During daylight hours, my grandmother whistled softly under her breath and moved through the house like a beautiful, mildly-dispirited ghost. She was as delicate and elusive as a nightingale, a detached but calming presence that could be lured into focus with a gin-and-tonic and persuaded to sing after dinner. Her name, Emmeline, sounded smooth and refined to me as a child, capturing her as a creature from another era. I imagined her dancing the Charleston with pale, slender arms outstretched. Her pearls hung straight. I loved to be close to her, following her velvet steps, burying my face in the scarves and pale tissue paper filing the drawers of the tallboy that stood in her dressing room, trying to capture her essence and rose top-notes - those small, light molecules that, like her, evaporated so easily. Fur stoles and black velvet trousers, bolero jackets and shift dresses hung in her wardrobe. I would run my fingers through the folds of material. Some fabrics carry sensory memories and velvet, sumptuous and soft, reminds us of comfort, lightness of being, of parties and festivals, nonchalant chic and good times.
In our digital age and political climate, we're still revelling in velvet, reclaiming the fabric of the twenties, and the glamorous, playful texture of the seventies, a time of idealism, social upheaval and change. Velvet is associated with bohemian allure, a glossy symbol of non-conformity against bourgeois rigidity and the economic meritocracy that began in the 19th Century.
The term 'velvet' describes the structure of the fabric, not the fibre, like wool or cotton. Woven, not knitted (that's known as velour), velvet is created on special looms that weave two layers of fabric closely together at once, face to face. The two pieces are then cut apart to create its signature short pile - the raised loops and tufts of yarn that are perfectly distributed to give the fabric its luxurious density and distinctive feel and help lend it a soft shine that catches the light. Traditionally velvet was made from silk thread, enhancing its trademark lustre. Today velvet can be crafted from a variety of different fibres each resulting in a slightly different texture, sheen and price.
Because of its complicated, costly production and unusual softness and appearance, velvet was historically associated with European nobility. But velvet originated in Eastern culture. There's evidence as early as 2000 BCE that ancient Egyptians employed a similar technique to the one used today in velvet manufacture. Cairo was a production hub of velvet for many years. Iraq was also one of the first producers of velvet and characteristic trimmings, (featuring low, untrimmed piles), have also been found dating back to ancient Chinese dynasties including the Qin (circa 221-206 BCE) and the Western Han (206 BCE- 23CE).
Once Europeans felt the touch of velvet, it was immediately traded along the Silk Route. Although production flourished in Spain, Italy was the first European country to create a velvet industry for itself and subsequently dominated supply of the material to Europe between the 12th to 18th centuries. If there's a fabric that epitomises the Renaissance, it's velvet - particularly the intricately patterned velvets, woven from silk and threads of precious metal such as gold and silver, worn by royalty and the heads of church and state. Velvet brought wealth and power to the Medici family and posed artistic challenge to those wishing to capture its luminous texture and explore its production – Michelangelo designed several types of velvet, and Leonardo da Vinci studied the velvet loom. When velvet production became mechanized during the industrial revolution, the textile so deeply associated with luxury became cheaper and more widely available.
The journey of velvet is an intricate story that spans continents, as the fabric wrapped its magic around the world. My grandmother was a beauty, but her life was not enchanted - constrained by the impact of a traumatic childhood and taut financial restraints, she never travelled far. But Emmeline frequently slipped into the luxury of her romantic imagination and the enveloping comfort of a wardrobe that took her to a place of ease. Like the rich and fluid notes of her evening songs, her velvet trousers and dresses had a transformative power and contributed, as clothes should, to the enjoyment of life.
Words by Louisa Thomsen Brits
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