Velvet is a soft pile fabric that has been manufactured for almost 4,000 years in one form or another. It has long been considered a luxury fabric because it requires more thread to manufacture than other fabrics, as well as multiple steps. Velvet can be made from any type of thread, although traditionally, it was made with silk, making it even more costly. In the modern era, cotton and synthetics have been used in the manufacture of velvet, and several related fabrics, such as velour, velveteen, and corduroy, have been invented for consumers on a budget.
Usually, velvet is woven as a double cloth on a specialized loom. The warp threads go through two pieces of cloth, instead of just one, and when the fabric is finished, a blade cuts the two pieces of fabric apart along the warp. Each piece of fabric must be taken up on a separate roll as it is cut. The resulting material is known as a "pile" fabric because the thread sticks up, forming a soft pile.
After cutting, velvet is often sheared to ensure it is all even, and then dyed. The fabric takes dye extremely well, and when made with silk, it is often highly lustrous. Special effects can be created by twisting the fabric while it is wet, producing crushed velvet. In addition, some is woven with multiple threads of different colors, producing vivid designs. The fabric is usually brushed while moist so that it sets with a grain, producing the characteristic feel that consumers prize.
Velvet and brocade have been produced for centuries, with early examples showing up in Egypt. Royalty and people of high class were usually the only consumers who could afford it, and the material was used to make robes, the dresses of upper class women, and other luxury items. The warm and heavy fabric was very popular in the winter, especially in Northern Europe.
It is necessary to carefully maintain velvet because it is easy to damage. Creases and folds in the fabric can flatten the pile or cause it to become lumpy. It can be steamed, carefully, with the use of a velvet board, which prevents the steamer from crushing the pile. The fabric should be dry cleaned and stored in such a way that creases will not form. It also requires special care when sewing.