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Meet the Velvets

Cotton and Wool Velvets

comparison of cotton and wool velvets
The cotton (top) and wool (bottom) velvets look surprisingly similar.

Cotton velvet is, I think, not so period appropriate for medieval and ren costuming. Wool, however, may be. While Arnold is uncharacteristically non-specific about fiber content when discussing velvet garments in Patterns of Fashion, she’s more forthcoming with velvet hats and bonnets. Specimens examined include both silk and wool pile velvets, including one rather intriguing example of a silk pile locked in wool felt. (Arnold, 31-32) It’s possible that wool velvets were limited in usage to headwear, as the glossary in Queen Elizabeth’s Wardrobe Unlock’d specifically defines velvet as a silken cloth. (Arnold, 375)

Wool is the least drapey of the velvets, a fact that makes it excellent for hats and hard-wearing upholstery applications, but not always so great for clothing. It can feel like, well, wool, in that slightly itchy-and-scratchy-show sort of way. It’s really not so shiny. In fact, the only thing that looks less like a silk velvet would be a cotton velveteen. Wool is an excellent insulator and has a wonderful ability to wick moisture away from the body. In other words, I wouldn’t go wearing wool velvet in the summer….

Cotton velvets are softer and have a better drape than wool. They’re much stiffer than rayon velvets, but so is kleenex. They have a soft sheen, but not what you’d call a shine. They’re soft to the touch. They can also absorb water nearly as well as a cotton terry-cloth towel, which makes a big cotton velvet court dress very heavy in the rain. Cotton is a cellulosic fiber, like rayon, though it hasn’t been subjected to any chemical hanky-panky. ┬áLike rayon, it’s not much of an insulator, so light-weight cotton keeps you cool. Like rayon velvet, cotton velvet is not a light-weight fabric.

How is Cotton Velvet Different to Silk Velvet?

comparison of silk and cotton velvets
There is a fairly major difference in the appearance of silk and cotton velvets. Silk has shine, while cotton merely has sheen.

Cotton velvet is what you see the most on ren faire nobles. This is partly due to its availability, and partly due to the costuming guidelines many faires use which specifically forbid rayon velvets but allow and/or encourage cotton velvets. I’ve been told this is done for “theatrical reasons”, which generally boil down to “the audience wouldn’t get it” or “it would look too modern”. I’m not certain what the SCA’s stance on the whole thing is. I just know that silk velvet is really shiny, so by extension, nobles in period velvet should be shiny too.

Sewing Cotton and Wool Velvets

That said, cotton velvet has the advantage of being much easier to sew than either rayon or silk velvets. I generally don’t even pin it. (I generally don’t pin most things. Pins annoy me.) Cotton velvets don’t crawl. For one thing, they tend to have an incredibly dense pile. The fibers in that pile aren’t smooth monofilaments, like those in silk and rayon. Rather, cotton fibers are this amazing, crazy kidney-bean shape in cross section, and they twist along their length. ┬áThis structure is why cotton isn’t shiny, and also why it’s possible to spin it – the fibers grip each other as their spirals lock together. (Kadolph, 36) The pile fibers in cotton velvet tend to grip each other and not slide, like they’re covered in eeeeeety-bity little bits of velcro.

Wool velvets are also not prone to crawling, owing to the natural crimp in wool fibers. I’ve only done hats with them, but the largest trouble is bulk in the seam allowances after sewing. You can trim that down with a razor, or try smashing it down with an iron.

Next: How do you Iron Velvet?

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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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