – velvet type where the pile uses cut and uncut loops to create a pattern.
- Velvet piles give soft, plush feel.
- Velvet is a durable fabric if properly maintained.
- Its insulating properties make velvet warm.
- Sensitive to pressure marks.
- Has a tendency to crush, flatten, with time*.
- Its pile sheds at the raw edges.
- Easily impaired by stitching mistakes, moisture, pins, heat, and improper ironing.
- Velvet attracts any sorts of hair. Be careful when combining with fluffy materials.
*Velvet tends to change appearance with age or, as some designers say, “tell a story over time”, getting its unique vintage appearance. That’s the charm of the process but has to be considered. (Check Maintenance 👇🏽).
- Silk and rayon velvets and knitted velvets require dry cleaning.
- Some panné and other crushed velvet fabrics can be machine-washed*
- The velvet clothing should always be turned inside out before the cleaning or ironing process.
- Velvet should never be pressed unless you have a specially designed needle board (See below👇🏽).
- Alternatively, use a thick terry towel on top of the velvet to press. When ironing move in the direction of the pile.
- To get creases out of velvet you will need a steamer or a velvet board. Its wire surface allows to erect the pile.
- Keep away from direct sunlight to avoid fading.
- Lightly dry spills with tissue, immediately. NEVER RUB! Gently brush out dried substances.
* Read the manufacturer’s label for recommended care!
IMPORTANT: If you are making clothing with velvet fabric that will require the use of buttons or top stitching, you should follow the instructions on the sewing patterns for any velvet of your choice. Velvet has very specific weave that is different from normal fabrics.
- Sewing machine needles sizes: 60/8-80/12. Sharps and universals based on the fabric weight.
- Thread should be all-purpose cotton, polyester, cotton/polyester blend for a machine and for hand basting silk or unglazed cotton.
- Hand sewing needles sizes: 7-9.
- Sewing machine settings: a stitch length of 2-3mm.
- Sewing machine feet recommended: the roller, zipper and walking foot.
- The layout should be nap, pile down, one layer.
- Marking tools recommended: chalk, clips and tailor tacks.
- Seams recommended are plain, taped, piped and tissue stitched.
- Hems recommended are plain, hand catch-stitched, hand blind-stitch, hand double stitched.
- Seam and hem finishes recommended: single ply, unfinished, pinked, pinked-and-stitched, multi-stitch zigzag, serging, etc.
- Lining is rarely used.
Most often velvet made of the blend of silk and rayon is used for dresses and evening wear with flowing drapery.
At the same time, synthetic velvet produced entirely of acetate or rayon is cheaper and easier to maintain and is often used as a substitute for a silk/rayon blend. This type of velvet is often used for all sorts of soft garments. They resist fading, but don’t have the same color depth as natural velvet fabrics.
For both interior and clothing, cotton velvet is the most popular. Skirts, blazers, vests and coats – all can be created from cotton velvet. It’s also used for costumes. The durability of cotton velvet also makes it perfect for upholstery.
Most popular colors: burgundy, cherry, royal blue, emerald, black, dijon, strawberry daiquiri and pearly winter white.
Velvet has, in fact, originated as early as 2000 BC in Egypt, as the Egyptians were documented utilizing a technique similar to the one used in velvet production nowadays. A production center for ages, they introduced velvet to the nobility and began the history of this luxurious fabric. While linen velvets with looped pile were first produced at that time in Egypt, the technique of creating silk velvet is a relatively new development. It supposedly originated in China and seems to have been developed by at least the thirteenth century, if not before that.
China has its oldest velvet samples belonging to the period of the Warring States (circa 403 BC). That velvet was made of silk and had an untrimmed pile (so it had loops). More discovered pieces belong to later dynasties, such as Qin (circa 221-206 BC) and Western Han (206 BC-23 AD).
