I was stunned, my mouth fell open, I thought my textile world had seen it all, but this…. This was and is a phenomenon, a work of art of unparalleled precision, sophisticated and millimetred, real art to be framed… and it was actually, framed in a beautiful golden frame measuring 15 by 15 centimetres.
It was an image of a bust of a man in costume, a man of nobility, I suspected. ‘Yes, very nice,’ I thought, ‘this is some kind of print on velvet’. Velvet was a kind of fabric of very high esteem in the late Middle Ages. But that wasn’t what intrigued me really. It was the way this fabric was created that totally overwhelmed me.
Textile museum in Alsace
What am I talking about? Well, in the mid-1970s, I visited a textile museum in Alsace in France. Alright, as a ‘Textile lover’, I have a habit of doing this in order to feed my curiosity and delve into things I don’t know yet. I was walking around this beautiful and well-kept museum with interest and suddenly, a small gold-coloured frame with a picture of a person with an attractive face and dressed in a black suit caught my eye. I moved a little closer to the image in the frame and noticed that it was a print on velvet. That was done more in the past, so thus far this was nothing spectacular.
But… the bust of this gentleman was painted on the ‘pile warp wire’, before it was woven! So on the warp threads before it entered the loom. What is the problem here? The image of the person had to be painted a bit longer on those warp threads and one had to take into account the height of the pile after weaving, you understand? This kind of work is really about getting every millimetre right! Hats off to the man or woman who managed this. Unfortunately, there was no picture of it to be found, but I would recommend, if you are near Alsace, to pop in there. What is certain is that velvet has fascinated me ever since.
A special form of textile
What exactly is velvet? You have to imagine velvet as a special textile form, with a top made of ‘pile’ fabric. By ‘pile’ we mean upright hairs very close together, held in the fabric by an under-weave.
Obviously this is a pretty understated explanation, velvet is more than that. This technique appeared in our regions as early as around 1400. It used to be woven in silk and originated from China, where it was known as ‘Quirong Jin’. It then spread out mainly in Iran, where it is a fabric mostly used as a ‘warm-holder’ during cool nights and for cooling during the day. So we have to look for the origins of velvet in Eastern culture.
The velvet of so many centuries ago had a special look. The colour of the fabric depends on the incidence of light and that was precisely what determined the success of velvet when it found its way to our shores. Who else but Italy turned its hand to this technique? Thus Lucca, Florence, Venice and Genoa became velvet cities par excellence. The latter is still a velvet centre today, just think of ‘Velours de Gênes’.
However, the demand for this luxury product was so great in our countries that Italy could not keep up. It was thus that this technique moved to Bruges in the 16th century, and soon the Bruges variety could compete with the Italian quality. At the time, velvet was much sought after by the upper middle class and was mainly used as clothing, but also as furniture and even wall coverings. In fact, this is currently becoming a trend again, which is not surprising. Velvet on the wall has numerous advantages, it insulates well and improves the acoustics in a room.
Velvet during the Renaissance
Let us first return to the Renaissance for a moment. During this period, velvet was often combined with metal or gold to express the power of luxury and wealth. The biggest consumers included the church and very rich people who wanted to show off their wealth. In red, this furniture fabric was also widely used in theatres.
After many years, the industrial revolution followed and people were looking for an easier and faster production process, which of course diminished its status of wealth and luxury. Nevertheless, velvet remained a high-quality product, it is imprinted in our genes. It had become a product that almost everyone could purchase and it also gave the ‘ordinary’ person a somewhat higher status.
During the Interbellum, velvet faded somewhat into the background and people opted more for silk and brocade flat furnishing fabrics. In the late 1950s and 1960s, however, the product experienced a tremendous revival. Perhaps you remember grandmother’s seat with the indestructible ‘Mohair velour’? In those days, the fabric was released in a number of soft colours, pale light green, dusky pink and camel, colours that easily slipped into any interior.
In the late 1970s and into the 1980s Velvet was considered old-fashioned and thus disappeared from the scene. However, the fabric remained dormant and kept haunting the minds of designers. This resulted in a tremendous rise of velvet in the 1990s, and this thanks to a number of designers in Flanders and Italy who released the fabric in a totally new colour palette. They presented popping colours with a huge wow effect. New qualities were introduced and synthetic polyester became the substitute for mohair velvet. Polyester has the same qualities and many more possibilities, but also many more new qualities.
As you may be aware, there are several ways of making pile fabrics. But more about this in my next column. Velvet is a feast with a very strong need for cuddliness. See you later!