The seasonal shift prompts a move away from breezy cotton and linen pieces towards weightier wares. Characterised by its soft handle and lustrous sheen, velvet is a popular finish come autumn – in both wardrobe and home, it adds comfort and dimension to simple designs. Velvet might call to mind 1970s bohemia, but the plush material dates further back, all the way to Ancient Egypt circa 2000BC.
The term “velvet” refers to the woven structure of the fabric. What differentiates it from other weaves is its slightly raised surface. To create this signature short pile, a special loom closely interlaces two sets of yarn, drawing warps over rods to create loops. These rods are then removed, and the loops are cut, resulting in a dense pile. The distinctive sheen is caused by the even distribution of the yarns.
Viewed through a historical lens, the perception of velvet as a luxury fabric is unsurprising. Early Arabic literature makes reference to the use of kutuf, thought to be the Arabic word for velvet, at the court of the Umayyad Caliph, Hisham ibn Abd al-Malik in Damascus, Syria. Robert Bertram Serjeant wrote, “Hisham used to be fond of robes and carpets …. In his days there were made, striped silk and velvets.” Later evidence suggests that Chinese dynasties including the Qin and the Western Han wore fabric that resembled modern velvet, featuring untrimmed pile weaves.
As the centuries marched on and Europeans tapped into the rich appearance of velvet, it was traded along the Silk Road and soon associated with wealth and the Church. One of the earliest written mentions of velvet in Europe dates from 1311 AD, referring to red velvet items owned by Pope Clement, which he sourced from the north Italian city of Lucca. Then came the Renaissance, and with it, a peak in velvet production – particularly in Venice, Florence and Genoa. Its unique texture was captured in hundreds of oil paintings, depicting Italian nobility draped in emerald green, midnight blue and ruby red velvet robes.
While silk thread is the traditional choice, and contributes to velvet’s long-held association with opulence, alternative fibres determine the price and feel of the finished fabric. With the Industrial Revolution, a material that was once reserved for royalty became more affordable and more widely available. Manufacturers utilised economical fibres, such as cotton, weaving it into glossy velvet at a faster pace and in greater quantities. Since then, the demand for velvet has continued to grow, and you can now expect to find both natural and synthetic versions. But what was true then is true now: not all velvet is created equal.
TOAST uses organic velvet, woven from 100% cotton, to create sumptuous hand-stitched quilts and blankets, as well as seat and sofa cushions. Realised in sea grass, soft mole and turmeric shades, the durable fabric wears gracefully, maintaining its lustre but taking on a subtle “crushed” effect over time.
Words by Bébhinn Campbell.