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Hst-of-Velvet-art - 9/11/09


"A Brief History of Velvet" by Master Giles de Laval


NOTE: See also the files: velvet-msg, textiles-msg, cotton-msg, silk-msg, piled-fabrics-msg, weaving-msg, Fiber-Survey-art, color-a-fab-bib, linen-msg.





This article was submitted to me by the author for inclusion in this set

of files, called Stefan's Florilegium.


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Copyright to the contents of this file remains with the author.


While the author will likely give permission for this work to be

reprinted in SCA type publications, please check with the author first

or check for any permissions granted at the end of this file.


                               Thank you,

                                    Mark S. Harris

                                    AKA:  Stefan li Rous

                                         stefan at florilegium.org



A Brief History of Velvet

by Master Giles de Laval


When researching the history of clothing, the question of when velvet first appeared occurs frequently. Velvet was a highly prized luxury textile in Europe during the later Middle Ages, but its origins remain somewhat unclear, as well as how this fabric came to be introduced to Europe.


Velvet is a pile weave fabric; that is, a fabric that has an extra set of yarns woven or tied into the ground and projecting from it as cut ends or loops. Pile weaving is used to create a large range of fabrics: terry pile towelling, corduroy, velvet, velveteen and Oriental rugs. Velvet is produced by creating loops in an extra set of warp yarns by inserting narrow rods during the weaving process. Corduroy and velveteen are produced by a similar method where the loops are formed by pulling up the main or supplementary weft yarns. To form cut velvet, a blade on the end of the rods cuts the loops as the rod is removed, making the soft cut pile surface characteristic of velvet. By omitting this step, a loop pile fabric is formed. It is not known if these definitions existed in period; it is possible that a wide range of cut loop fabrics was referred to as velvet, whether they were made with loops in the warp or the weft.


This weaving technique was used to produce a wide variety of fabrics, from fine lightweight textiles to heavy-duty coverings. Examples of silk and linen loop pile fabric date to fourth century Egypt. Fine silken textiles were highly valued in the Islamic cultures of the early Middle Ages and were major items in the treasuries of the Abbasid Caliphs. This is revealed in the list of treasures left by the great Caliph Haroun al-Rashid in 809 AD, which included 500 pieces (lengths) of velvet. It is interesting to note that of the 56 items in this list, 30 are various textile products. Next in importance was the CaliphÕs armoury, followed by cash, jewellery, perfume and fragrances, and various utensils. Velvet was difficult to manufacture and a fantastically costly if sought after luxury item. A mandil (handkerchief) is mentioned in a tenth century text as an important part of a gentleman of BaghdadÕs attire. These handkerchiefs were made of silk and sometimes linen, with a velvet texture, and the best Egyptian ones were likened in softness to "the inner membrane of an egg" and "softer than the zephyr". They were also extremely expensive, costing as much as a whole garment.


Weavers skilled in the manufacture of velvet (and related textiles) came from Greece, Turkey and Cyprus, the latter fleeing when the French conquered the island in 1266. Many found refuge in the Italian city of Lucca, which was a centre for fine woollen textiles from 1100, also believed to be producing velvet by that time. Velvet textiles were being manufactured  in Moorish Spain as early as 948 AD. The velvet weaversÕ guild of Florence was founded in 1247, and many other centres were established throughout Europe thereafter. The first English reference to velvet is in 1278 when Adinettus, the kingÕs tailor, bought for him a velvet bed furnishing in Paris for 100 shillings. Velvet was in wide use as clothing by the first quarter of the 14th century and remained a fashion mainstay for several centuries. Italy and Spain remained the principal European centres of velvet production throughout the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, and by the 16th century it was very difficult to distinguish between Italian and Ottoman velvets.


Velvet, or mukhmal, remained an important textile throughout the Middle East throughout the Middle Ages and Renaissance and gradually became both more available and more important in Europe. It was almost always woven of silk, and occasionally with linen fibres. Cotton does not seem to have been manufactured into velvet. Many European velvets were half-silk velvets, which means that they had a weft of linen or hemp concealed beneath the silk pile, and consequently were cheaper to manufacture and buy. Only plain, solid cut pile velvet appears to have been manufactured in late 13th century silk weaving centres in Europe and the Middle East. Later developments in weaving technology led to voided velvets (patterns cut into the pile, which was called alto e basso in Italy and Kadife-i du havi in Ottoman Turkey), and the magnificent brocaded velvets incorporating gold and silver thread (known as ‚atma in Turkey) so prized by the wealthy classes of Europe.





Janet Arnold, _Patterns of Fashion: the cut and construction of clothes for men and women c1560-1620_, Macmillan, London 1985

Patricia L Baker, _Islamic Textiles_, British Museum Press 1995


Crowfoot, Pritchard & Staniland, _Textiles and Clothing c.1150-c.1450: Medieval finds from excavations in London_, London HMSO 1992


Richard Fletcher, _Moorish Spain_, Phoenix Giant 1994


Hsin-ju Lui, _Silk and Religion: An exploration of material life and the thought of the people, AD 600-1200_, Oxford University Press, Delhi 1996


J M Rogers & R M Ward, _SŸleyman the Magnificent_, Wellfleet Press 1988


W Fritz Volbach, _Early Decorative Textiles_, Paul Hamlyn 1969


_Encyclopaedia Britannica vol. 18_, Helen Hemingway Benton 1974



Copyright 2000 by Mark Calderwood. <giles at sca.org.au>. While permission for republication is usually granted, permission to republish this article, in part or in full, requires the explicit permission of the author.


If this article is reprinted in a publication, I would appreciate a notice in

the publication that you found this article in the Florilegium. I would also

appreciate an email to myself, so that I can track which articles are being

reprinted. Thanks. -Stefan.


<the end>

Formatting copyright © Mark S. Harris (THLord Stefan li Rous).
All other copyrights are property of the original article and message authors.

Comments to the Editor: stefan at florilegium.org