Velvet is always a fantastically period fabric choice for medieval and ren costuming, right? (Assuming, of course, that the character being costumed would have been allowed to wear velvet.) Annoyingly well legislated social norms to one side, velvet is great, isn’t it? Well, sadly, no… Not all velvets are created equally.
Ok, that was a lie. There’s only so many ways to weave a fabric with little stick-sie up-sie fibers. For those who like the technical terms, we’re talking about a “pile fabric”, which comes to us from the latin root pilius or hair. My trusty-rusty textile sciences text (Textiles, 9th Ed.) goes farther, stating that velvet is a fabric with a pile height of 1/16″ or less, and lists two major methods for its manufacture. (207-210)
Pile fabrics can be woven with long surface floats that are cut and brushed up after weaving. Think of the back of a piece of brocade, where all the threadies hang out – if you cut those all and brushed them up, you’d have a pretty cool velvet going. Of course, if you did this, the resulting cloth would fall apart the first time someone looked at it cross-eyed – to make a pile fabric this way requires two sets of filling (weft) threads: one to cut and brush, and one to give structural stability to the cloth. This class of pile fabrics, which includes corduroy, are known as filling-pile fabrics.
The second type of pile fabrics use an extra set of warp threads. For the non-weavers in the audience, warp threads are the first ones out on to the loom. Weft threads are then woven between the warp threads to create fabric. In the case of warp-pile fabrics, one set of warp threads contributes structure and integrity to the cloth. The second set will create the velvety goodness.
Modern, plain velvets are made with the double-cloth method. This requires a special loom where two pieces of cloth are literally being woven at the same time, one right above the other. The second set of warp threads is shared by the two pieces of cloth, running up and down between them. When weaving is completed, the fabrics are carefully cut apart, splitting the secondary warp threads and yielding two pieces of sumptuously fuzzy delight.
Warp-pile fabrics can also be woven as a single layer, by warping over wires to create loops in the secondary warp. These loops can be cut or uncut (or some of each), and voided (non-loopy/non-fuzzy) areas can be created in the pattern as well. If you want a multi-color, multi-height, crazy cut, looped and voided velvet, this is your method. (Bonus – this “over-wire” method doesn’t require a special loom, or special weaving once it’s set up. This method is, I suspect, very old and explains some of those fabulous textiles you see in paintings.)
Pile fabrics can also be made through a nifty trick involving loom tension: while weaving, the tension on the warp threads is periodically reduced, allowing loops of warp to form when the filling weave is beaten back. This allows weavers to create things like terry-cloth, which has a pile on both sides. Frankly, I have a hard time envisioning in civilization without big fluffy towels, so I think this slack-tension weaving is pretty grand.
Next: Velvets of Different Fibers