Silk velvet, the ultimate luxury textile, arrived in Venice via the Silk Route traders during the 13th century. By the 15th century, Venetian guilds were the global masters of velvet production.
The guilds operated under strict quality controls. The regulations went so far as to require inferior production to be burned. Given it took days to hand-loom a few centimetres of velvet, the economic implications of poor quality output could be devastating to a producer. Each area of silk velvet production became highly specialized, from sericulture through marketing, with apprenticeships lasting 7-8 years.
Competition to create the best textiles was fierce. Companies developed proprietary dyeing and weaving methods, making the production environment ripe for espionage. To guard against trade-secrets getting out, craftspeople couldn’t readily move from one employer to another.
Venice’s silk velvet was highly desired by wealthy Venetians and throughout Europe during the Renaissance period. In paintings by the Venetian artists, such as those by Tiziano Vecelli (better known as Titian), you can see exquisite renderings of velvet gowns, robes, furnishings, coverlets and wall hangings.
The demand for velvet was driven by more than its sumptuous beauty. Velvet became a status symbol. Newly wealthy commoners sought to upstage less well-to-do nobles by draping themselves and their homes in velvet textiles. This rich display of luxury goods was intended to blur the the lines of class distinction between commoners and the aristocracy.
In their quest to maintain lavish lifestyles, people became heavily indebted, often to the point of bankruptcy. The increased rates of insolvency severely reduced the tax coffers. In response, Venetian legislators enacted sumptuary laws, restricting the use of velvet and other luxury goods. Under these laws, the right to wear clothing made from velvet was limited to high-ranking Venetian nobles. Restrictions even dictated that only plain velvet could be used in upholstery. The laws were moderately successful. Those who could afford to pay the high tax levies for disobeying the regulations did so rather than forgo the banned luxuries.
Globally, few companies produce pure silk velvet today. Silk backings are often used with less expensive rayon or viscose pile, making the material accessible to a greater market. High-end, highly durable velvet is also available in mohair and linen fabrications, sometimes blended with silk.
Velveteen, velvet’s poor cousin, offers better durability than velvet due to its shorter nap. However, lacks velvet’s sumptuous drape and texture. Velveteen is produced in a wide-range of colours and designs. The print used on the Lee Jofa velveteen shown below, is reminiscent of woven Renaissance silk velvet patterns.
Established in Venice in 1875, Luigi Bevilacqua currently produces luxurious silk velvets for interior applications. Skilled craftspeople still operate the hand-looms dating from the 17th and 18th century. The company is also known for their beautiful brocades, satins, damasks, lampasses and trimmings.
Hand-looming textiles is a labour intensive process. Luigi Bevilacqua produces only a few hundred meters of the hand-loomed fabric annually. Since the 1930’s, the bulk of their textile manufacturing is done using mechanical technology. Whether hand or machine-loomed, the fabrics created are based on selections from Luigi Bevilacqua’s exclusive library of 3,500 designs, using only the finest quality dyes and threads. One of their hand-loomed velvets is the fabulous Tagliato Tigre, having a pure-silk pile and a 50/50 linen and silk ground.
Another name associated with velvet and Venice is Mariano Fortuny. Originally from Granada, Spain, Fortuny relocated to Venice as a child in 1889. By his early thirties, Fortuny was well-recognized for his creative and innovative talents. Among them were painting, photography, stage lighting and theatre design. Today, he is probably best remembered for his forays into textiles and fashion. Assisted by his Parisian wife, Henriette Negrin, Fortuny designed and created the uniquely pleated silk dresses known as Delphos gowns. He also created fabulous hand-printed silk velvet evening coats.
In 1927 New York interior designer, Elsie McNeill Lee, saw Fortuny’s dress and coat fabrics in a Paris museum. She decided they would be perfect for use in interiors. Working with Fortuny to expand his line, Elsie McNeill Lee was instrumental in bringing his fabrics to the United States. Her business savvy also saved the company from receivership during the Depression.
Shown below is an example of one of his early fabrics for interiors. He based the design on a woven 16th century Italian textile and printed it in gold and silver. Eventually, due to cost, Fortuny opted to only use cotton as the base for his furnishing textiles.
Sadly, like the Fortuny Delphos dresses, the evening coats can only be acquired today at auction or through vintage resellers, if at all. Wouldn’t the patterns Fortuny used for the splendid silk-velvet evening coat (circa 1930) and purse be wonderful for an interior application?
Mariano Fortuny, looked to the past for his design inspirations. However, his printing techniques were innovative. Using purchased plain off-white fabrics, vegetable-based dyes and a little alchemy based on his knowledge of photographic processing, Fortuny developed uniquely printed textiles. The patterns were created by layering hand-blocked stencils with hand-painting and were often highlighted with gold and silver. For this work, he became known as the “Magician of Venice.”
Today, the Fortuny product line, under the leadership of the Riad family, includes furniture, tableware, mosaic tiles and notebooks. As in Mariano Fortuny’s day, the company prints upholstery fabrics using secret techniques and no two lengths are exactly the same.
One modern-day textile designer, Mirella Spinella, hand-prints velvet fabrics in her Venice studio. With a background in painting and set design, she taught herself how to create beautiful printed velvet textiles. Given the secretive nature of the industry, Mirella Spinella researched old craft treaties and then experimented with pigments and mordants.
Working with stencils and woodblocks, she meticulously hand-prints her designs on white velvet. Mirella Spinella’s patterns have historical references to Venice. However, she adds a unique bold, theatrical flair, creating fresh interpretations that fit in well with today’s preferences for eclectic fashion and interior design. Shown below are two patterns from her on-line catalogue, ‘Chinese Flowers’ and ‘Hunting Lion.’
Brown, Patricia Fortini. “Behind the Walls: The Material Culture of Venetian Elites.” Venice Reconsidered: The History and Civilization of an Italian City-State, 1294-1797. John Jeffries Martin & Denis Romano, Eds. JHU Press, 2002. 295 – 338.
Coleman, Brian D. Fortuny Interiors. Gibbs Smith, 2012.
Facelle, Amande E. “Down to the Last Stitch: Sumptuary Law and Conspicuous Consumption in Rennaisance Italy.” April 2009. http://wesscholar.wesleyan.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1333&context=etd_hon_theses
Gregorin, Cristina. “Velvet, Damask and Brocade. The Luigi Bevilacqua Silk-Weaving Mill.” Venice Master Artisans. Grafiche Vianello srl, 2003. 38-45.