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Meet the Velvets

Silk and Rayon Velvets

closeup of rayon and silk velvets
Here's a closeup of the rayon and silk velvets. The very period silk is shinier than the rayon!

Silk fibers are fairly smooth monofilaments, which means that by nature, they’re shiny. Silk velvet, likewise, is shiny. I mean, really shiny. Think of millions of really fine fiber-optic filaments being used for astroturf, and you’re starting to get the picture. Janet Arnold, in Queen Elizabeth’s Wardrobe Unlock’d, defines velvet as being a silken cloth, no two ways or other possibilities listed. Which means, by extension, that all those upper-crusty people walking around in velvet were really shiny. If you’ve been to one of the bigger ren faires, you’ve probably noticed that most of the courtiers and fancy types wearing velvet aren’t particularly shiny.  That’s because people fear rayon.

Rayon has gotten a bit of a bad rap for being a totally synthetic, modern looking beast. I don’t think it deserves it. As fibers go, rayon is stuck in the land of regenerated cellulosic fibers, a grey place between naturals and synthetics. It starts life as a natural product: wood pulp and other cast off plant material. These cellulosic materials are then chemically reduced to goo, and extruded like really tiny spaghetti into a chemical bath that sets them back to solids.  They’re still technically natural, but they’re not what nature had in mind.

A Brief History of Rayon

Rayon was created as a silk substitute, round-abouts 1889 by Count Hilaire de Chardonnet. Chardonnet was, technically, refining a discovery made in 1846 by Frederick Schoenbein, who had discovered that cellulose could be pretreated with nitric acid and then dissolved in an ether/alcohol mix and extruded into a fiber. (I’ve always thought Victorian chemistry was sort of one part clue and six parts “little Timmy got a chem set for Christmas”.) The problem was, malheureusement, Schoenbein’s fibers tended to blow up. True story… Rather than remove nitric acid and ether from the equation all together, Chardonnet did a little chemical jiggery-pokery to remove the nitro from the fibers after the fact. The process retained an substantial element of risk, but the resulting fiber was stable. (Good thing, too…. Rayon was originally used to make cheaper “silk” stockings. Panty hose are bad enough without the fear that they might explode!) Fortunately, the next year a fellow by the name of Louis Despeisses figured out that cellulose dissolves in other, less explosive things. Chardonnet’s dangerous process was discontinued a mere 58 years later, in 1949. (Kadolph, 80)

Since rayon is extruded, manufacturers have pretty good control over what the finished fiber looks like and can make it mimic a variety of natural fibers. At the high end of manufacturing, they do a darned good job.

Then What’s the Difference Between Silk and Rayon Velvets?

So why the heck does the silk velvet look so shiny and dense compared to the rayon one? They’re both technically smooth(ish) fibers on a molecular level, both made of monofilamentous goodness, and they were probably both woven with the same method.

Now, I know what you’re thinking… Silk is a completely natural protein fiber, and rayon is a regenerated cellulosic one. Surely, that’s it.

Eh, not so much… The real problem is price point. I have a piece of very low-end, cheapo (for a velvet, anyway), probably-bought-at-JoAnn’s-and-not-their-good-stuff piece of rayon velvet. I’m comparing it to a middling-to-moderately pricey silk velvet destined for use in home dec. The silk velvet has been woven more tightly, and with more secondary warp threads.  The result is a much denser, fuller pile.  Unlike the cheapo rayon crappita-crap, you just don’t see the ground fabric through the pile. If you’re going to go rayon, go high end.

Silk and rayon velvets both basically shine like the sun. Silk is actually, generally, a hair shiney than the rayon, making it look (ironically) a little more synthetic to the modern eye. If you’ve ever heard anyone at a ren faire say that shiney velvets are wrong because they’re all rayon, you know what I’m talking about.  It’s a darn shame, but we just don’t see a lot of silk velvet anymore.

At the higher end of manufacture, the major differences between these two are in their hand and durability. Entirely silk velvets will be slightly stiffer, and have the characteristic sound of silk. That’s the scroop. No, really, the word for the sound silk makes is “scroop”. (Kadolph, 65) Silk velvets will wear better and wrinkle less than rayon, owing to silk’s greater abrasion resistance (how much you can scoot your butt over a bench before your skirts show wear), tenacity (the strength of the fibers themselves), resiliency (ability of the fibers to avoid wrinkling when sat upon), and dimensional stability (how much your hems will go wonky from hanging out over time). Silk is better at all of these than rayon, especially the part about the wrinkles. (Kadolph, 22-23, 65, 83) Rayon is better at three things: wrinkling, not breaking the bank, and keeping you cooler.

What? Did you just endorse some sort of weirdo-I-don’t-care-about-your-fancy-words-cause-it-sure-don’t-sound-natural-to-me fiber over a natural one? Everyone knows natural fibers breathe better!

Yeah, I kinda did. Silk has excellent thermal retention, which makes it a great insulator. Good for winter, sure. Rayon, being cellulosic, is more like cotton. You know, “killer cotton”, the stuff you shouldn’t oughta be caught in a blizzard in? It has a high rate of water retention and a very low rate of thermal retention. (That’s where the “killer cotton” thing comes in. If you’re outside exerting yourself, cotton will absorb the water. Its inherent lack of thermal retention means that that water can freeze. Ouch.) (Kadolph, 34, 83) All that said, velvet isn’t what you should be wearing to stay cool in the summer, no matter what it’s made out of. It’s not really one of your flimsy, light-weight fabrics.

Next: Sewing Silk and Rayon Velvets

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  1. Monique
    Monique January 3, 2011

    It’s interesting that you should post such an article as I have been noticing of late the shine of fabrics portrayed in portraits of the Renaissance period. You can definitely tell the difference between the satin/silk/taffeta shine (or the “thinner” fabrics) and velvet shine mostly based on how they lay on the wearer. An example from Bella’s website:

    I’ve seen more, but my 15 min break at work just ran out! :

    • missa
      missa January 3, 2011

      Yeah…. I’ve thought for a while that those velvets were awfully shiny, but it’s sort of apocrypha to mention in some circles… But then I had my hands on a real, live, bonafide sample, and I thought I could probably back the claim up. ;) Thanks for sharing the link, Mo!

  2. […] “Meet the Velvets” is the first page of a six page series on using velvet fabrics for historical costuming use, with a great deal of excellent information on different fiber and fiber blend velvets currently available, by Missa at Sempstress. […]

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