Plain Velvet 101

a shopping guide for the best in silk, cotton, linen and mohair

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Velvet is presumed to have been developed on the shuttle loom by the Chinese more than 4500 years ago, and was constructed of pure silk.  It was woven by the Persians about 2000 B.C., and by the Italians during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries – and was coveted by royalty and nobility.  When weavers began experimenting with mohair fiber from angora goats in the 16th century, velvet became less precious. In 1785 the mechanized loom was invented by Edmund Cartwright, which with the introduction of cotton and linen fiber versions, made velvet much more accessible.

The earliest velvets were plain weaves loomed with the insertion of fine metal wires adjacent to the shuttled silk weft (a technique extinct but for less than a dozen mills today) through a silk warp.  After the treadles change the shed behind the wires a knife is carefully passed across the raised warp, which creates the loose pile.  This video shows the process;

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Mechanized velvet looms insert the metal wires and cut the raised warp in one pass – but this weaving technique was quickly replaced by modern looms – which weave two layers of velvet face to face, sharing a common warp between two ground clothes.  The finished double thickness fabric is then separated by a razor, producing two roles of velvet at once.

The benchmarks for velvet quality are the density of the warp, the gauge of yarn, and the complexity of the fiber content.  As with most fabrics, the higher the pick count, the higher the quality and cost.  It’s also worth mentioning that when you shop for velvet you’ll find a pile or face fiber (the warp) listed on the showroom tag first, and groundcloth fiber (the weft) second.  Manufacturers utilize different yarns in the groundcloth for tensile strength and cost efficiency.

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Bending velvet on the diagonal illustrates how tightly its been woven, and help you to gauge quality.  Visible ‘rows’ (shown above) indicate less picks per square inch, and lesser quality.  Tighter weaves have less conspicuous rows, indicating better quality.  This also illustrates why it’s a decorating rule to never use velvet to make welting.

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Here’s a breakdown of what I consider to be the best velvets in each fiber category;

Silk Velvet

There are 2 resources in the United States for hand-woven silk velvets, and both manufacture on centuries old looms.  Prelle has a selection of 21 colors, which are 25 1/2″ wide (which makes them the most expensive in the marketplace.)  They are also exquisite.  Claremont also has 5 equally narrow hand loomed silk velvets, at a comparable price.  There are excellent quality modern loomed silk velvets (51″-52″ wide) from Scalamandre (pattern ‘Pisanello’) in 9 jewel tones, from Nancy Corzine (pattern ‘Boucheron’) in 23 subdued colors, and from Rubelli (pattern ‘Vellutto Firenze’) in 6 rich saturated shades.

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Cotton Velvet

There are an large number of cotton velvets in the home decor marketplace, of which I think 2 collections are of great quality.  Holly Hunt Great Plains (pattern ‘Cotton Velvet’) comes in 17 contemporary hues, and Pierre Frey (pattern ‘Opera’) in a range of 43 colors from white to magenta.

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Linen Velvet

I’ve got 2 favorites in the linen velvet category.  Joseph Noble (pattern ‘Penbumbra) comes in 9 colorways, and Brunschwig (pattern ‘Thanon’) in 11 colorways.  You’ll notice that linen velvets typically have either a vertical or horizontal strie which is characteristic of linen because it’s difficult to spin a uniform gauge yarn.

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Mohair Velvet

Almost every interior design fabric showroom has a good quality mohair, so there are plenty of choices.  I’m a major fan of Holly Hunt Great Plains (patterns ‘Tahoe’ for a shorter nap, and ‘Fuzzy- Wuzzy’ for a longer nap).  My other choice for a great mohair is Nancy Corzine (pattern ‘Hanover’).

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In the near future I’ll write an equally in-depth investigation of gauffrage, panne and cut velvets. In the meantime, enjoy the shopping.

10 thoughts on “Plain Velvet 101”

  1. I just discovered your site and am learning so much – thanks for sharing your wisdom; I will be a loyal follower as I proceed with my thirst for designing knowledge.

    1. I very much appreciate your ‘thumbs up’ Cynthia. Are we connected on Facebook? I’d like to learn about your design endeavors.

      1. I’m humbled you would ask – I just finished an online course to quench my curiosity and to see if I have what it takes to make the grade – so just starting out. Once I make headway, I would really be honored to connect. Thank you.

        1. We’ve all started our design careers somewhere, and you’re honesty is something that will serve you well.
          Send me a friend request on FB, and I’ll happily accept.

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