Is Velvet a Sustainable Fabric?

Green Velvet Sofa With Cushion At Home
Khatawut Chaemchamras / EyeEm / Getty Images

Velvet is historically associated with luxury. Originally made with silk, it is known best for having a lush surface soft to the touch. Though its exact origins are unknown, velvet has been around for centuries, most commonly used today to make clothing, accessories, and furniture. These days, velvet is made from fabrics such as polyester and organic cotton—materials that are quite different in terms of sustainability. Below, we provide an overview of velvet and its environmental impact through the years.

Velvet Throughout History

The raised thread technique is used to created modern velvet. This method of making textiles has been used since 2000 BCE by the Egyptians, and carpets of piled threads have been found in modern-day Siberia that date back to fourth century BCE. These particular textiles differ in the method used to make "proper" velvet in that they use a technique similar to that of velveteen.

The Silk Road is considered to have helped introduce velvet to the West. References to the fabric have been found as early as the second century BCE. The most notable influence, however, come from its use in Syrian courts. It wasn't until the 14th century that velvet starting appearing in Europe. The first written source describes lengths of red velvet owned by the pope, that were from Italy.

During this time, weavers across Europe were breaking into the industry as demand rose among the courts and nobles. This is also when velvet started being used to make clothing. Previously it had only been used for furnishings.

How Velvet Is Made

Velvet material is one of the more expensive fabrics to create as its distinctive three dimensional weave requires much more thread than traditional fabrics. The warp thread (longitudinal thread) is generally held taught during a typical weaving process. To create the velvet texture, the warp thread is drawn over rods to create loops. The loops are then left as is or cut for different textured effects. This causes the process of weaving velvet to be a very time consuming process.

There are three distinct ways to weave velvet: a plain weave, twill, or satin. These different methods give the fabric different characteristics. The plain weave is a standard criss-cross pattern of the threads. A twill will pass the horizontal or weft thread over multiple warp threads, forming a diagonal formation similar to that of denim. Satin weaves are distinguishable by their smooth finish and shiny appearance. This is achieved by passing either the warp or weft thread over four or more threads.

Once woven the pile (fabric loops) can be cut or not cut in a variety of different ways. When cut, the fabric develops a tell-tale sheen that is not as noticeable when the pile is left uncut. It is also possible to cut some of the loops and not others or to cut them at different lengths.

The Renaissance period was filled with velvet woven with not only silk, but precious metals. The various colors used in the weaving process created shimmering designs that signified status, fortune, and class. Since velvet refers to the way the fabric is constructed, velvet can technically be made with just about any type of fiber.

Environmental Impact

Velvet typically uses six times more thread than the average textile. However, it is the fiber itself that is used that will determine whether or not velvet is sustainable.

Polyester is a common substance used to create less expensive products, such as velvet. Being fiscally smarter, however, is extremely costly for the environment in this case. Polyester is made from petroleum-based fibers, which are the main source of the microfibers in our oceans. In addition, polyester is not biodegradable. Thankfully, polyester is not the only option to make velvet fabric. Using more eco-friendly fibers like organic cotton will lessen the environmental impact of this fabric. 

Impact on Animals

Velvet is made with silk, which is acquired from the silkworm that secretes protein in order to create their cocoons. Traditionally, the silkworms are boiled to prevent the fine threads of the cocoon from being broken as the worm becomes a moth and breaks out.

This is a controversial process among vegans. The answer to this has often been Ahimsa silk, also known as peace silk, which is considered cruelty free. However, there are debates about how animal friendly this practice is, as well.

Marine life is also effected when synthetic fibers are used to make velvet. Microfibers are an ongoing concern as fish and other sea life ingest them; smaller organisms digest the plastics, which are then consumed by larger and larger species, affecting entire food chains.

Velvet vs. Velveteen vs. Velour

Velveteen is produced in a similar manner from velvet except the loops are made in the weft thread. The weft thread is the horizontal thread on the loom versus the longitudinal thread used to create velvet. Velveteen is also typically woven with cotton instead of silk. This fabric was popular for furnishings and was specifically created with the middle class in mind.

Velour is a knitted fabric. This type of material has more stretch than standard velvet. Velour, like velveteen, is normally made from cotton and polyester. While retaining the softness and sheen of velvet, velour is a less expensive material.

The Future of Velvet

Once relegated to fashion for the wealthy and religious garb, velvet is on its way to being more accessible. With the desire for more sustainable products on the rise, work is being done to create more sustainable fabrics. Instead of the nylon-, polyester-, and acetate-based velvet that dominated the twentieth century, cotton and bamboo blends are growing in popularity. More companies are even using recycled and upcycled velvet to create products.

Frequently Asked Questions
  • Is velvet natural or synthetic?

    Velvet is deemed natural when it's made of earthy materials like cotton and bamboo, but much of today's cheap velvet is made instead from polyester, which is synthetic.

  • Is velvet vegan?

    Velvet made the traditional way (of silk) is not vegan because it exploits silkworms. Velvet made of polyester is vegan because it doesn't contain any animal products.

  • How durable is velvet?

    Although it looks delicate, velvet is quite durable. It's woven similarly to rugs, which makes it exceedingly hard-wearing and virtually impossible to snag.

View Article Sources
  1. Clark, Charlotte R. "Egyptian Weaving In 2000 B.C.The Metropolitan Museum Of Art Bulletin, vol. 3, no. 1, 1944, p. 24., doi:10.2307/3257238

  2. Okumura, Sumiyo. "Velvet And Patronage: The Origin And Historical Background Of Ottoman And Italian Velvets." Textile Society Of America Symposium Proceedings, 2016.

  3. Henry, Beverley et al. "Microfibres From Apparel And Home Textiles: Prospects For Including Microplastics In Environmental Sustainability Assessment." Science Of The Total Environment, vol. 652, 2019, pp. 483-494., doi:10.1016/j.scitotenv.2018.10.166

  4. Wright, Stephanie L. et al. "The Physical Impacts Of Microplastics On Marine Organisms: A Review." Environmental Pollution, vol. 178, 2013, pp. 483-492., doi:10.1016/j.envpol.2013.02.031