Contrary to popular belief, the term ‘velvet’ does not refer to a fiber, such as cotton or wool, and instead actually has more to do with fabric structure, which in this case is woven. Velvet is characterized by elevated loops or tufts of yarn known as its ‘pile’, with the pile providing the distinctive and well-known surface that everyone loves to touch and feel.
Being short and dense, this pile also gives a soft shine to velvet that is particularly appealing under certain lighting conditions, and gives it visual appeal in addition to its tactile charm. The actual fabric used to create velvet has traditionally been silk, although in modern times it is also created from a wide variety of other fibers like rayon. Not simply a treasure for modern fabric lovers, velvet has enjoyed immense popularity throughout its history, as can be seen from the following discussion.
Probably the oldest samples of velvet fabric woven from silk date as far back as 2000 BC from Cairo, Egypt, which seems to have been a production hub at that time. It was available to only the very wealthy, because the manufacture of velvet was such a time-consuming and meticulous process that it was extremely costly, and therefore the exclusive domain of royalty and the ultra-rich. Trading initiatives seem to have introduced velvet to Iraq and China later, but still in the time before Christ, and in these regions it remained exclusive in its availability as well.
Velvet comes to Europe
The first European country to become involved in the velvet market was Italy, and some Italian cities became tremendously successful and wealthy from their involvement in the velvet trade. Italy remained the largest European producer of velvet for roughly 600 years, from the 12th through the 18th centuries, and supplied all other countries in Europe. The Golden Age of velvet production was centered around the Renaissance years from 1400 to 1600, when church officials and nobles clamored to purchase their own luxurious velvet creations.
After the Industrial Revolution
By the time of the Industrial Revolution, the making of velvet had become much easier and much faster, because of the mechanized methods employed, and the ability to mass-produce it. Thus, for the first time in its history, velvet became accessible to the masses rather than the exclusive privilege of the wealthy, and its natural appeal found a whole new class of appreciative buyers. However, the centuries-old notion that velvet was a fabric of special elegance and luxury has never really faded away, and it is considered to this day to be a fabric elevated above all others.
Velvet is now used in many applications other than the luxurious robes popular throughout its history, and has been incorporated into many home design ideas such as, curtains, drapes, home theater backdrops, furniture, and other examples of home decor. While the fabric has lost none of its elegance or feeling of luxury, pricing has settled into an area accessible to everyone, and velvet is offered at affordable cost by many of today’s finest fabric houses.