Friday, April 1, 2011

Velvet: How to care for it, how to work with it

Dear Velvet Lovers,

I have no hesitation in addressing you as such because who could resist velvet? It's absolutely the most lush, plush, luscious and beautiful fabric known to man.

Unfortunately this is one of those things that by its mere existence offers a challenge to the universe. As punishment (or justice) for being so obviously superior to every other fabric alive, Master Universe ensured that velvet is also about the most difficult fabric to sew with and to keep in good condition.

Fear not, however. It's not impossible. It's just damn tricky. Here are some bits and pieces I've learned about velvet, through years of stubbornly refusing to leave it alone.

How to Launder Velvet

'Velvet' is not just one fabric but a whole category of fabrics. To qualify as 'velvet' a fabric must have a woven base topped with closely packed, short, soft fibres (called the 'pile'). It's a bit more complicated than that but we'll leave it there. Now, these fibres can be made up of just about anything.

The cheapest grades of velvet are pure polyester. Most of these can stand being put through the washing machine, but I don't recommend washing them any hotter than about 30 degrees centigrade. If in doubt, hand wash.

Cotton velvet is, obviously enough, pure cotton. It's less soft and plush than some velvets, but it's sturdier. I don't recommend putting these through the washing machine at all. Dry cleaning is best.

Silk velvets are the most expensive. Usually they are not 100% silk: a common composition is about 30% silk to 70% viscose (rayon), or thereabouts. These should never be machine washed (it ruins the lie of the pile, so the colour will appear patchy. Like crushed velvet, but more chaotic). It's best to dry clean anything made out of silk velvet.

How to Dry Velvet

Simple rule here: never tumble dry.

It might be possible to make an exception for the cheaper grade stretch velvets, but it probably isn't worth it. Tumble dryers are pretty bad for all luxury fabrics. Hang your velvet garment up somewhere and let it dry naturally. Or, if you're pre-washing a length of velvet prior to sewing with it, hang it over a drying rack.

How to Store Velvet

Here, again, velvet shows its contrariness. It should not, cannot ever be ironed - and yet it's great at developing deep creases which are very hard to remove.

To avoid the creases developing, don't store it folded. If it is an uncut length of fabric, store it on a roll. If it is an article of clothing, hang it up in a wardrobe.

Keep it out of direct sunlight. This actually goes for all types of fabrics, especially the delicate ones. Sunlight fades colours over time (don't worry: it takes a long time in direct light for this to happen). Make sure that when you put it to bed, it goes to sleep somewhere dark.

How to Press Velvet

I know I said it can't be ironed, but it's not hopeless. While you should never touch the surface of your velvet with the hot plate of an iron, it can be steamed.

Hold your steam iron a couple of inches away from the surface of the pile and press the steam button. Repeat until the creases disappear. Be careful with this: don't let the velvet get too wet. If it gets soaked through, pause for a few minutes and then resume.

If all else fails, you can turn the velvet over and press the back. GENTLY. I've heard other seamstresses suggest laying a towel over the ironing board before you do this, to protect the pile. If you're trying this, choose a thick, soft, fluffy towel, not an old ratty one.

These policies should help keep your glorious velvets in top condition. For those of you who wear velvets but don't sew with them, that's the end of the relevant part of this post. Anybody who has plans to sew anything velvet anytime soon, read on...

The Problem With Sewing Velvet

... is that it has a mind of its own. No, really. Pin the stuff down as much as you like and it'll wriggle away. This is because, when you lay two pieces of velvet right sides together, the piles of the two pieces work against one another and create a slight shift sideways. When you put it under the sewing machine, you can end up with an uneven seam and a rapidly narrowing seam allowance.

How to resolve this? Well, one thing that helps is to remember that it can move in different directions. Just putting your pins in a straight line won't hold it; if you'll halted the shift lengthways it'll jump sideways. It can help to put the pins in at different angles.

If you're sewing with two small pieces - like sewing patchwork patches together - then pin all the seams, even if you're only sewing one.

Failing all of that, tack it. (Tacking is putting rough hand stitching in to hold your fabrics together while you machine stitch them). Usually it's fine to just use running stitch when tacking, but velvet needs more. If I'm sewing any larger pieces together I usually use a herringbone stitch (cross shapes). This takes extra time to do, but it can save time in the end, as you're much more likely to get it right first time.

Another problem with velvet is cutting it out in the first place. It's slippery and can twitch away from your scissors. This is especially true of silk velvet. I usually counter this by cutting a couple of millimetres outside of the pattern line. If it's stretched or moved, this can cancel out the problem. You can tidy up any slight unevenness after you remove the pattern piece.

So: it might be hard work, sometimes, but it's worth the pain because the results can look spectacular - especially if you use a decent quality piece of velvet. Here's my most recent creation, made from a high grade polyester variant:

1 comment:

  1. Very wise words. I often make curtains from velvet and have the same problems. Thanks for visiting my blog - much appreciated. Your comments regarding my workroom were kind - I think it's a dreadful mess and it doesn't look how I want it to. I want it to look like a fellow Twitterers workroom at Now that's heaven!