Material Guide: How Sustainable Is Velvet?

When we think of velvet, we usually think of luxurious Renaissance drapings and ancient clothes, but we can also find it in trendy skirts and trousers nowadays. This luminous and soft fabric feels and looks more luxurious than most textiles, and it has transcended trends and styles without a hitch.

A brief history of velvet:

Although velvet is strongly associated with European nobility, it is most commonly believed to have originated from Eastern culture. Pieces of velvet woven from silk have been found in China dating back to as far as 403 B.C. Iraq and Egypt were also among the first producers of velvet, with pieces dating back to 2000 B.C.

Europeans introduced it into trade along the Silk Road, and Italy was the first European country to have a velvet industry. It soon became the largest producer and supplier in Europe. At the time, velvet was used in many luxury items such as curtains, furniture or clothing. Velvet production peaked during the Renaissance, especially patterned velvets we usually associated with the time.

As the Industrial Revolution brought technological advancement, it allowed for the clothing and textile manufacturing, including velvet, to be quicker and cheaper. Despite this, velvet’s association with luxury stuck, and it was still used to make clothes feel and look more glamorous.

People’s love of velvet has lasted throughout the decades, with the glamorous vibe of the 1970’s and the 80’s and 90’s love affair with crushed velvet and devore worn by pop icons at the time. Nowadays, we see velvet in many different collections, styles and forms whether to help the trending 90’s revival, in more innovative and modern takes on the textile or lining your nearest theatre’s seats.


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How velvet is made:

The word “velvet” refers to the structure of the fabric, not the actual fiber or material used. You can recognize velvet thanks to its short pile, raised loops, tufts of yarn that cover its surface.

Unlike other fabrics, velvet is not flat-woven (or knitted, in this case it is called velour). It requires more yarn and steps to produce. Yarn from different materials is first woven together on a loom between two layers of backing. The fabric is then split down the middle, creating two identical pieces, each with the upraised pile that gives it its soft texture.

Velvet can be woven from any type of yarn. While in the past it is traditionally woven from silk, today cheaper materials are commonly used alone or in combination, such as cotton, linen, wool, or synthetic fibers. The fashion industry, and especially Fast Fashion retailers, mostly replace silk or other natural materials with polyester.

The impact of velvet:

Because it can be made from a variety of materials, the impacts of velvet are diverse.

On the planet

If your new velvet acquisition is made from polyester, which is derived from petroleum, it has major impacts on the planet, explained here. In fact, because it is made of plastic, polyester is not biodegradable. It is also extremely water-thirsty. Velvet is also often treated with stain repellents, adding more chemicals to the process.

But other materials used to make velvet, which are sometimes thought as more sustainable, like viscose or bamboo can in fact also have a very negative impact on the environment.

On animals and people

Although we usually argue that going for more natural materials is better, traditionally velvet was made from silk, and there is a growing debate on the ethics of silk-making. In fact silkworms are usually boiled alive in order to extract the fibres – unless the silk is Ahimsa or peace silk.  What’s more there have been reports of child labour in the silk industry, once again emphasising the negative impacts of silk.

It has also been revealed in a recent study from the University of California at Santa Barbara, and funded by Patagonia, that clothes made from polyester can shed on average 1.7 grams of microfibres each wash. Even if companies use recycled plastic bottles to make their fleece, research indicates that the plastic might ultimately end up in the oceans. Those synthetic microfibers are particularly dangerous because their size allows them to be consumed by fish and other wildlife, going higher and higher up the food chain, concentrating toxins, until they reach us.

So, if you really want a velvet item in your wardrobe, we recommend shopping second-hand, in order not to increase the use of new plastics or silk. Choosing well and buying less is a great way to reduce your impact on the environment while creating your own unique style!

Alternatively, try and look for velvet made out of modal rayon, which is made from sustainably harvested beech trees and eco-friendly processing methods.

Finally, look for brands that care about their environmental impact, the rights of their workers and animal welfare. The Good On You app is a great tool for finding brands that share your values.


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Featured image by Carlos Vaz on Unsplash. Image of the painting by József Borsos (1821–1883) is public domain. Photo by Tiffany Combs on Unsplash.

Solene Rauturier

Author Solene Rauturier

Originally from France, Solene is currently Content and Community intern at Good on You.

More posts by Solene Rauturier

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