What is velvet?

Velvet dinner jackets make a sophisticated style statement at formal events

Velvet dinner jackets make a sophisticated style statement at formal events
Image source: Evening wear from Samuel Windsor

From the luxury silk velvet fabric favoured by the royal courts of the Middle East to one of the most sophisticated fabrics used in European menswear, velvet offers the look and feel of true class. Add a touch of exquisite tailoring and you’re talking evening wear to die for. But what is velvet, how is it made and how can you wear it to best effect? Here we answer all your velvet-related questions.

Where does velvet come from?

Rich colours are an important part of velvet’s long heritage. Wine coloured velvet jacket from Samuel Windsor

Rich colours are an important part of velvet’s long heritage
Image source: Wine coloured velvet jacket from Samuel Windsor

With a pedigree stretching back over 4,000 years, velvet is one of the oldest recognisable fabrics on the planet. Originally from the Indian subcontinent, Kashmiri traders first brought the soft pile fabric we call velvet to court of the Sultan of Baghdad during the 8th century. From there it migrated to Cairo, and in time to Venice, Lucca, Genoa, and Florence.

Later, during the 16th century, the Belgians took to velvet weaving, with Bruges gaining a reputation as a centre for quality velvet production to match any of the Italian cities. Original silk velvet is now a rarity strictly for those with deep pockets. Cotton, mohair, linen and wool are all used to make quality velvet while polyester, nylon, and rayon are just some of the synthetic fibres used to make lightweight alternatives.

How is velvet made?

For a touch of flair, add a velvet waistcoat under your traditional dinner suit

For a touch of flair, add a velvet waistcoat under your traditional dinner suit
Image source: Navy blue polka dot velvet waistcoat from Samuel Windsor

One of the reasons why velvet has always been a luxury product is because of the way it’s made. Two pieces of fabric are placed face-to-face before the pile thread is woven through the warp – the length – of both layers. The fabric is then passed over a knife which cuts the threads, separating the two layers of fabric, leaving the short, soft pile that gives velvet its unique look and feel.

Velvetine, a velvet-like cloth is made in a similar way, but instead of being woven through the warp, the pile thread is woven through the weft – the breadth – of the backing cloth. The result is a cloth which though it looks superficially similar to true velvet, doesn’t hang nearly so well, making it somewhat unsuitable for manufacturing quality menswear.

What kinds of velvet are there?

This navy velvet evening jacket has been treated to reveal a striking paisley pattern

This navy velvet evening jacket has been treated to reveal a striking paisley pattern
Image source: Paisley velvet dinner jacket and waistcoat from Samuel Windsor

A versatile fabric, velvet lends itself to a range of treatments which produce different finishes. Crushing, for example, spreads the pile in different directions, giving the fabric a lustrous look. Embossing runs the fabric through heated metal rollers which flatten some areas, leaving the rest of the pile untouched to create a distinctive pattern.

Another way to create patterned velvet is called devoré – the velvet is treated with caustic solution to dissolve the pile leaving the sheer back cloth. It’s a stunning look which is great for creating evening wear with a difference – think paisley velvet dinner jacket and waistcoat – a thoroughly modern look with a nod to the origins of this iconic fabric.

How do you wear velvet?

Black tie doesn’t necessarily mean you must wear black. Try this Emerald velvet dinner jacket from Samuel Windsor

Black tie doesn’t necessarily mean you must wear black
Image source: Emerald velvet dinner jacket from Samuel Windsor

If it’s your evening do and you’ve set the dress code bar high, you’ll be the beau of the ball in velvet. If you’re invited to a black tie event, check the dress code carefully. If in doubt, it’s always better to stick with the letter and spirit of standard formal dress code.

Having said that, we do live in the kind of enlightened times that make velvet far more versatile than perhaps it used to be. If you’d like to cut a dash at the theatre, fine dining, Rotary Club meal or British Legion bash, a bold velvet jacket and waistcoat paired with simple dark wool suit trousers is a great way to stand out for all the right reasons.

Because velvet is such a strong look, make sure you keep the rest of your outfit paired down and simple. Think in terms of a crisp white shirt, simple black bowtie, polished black Oxfords and an accessory or two – a smart wrist watch and classic cufflinks are all you need.

How do you care for velvet?

Regular care will keep your velvet looking plush

Regular care will keep your velvet looking plush
Image source: Samuel Windsor

Velvet is a dry-clean-only product, but keeping your velvet garments clean and presentable on a day-to-day basis will help them look good for longer and reduce the need for chemical treatments.

Simply brush your velvet regularly using long firm strokes with a quality clothes brush. Avoid scrubbing at patches of dirt – if there’s a stain, use a damp sponge to gently cleanse the area, then leave the garment to dry before brushing. Be careful not to soak your velvet suit jacket – water can damage the half-canvas interface which gives your jacket its shape.

As always, you should invest in quality breathable suit bags and always hang your jacket on a decent hanger to maintain its shape.

Velvet really is a stunning fabric. Do you have what it takes to carry it off with style? If you’re a Samuel Windsor man you can – send us your pics – we’d love to hear from all you velvet-loving snazzy dressers. Just head over to our Facebook page and drop us a line.

Posted in What to wear guides.

What's your thoughts on the subject?