What do Napoleon Bonaparte and a 90s rock band have in common?
From runways to department stores, museums to living rooms, if you look closely it seems like velvet took silently, and softly, over the world. Dresses, jackets, trousers, shoes, night gowns, even underwear, couture and fast fashion have embraced the soft and mysterious fabric. Velvet has not only inspired fashion designers, but also artists from the Renaissance, Bauhaus, Victorian Era, and almost everyone in the in between. However, a few centuries ago, velvet as a symbol of status, wealth, and power was only worn by members of the monarchy and was used to adorn the most lavish thrones. If you have any doubts, take a look at portraits of Elizabeth I or Napoleon Bonaparte, and what are the sitters wearing? Intricate and elaborated gowns made out of beautiful and luxurious velvet. This unique fabric that attracts light like no other, not only captivated suitors, but also artists who aimed to capture through their brushstrokes the fascinating elegance and mysterious appearance of velvet. As Napoleon said when addressing the Senate in 1814,
“ What is the throne? A bit of gilded wood covered with velvet.”
In the most basic terms, velvet is described as a “luxury fabric with a short dense pile.” But what does this mean? And what are the traditions and history carried in this splendid fabric? Velvet has been more than a decorative element, for some, it is understood as an economical phenomenon, that transformed societies by generating enormous amounts of wealth, enough to pay armies, create banks, and affect international economies.
Velvet is produced by creating loops in an extra set of warp yarns by inserting narrow rods during weaving, as shown in the following diagram:
This means that there are three threads that make up velvet; the warp, the weft, and the supplementary third that gives it its soft texture – it can be made of natural and synthetic fibers. Even though fabrics with piles have been manufactured for a long time, which could be woven anywhere in almost any regular loom, velvet, unlike others, required high levels of craftsmanship and complex looms. Throughout centuries and cultures, different methods of production have been developed. Nowadays the most common one is the face-to-face method, where the third thread continues across another cloth woven at the same time on the loom that then in sliced horizontally by a fast-moving blade.
Velvet weaving is nothing but simple, and its techniques and constant improvements are an example of the mastery and knowledge of velvet weavers and subsequently the Industrial Revolution. Even Leonardo da Vinci, spent some time and energy trying to understand the machines that created intricate velvet patterns.
During the Renaissance, and velvet’s golden age, the production was not only time consuming, but also required large quantities of thread, more than any other flat textile. In addition, since velvet was solely woven with silk, its price skyrocketed and ateliers required a commissioner who could supply good quality silk and maintain the highly-skilled master weavers. Over the course of the centuries, 16 different types of velvet were created, some of which were exclusive to the city they were produced or the master weaver that created them. The most common ones during the 16th century were voided velvet, which has a pattern in the pile that only appears in selected areas:
Ciselé velvet, which contains both cut and uncut areas:
And Utretch velvet, on which the pattern is is embossed by etched, heated rollers. Due to the thickness of this velvet, it was mostly used for furniture and upholstery:
In a way, velvet also carries the history and tradition of silk, especially the legendary Silk Road, highlighting the importance of trading and exposure to other cultures. Today, velvet is made from a mixture of silk and viscose of from any other materials like cotton or linen, thus reducing its price and making it accessible to fast fashion and couture consumers. That’s why today we can find affordable garments made from velvet.
Origins and Golden Age
As a fabric and tradition, velvet has been around for many centuries and scholars still debate about its place of origin. For many years it was believed that velvet was one of the few fabrics originated in the Western World. A few years ago, however, this theory was put into question after fragments of silk textiles decorated with loops obtained by warp dating back to the Han Dynasty (206–220 B.C.) were found during an archeological excavation in China. Nonetheless, the debate continues regarding the origin of velvet, and some historians have even suggested that its development was almost simultaneous in China, Persia, and Italian cities between the 12th and 13th centuries. The first documented mention of velvet dates back to 14th-century Europe, where velvet enjoyed great popularity especially during the Renaissance. Documents of this period provide lengthly accounts on how velvet merchants generated immense wealth and fortunes all thanks to the fabric’s popularity.
Velvet’s luxurious, heavy, and sumptuous quality captivated monarchs around the European continent as it displays the suitors status and power, at a time when appearances, social codifications, and hierarchies played an important role. Dresses, tapestries, or any other type of belongings and garments made of velvet were so valuable that they were listed in wills and inheritances. At the time, Italy was leading the velvet production, boosting the economy in the capital cities of Florence, Genoa, and Venice. Spain was also a competitor in the velvet industry. As the demand for the opulent fabric increased, weavers began specializing solely on velvet in cities that were concentrated in its production, like Venice, Florence, and Genoa in Italy, and later Lyon and Tours in France. Velvet production became so important for each city’s economy that between them they were considered rivals. Velvet weavers were not allowed to leave the cities without permission, and in the case they went to a rival city they could face severe punishment. As an example of the secrecy and mystery carried in velvet production: Gaspard Grégoire, French master weaver and designer created beautifully detailed portraits on velvet, but instead of painting in the woven velvet, Grégoire would paint the silk thread, resulting in a laborious technique and process. However, Grégoire kept his technique so secretive that he didn’t tell a single person how he created the portraits, and before dying, he burnt all the documents he had that described the technique, leaving his warp-painting a mystery for eternity.
