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King Richard II of England directed that he be buried in it. Persian rulers counted it among their treasures. And renaissance noblemen wore it to flaunt their status. Nothing says luxury quite like velvet. For centuries, powerful men have chosen this lustrous fabric as an expression of their wealth and taste.
Velvet began in China. It was woven from silk, and in ancient times traders carried the precious fabric along the legendary Silk Road to Baghdad. Middle Eastern weavers then became adept at producing fine velvets. They took their craft to Spain as early as 948 and around the middle of the 13th century the first artisans arrived in Lucca, Italy.
Soon the weavers of Lucca, Genoa, Florence and Venice became famous for their magnificent velvets. Beyond the reach of the ordinary man, these were rare and expensive textiles, used for ecclesiastical vestments, royal and state robes, and sumptuous hangings. Velvet is woven in loops, which are then cut to create its distinctive texture. The weaving process was time consuming and required a larger quantity of costly silk thread than flat textiles. The most luxurious velvets from those medieval master-weavers even incorporated precious gold and silver threads to contrast with the richness of the silk.
From Italy, velvets were exported throughout the Ottoman Empire and Europe, including to England. In 1278, King Edward III’s tailor purchased a velvet-upholstered bed in Paris at a cost of 100 shillings – the first English reference to the fabric. Velvet grew more and more popular among those who could afford it, a popularity that endured throughout the middle ages and the renaissance.
In medieval Italy, the thread dyers, metal thread makers, and the velvet weavers themselves had their own professional guilds. The city-states passed special laws to guarantee the quality of the velvets and techniques were closely guarded secrets.
Velvet fell out of favour after the French revolution, but made a comeback during the Arts and Crafts movement in the late 19th century, then for the suave smoking jackets of the 30s and 40s, and again in 1960s swinging London. Today, thanks to innovations in machinery, fibres and techniques, you don’t have to be a king or a nobleman to wear it. But some of the finest velvets still come from Italy, a country famous all over the world for its textiles.
Velvet garments do need a little TLC though. Never, never iron velvet – the iron will crush the pile and leave marks. Store it carefully and don’t fold it, because folds and creases will also flatten the pile. You can try steaming out creases, taking care not to wet the fabric but, as with any very special garment, a good drycleaner is your best friend.