Deconstructing velvet

Characterised by a soft, luxurious pile, velvet is one of the finest of fabrics

Courtesy Charlotte Olympia

Unfairly dismissed as the garb of dusty hippies, velvet enjoys a long and noble heritage, stretching back centuries. Made using a complex – and highly expensive – method of weaving two surfaces of silk fabric at the same time, which are then cut apart to create the short suede, velvet was invented in Kashmir, although the earliest surviving pieces date from eighth-century Baghdad.

The material was much in demand, and by the Mamluk Dynasty (1250-1517), the Egyptian capital Cairo was the biggest producer of velvet in the world. It was then exported west to Mali and north to Europe, where – thanks to its exorbitant price – it was solely reserved for royalty.

In what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo, velvet was made using raffia instead of silk, hand-stitched into small squares of densely geometric patterns – Kuba cloths – that were so prized they were used as currency, while Uzbekistan has retained a velvet industry to this day, creating lavish, ikat-patterned traditional coats called chapans, worn both by men in the country and the western hippies of the 1960s.

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Today, while silk velvet is still outside the reach of most people, modern fibres allow for mass production, meaning this lustrous fabric is enjoying a comeback. This time around, forget heavy cloaks and lace-fronted dresses; instead, go for sumptuous accessories, such as block-heel sandals in berry reds or sorbet tones, or darkly expensive clutches in dark greens and teals, as seen at Prada, Christian Louboutin and Charlotte Olympia.