Stroking a piece of velvet feels like running your fingers over a newly cropped head of hair. The satisfaction of this sensation explains the fabric’s widespread and enduring allure. That primal appeal stems from the way the thread is woven: loops of silk form a tufted surface above another layer of fabric.
Chinese artisans first wove silken threads into velvet as long ago as 400bc. Clothmakers elsewhere could only dream of such softness. But in the 14th century Italians started breeding silk worms to produce their own silk rather than relying on the scraps that floated down the Silk Road. Talented weavers, bolstered by the patronage of affluent Renaissance families, started making velvet, and it became a status symbol in Europe.
Kings and emperors luxuriated in the stuff. Few of their subjects could afford a fabric made from silk and woven by hand. England’s image-conscious King Richard II liked to be seen in it. Though his own people deposed him in 1399 and left him to starve in a dungeon, he demanded in his will that he be buried in velvet “in the royal manner”. To this day the fabric clads the halls of power. In Britain members of the House of Lords wear red velvet robes at the monarch’s coronation. And not just in Europe. Mansa Musa, who led the Mali empire in west Africa in the early 14th century and is said to be the wealthiest person of his age, and possibly ever, was an enthusiastic wearer of velvet.
Velvet has become cheaper, partly thanks to changing manufacturing techniques. The Jacquard machine loom, invented in 1801 by a French weaver who gave his name to the contraption, was able to do the job of human velvet-weavers at a faster pace and lower cost. More recently, cotton and polyester have largely replaced silk. The result has been the mass production of velvet and alternatives such as velour.
The material that once adorned royals and their palaces is now found in the wardrobes and sitting rooms of suburbia. It’s hard to revere a fabric best known for cushion covers and high-street jogging suits. The sight of Jennifer Lopez rocking a velour tracksuit has made velvet substitutes the passport to a land without taste.
This ubiquitous material should really be called velveteen, but retailers rarely make such distinctions and consumers don’t seem to mind. In common vernacular we still speak of velvet in hyperbole, whether referring to “velvety” chocolate or Czechoslovakia’s “Velvet revolution” of 1989, so called because it overthrew the Soviet regime without bloodshed. We have embraced a cheap substitute that still looks and feels like a fabric fit for a king. Let them wear velvet.•