The fabric of the privileged, to wear and as home decoration; velvet is also very versatile. Take your velvet in devore, crushed, velveteen, embossed, or hammered – whatever, all of them say luxury.
A sensual fabric then, with an exclusive worldwide history;
Chinese born: Proto – velvet, a very fine pile fabric, is thought to have originated in China during the Qin (c. 221-206 B.C.) and the Han (206 B.C – 23 A.D) dynasties. These fabrics were typically woven from silk, referred to in Chinese as quirong jin or rongquan jin and used as a trimming.
Egyptian raised: It is widely believed that velvet came to the Western world through Baghdad by Kashmiri merchants around 809 A.D. But it was in Egypt that it’s production flourished. During the early Middle Ages (the Mamluk Sultanate era, 1250-1517 A.D.) Cairo was a hub of textile crafting. The technique to create it, however, was so complex and time-consuming it was very expensive to make, a luxury fabric then only available to the very rich or the very royal.
Italian Tweenager: From the 12th to 18th centuries Italy became the foremost producer of velvet. Many Italian cities (first Lucca and later Florence, Genoa, Venice and Milan) were involved in developing it’s craftmanship, and then supplying the material to all of Europe.
The velvet trade was highly skilled and regulated. After serving apprenticeships of up to seven or eight years, the thread dyers, metal thread makers, and the velvet weavers themselves could then join their associated professional guild. The quality of the threads and the dyes and the final products were all carefully controlled by these professional organizations, as well as by local law.
The Renaissance (1400-1600) was a high point for velvet production, particularly the intricately patterned velvets typically associated with the time. Renaissance velvets were even more opulent, often woven from silk and threads of gold and silver. Royalty, the Church, and wealthy families wishing for customized textiles, such as fabrics bearing their coat of arms were prepared to pay handsomely for velvet. And it was extremely popular with the aristocracy as a luxury fabric on furniture, upholstery, curtains, – even wallpaper – and clothing.
Dutch Adolescent: Thanks to the Industrial Revolution velvet production became mechanized, easier and faster to produce. And then variations began to appear. In the early 1900s the silk yarn, which was most often used for velvets, became scarce, manufacturers turned to other materials, like linen, cotton and rayon. The Dutch managed to produce a new velvet, using a single yarn in cotton, which gave the product more lustre. The association with luxury still stuck however, and velvet was still favored by the upper classes. During the 1920’s, evening gowns and shawls were frequently cut from velvet, often the devore version. And then it became associated with the dandies.
American Youth: Velvet arguably came of age in 1970s, now mass produced and affordable, it perfectly fit with the hippy-glam vibe of the decade. Velvet became a symbol of decadence and defiance; the questioning of social mores, manners and protocol made mainstream by bands like The Velvet Underground (who spoke in no uncertain terms of sexual deviancy and drug addiction) and Jimi Hendrix. Then in the 1980’s and 90’s crushed velvet and devore became the thing and both were worn by the cultural icons of the time.
Multi-Cultural Middle Age: Velvet virtually disappeared during the stripped-back years of the noughties but it has undergone something of a renaissance in recent years. Nowadays it’s become fashionable in the home and the wardrobe. Crushed velvet is particularly popular as fashion and interior designers offer a classic or innovative take on the fabric; from soft, drapey velvets in sweet pastels to stiff, structured fabrics in strong colors such as bottle green or navy.
African Elder: The Democratic Republic of the Congo (formerly Zaire) has produced one of the most unique varieties of velvet; Kuba Square’ or ‘Kasai Velvet’ for 400 years. Made by the Bakuba people, (a cluster of about 16 Bantu-speaking groups in southeastern Congo), it is considered a highly precious item. The process of making Kuba cloth is extremely time-consuming.
Made of raffia palm leaves, which are flexible and strong, these are usually collected from the forests by men, then cut and dried. Women then colour and process them; ideally, as tradition dictates, only pregnant women will weave the distinctive geometric pattern. The resulting unique ‘fabric’ is used as currency or given as a gift to visiting tribal chiefs, newly-married couples or grieving families. It’s said the unique patterns have inspired many artists, including Mattisse and Picasso.
Today in a country often associated with war, famine and abuse, this finely crafted handmade product, has become a symbol of heritage and hope.
Featured image: Armani (2013)