Japanese weavers had long questioned how to make the looped pile on the surface of silk fabrics, a secret that the Chinese had guarded for centuries. Edo-period book describes the way in which this technique eventually arrived in Japan. According to that book, a metal rod was accidentally left in the loop of a velvet textile imported from China into Japan in the middle of 17th century. With this accidental discovery, Japanese weavers finally understood that the raised pile loops were formed with wire rods.
Velvets are used for hanao — the straps on Japanese wooden shoes and bags. Today, silk velvet continues to be woven only by two families in the city of Nagahama, in Shiga Prefecture. Nagahama masters learned the technique of velvet production from Kyoto in the late 17lh century.
As to the origins of velvet, many scholars around the globe have discussed and debated for a long time. It is now a general belief this fabric, originally made of silk, came to Italy for the first time from the Far East, brought by Arab merchants, and was then spread throughout Europe, in turn, by Italian merchants.
Silk velvet made its appeareance in Europe in the 13th century and was brought to perfection during the 15th and 16th centuries. European silk production hubs were Valencia in Spain and Paris in France. Nevertheless, the most dominant velvet workshops were created in Italy.
Many scholars claim that the first European velvets were woven in Palermo, in imitation of the velvets in the east. Others tend to favor the Venetian route since there is documentation from as early as the 9th to 11th centuries of intense trade between Venice and the East.
Lyon became a serious competitor from the 17th century onwards. Bursa, the old capital of the Ottoman Empire, became a silk weaving center as of 1451.
The importance of silk textile production to the development of Italy during the Renaissance period was reflected in the words of one sixteenth-century writer: “The silk craft is a very noble art, worthy of being plied by any true gentleman . . . It is a craft that exalts the rich and helps the poor, and great skills are needed to ply it since it involves an infinitude of operations; no one is to be found who is capable of doing on his own the many tasks that it involves.”
These many tasks could be broken into the following steps
- the cultivation of silkworms;
- the processing of the cocoons to take off the silk filaments;
- the spinning of the thread;
- cleaning, dying, and reeling off the finished silk thread;
- mounting of the loom with the thread produced;
- the weaving;
- presenting the final cloth for quality control and sale.
In addition, goldsmiths created fine silver and gilt-silver threads that were wound around silk thread to create the decorative brocading found on the most luxurious velvets. Before about 1600 there was little distinction between fabrics made for furnishings and dress. Many paintings of the period show velvets with large floral patterns used in different ways. The motif of velvet design that nowadays frequently associated with Renaissance period is “pomegranate pattern” that resembles pomegranate fruit, thistle blossom, or artichokes. Italy was the main source of velvets in Europe. The velvets were exported all over the continent.
The skilled weavers were all members of a professional guild. Members served apprenticeships of as many as 7 or 8 years before being considered an independent professionals. The quality of the threads, the dyes, and the final piece of fabric was carefully controlled by this professional organization, as well as by local law. If the quality of the final textile was regarded inferior, the product had to be destroyed, according to regulations. Moreover, the weaver or weaving company could get a 5-year ban on working for quality fraud.
The quality of the dyes utilized for the threads was so significant that weavers were required to create special selvages or edges to indicate the quality and density of the silk thread used. Merchants traveled the globe looking for the most beautiful shades. They were ready to pay a high price for the reliable dyestuffs, that did not fade with time and exposure to sunlight. Crimson red shades were always popular, followed by bright green and royal blue. Black and white velvet clothing were in fashion, particularly in the 15th century. Only a few fragments of these garments survive, as the processes used to get pitch black and bright white was corrosive to the silk threads. All textile dye colors were naturally produced from plants, minerals or insects.
Guiseppe Verdi demanded only the best velvets for the costumes for the characters in his operas, and the same was true for Rossini and Donizetti. From Caruso to Galeffi to Giuditta Pasta, one and all lavished maniacal attention to the velvety spectacle of the outfits of their operas. And what shall we say then for the long list designers, from Courreges, Rabanne, Marucelli, and De Barentzen?