The French Revolution (1789–99) had a negative impact on the silk-weaving industry and thus the velvet industry as it was related to the lavish and irresponsible spending of the French monarchy. In addition, the growing trend of simplified garments and furniture, made velvet production experience a massive decrease and many textiles artisans were left without work throughout Europe. When Napoleon I (1769–1821) became the ruler of France, in efforts to revive silk-related economies particularly in Lyon, inspired by the economical success that velvet production brought to the Medici family in Florence, he commissioned new furnishings for the redecoration of the imperial residences, which introduced the style that is now known as the Empire. The Lyonnais period and the progress initiated in Napoleon’s time, placed the weaving industry into technological modernity, especially through the inventions of Claude Dangon and Joseph Marie Jacquard.
Colors & Motifs
During the 15th-century velvet production, one of the most popular motifs was the so-called “pomegranate motif.” This motif, characterized by pomegranates enclosed in great lobed petals, was introduced to the Italian Renaissance design lexicon through trade with the Ottoman Empire, and it was popularized by noble families and their courts, as pomegranates symbolized eternity, fertility, and resurrection. Its recognition and popularity remained for a long time as its symbology could always be applied to, and appropriate for, the royalty as well as sacred spaces like churches. Also a repetitive and large motif didn’t extend the production time as a smaller motif would have.
In addition, certain colors were only allowed to be worn by monarchy members, or members of the church; all of this adding to the unspoken codes and hierarchies of the 15th century.
Velvet after the Industrial Revolution
With the technological innovations of the late 18th-century and 19th-century, such as the Jacquard loom in 1801, velvet production radically changed becoming mechanized, allowing faster production as well as the use of less expensive materials; thus making velvet affordable and acquirable to a broader range of public. However, the fabric kept being related to a higher status and a symbol of luxury through its mystical appearance and sensory experience. The first mechanical looms to weave double velvet started appearing at the end of the 18th century, with the patent of this revolutionary invention registered by a Frenchman in 1808. Subsequently, more patents were registered improving the initial design, until 1858 Samuel Holt patented a new machine that didn’t require Jacquard’s inventions to produce velvet and to cut the two pieces with a mechanical system. This is what we know today as the face-to-face method. During the 19th century, velvet still enjoyed great popularity and there was an increased demand for huge markets, causing more and more technological advancements and companies were founded to solely produce machinery and looms for the weaving of velvet. Throughout Europe, several companies were established or founded dedicated to the production of velvet; The Beridot Company was established in Lyon; while in Krefeld, Germany, the Thonner and the Gusken companies were founded; and in Belgium the Van de Viele was already well known. In the following years, velvet production expanded across the European continent, to cities that were not previously known for textile production, and establishing itself in the New Continent thanks to Gertrude Rapp in 1840.
In general terms, velvet has never gone out of style or disappeared from the market, as any other textile, it moves in waves. Throughout the 20th century, velvet remained present in women’s fashion, in the 1920s it was used for evening gowns and capes, as well as bags and shoes. The way it was employed in fashion, carried the legacy of the Renaissance, as an elegant and sober fabric. However in the 70s, velvet saw a great change, with the Culture Revolution and the Hippie Movement, designers like Emilio Pucci began creating garments using funky, brightly-colored velvet, with geometric patterns. In the 90s, velvet as the fabric to achieve the darkest black look, appealed rock bands to create that grunge look that even made it to runways and red carpets, and even inspired the name of a specific band.
In the past few years, there has been a velvet revival, as part of a 90s revival, and in the most recent fashion weeks more and more designers are including velvet in their collections, offering new interpretations to the mysterious fabric that for some reason never feels old.
Velvet outside Fashion
Even though velvet is widely known and used in fashion, throughout the years, artists have began using the fabric as their artistic medium, creating another way that velvet can be understood and employed. For example, in the case of Travis Boyer, instead of using canvas for his paintings, Boyer uses velvet as the painting surface that will be stained with dyes.
There is even a Velvet painting trend that became popular in America during the 70s. Using black velvet, the artists create bright portraits of celebrities or recognized personalities. Considered kitsch by many members of the art world, this style enjoys great popularity in rural America and there is even a museum in Los Angeles dedicated exclusively to display over 3,000 black velvet paintings, to discover this one of a kind place check out the tour video here.
But velvet, as any other fabric, has also been used by textile artists, who have introduced abstraction, color blocks, and other design concepts from the 20th century into this long lasting tradition and history.
Since velvet has been present in different cultures and developed in different traditions, it is very hard to tell one history that encompasses all its aspects. This article aims to offer a general overview of velvet’s fascinating history, and inspire you to learn more about it and to think about textiles as more than materials but also as carriers and generators of history. Velvet has not only survived the passage of time, but has also been able to adapt to cultural and technological changes. Undoubtedly, this fabric continues to captivate people from all over the world.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art Online Collection contains a great array of velvets from different periods and countries, and you can zoom in the picture and see with great detail the fabrics. If you are interested in seeing the evolution and adaptation of velvet into fashion throughout the 20th century, the Museum at FIT Online Collection offers a great overview of the transformation of style.
Also the recently opened The Tatter Textile Library has great books on the subject of velvet as well as other textiles and traditions, a library to visit if you are close to TAC’s Brooklyn location!
Art Institute of Chicago: http://www.artic.edu/exhibition/modern-velvet-sense-luxury-age-industry
Fabrizio De Marinis, “Velvet: History, Techniques, Fashion.” Idea Books, 1994. Available at The Metropolitan Museum Library and The Tatter Textile Library.
Melinda Watt, “Renaissance Velvet Tradition.” The Metropolitan Museum of Art: Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. August 2011, July 2017. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/velv/hd_velv.htm
——, “Textile Production in Europe, Silk: 1600–1800.” The Metropolitan Museum of Art: Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. October 2003, July 2017. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/txt_s/hd_txt_s.htm
Musée de Tissus, Lyon: http://www.mtmad.fr/fr/Pages/default.aspx