Where Does Velvet Come From?
Velvet comes from silk, but there are many imitations made from cotton and other materials. Real velvet is a closely woven fabric made by weaving loops of silk on to two silk backcloths, one on top of the other. In between the two backcloths the woven silk will form what is called a pile. The pile is the soft, furry hairs characteristic of velvet and many carpets.
The two layers of silk, which have been woven face-to-face, will have long furry pile yarns connecting the two layers. After the cloth is woven, the two layers are sliced apart leaving two separate rows of velvet. Velvet was developed in Italy during the 15th Century from where the art spread throughout the world. Turkish velvets were especially successful, and beautiful designs from 16th and 17th Century Turkey survive today.
In all probability the art of velvet-weaving originated in the Far East; and it is not till about the beginning of the 14th century that we find any mention of the textile. The peculiar properties of velvet, the splendid yet softened depth of dye-colour it exhibited, at once marked it out as a fit material for ecclesiastical vestments, royal and state robes, and sumptuous hangings; and the most magnificent textures of medieval times were Italian velvets.
These were in many ways most effectively treated for ornamentation, such as by varying the colour of the pile, by producing pile of different lengths (pile upon pile, or double pile), and by brocading with plain silk, with uncut pile or with a ground of gold tissue. The earliest sources of European artistic velvets were Lucca, Genoa, Florence and Venice, which continued to send out rich velvet textures. Somewhat later the art was taken up by Flemish weavers, and in the sixteenth century, Bruges attained a reputation for velvets that were not inferior to those of the great Italian cities.
Because of its unusual softness and appearance as well as its high cost of production, velvet has often been associated with nobility. Velvet was introduced to Baghdad during the rule of Harun al-Rashid by Kashmiri merchants and to Al-Andalus by Ziryab. In the Mamluk era, Cairo was the world’s largest producer of velvet. Much of it was exported to Venice (from whence it spread to most of Europe), Al-Andalus and the Mali Empire.
Musa I of Mali, the ruler of the Mali Empire, visited Cairo on his pilgrimage to Mecca. Many Arab velvet makers accompanied him back to Timbuktu. Later Ibn Battuta mentions how Suleyman (mansa), the ruler of Mali, wore a locally produced complete crimson velvet caftan on Eid. During the reign of Mehmed II, assistant cooks wore blue-coloured dresses (câme-i kebûd), conical hats (külâh) and baggy trousers (çaksir) made from Bursa velvet.