Sewing With Velvet
The Italian Gamurra that I was working on was my first project working with velvet. I knew going in that velvet had a reputation for being difficult to work with; therefore, I took time to do some research. While actually working on the garment and finishing the bodice, I realized I had not done ENOUGH research. So, to help save you all the frustrations I had, I am going to give you the sum of my research in as organized a method as possible.
What is velvet?
Velvet is a woven tufted fabric. The tufted threads are evenly distributed and (usually) cut to give a short, dense pile. The fabric does have a nap (direction, e.g. petting the dog from front to back or from back to front). Velvet traditionally was made from silk. In modern times, velvet can be made from many fibers, both natural and man-made. Silk velvet is incredibly expensive. Cotton velvet and acetate velvet are more common and more affordable, though still much more per yard than your quilting cottons! Due to its sumptuous nature and rich colors, it was often used for royal and ecclesiastical clothing in period.
The pile of velvet fabric is warp pile fabric that is often woven as double cloth. Warp threads run parallel to the selvedges and weft threads run perpendicular to the selvedges. Basically there are an additional set of warp threads that run between the two pieces of cloth that are woven at the same time and the pile is made when these additional warp threads are cut.
How to cut velvet?
This is where I started to make my mistakes due to not having done enough research. I’ll go over what I did right, what I did wrong, and what I should have done instead.
As discussed above, velvet has a nap. In most cases, garments will be cut with the nap running down (i.e. you pet the velvet from your shoulder to the bottom hem). This is a more natural feel. However, for deep colors, sometimes the garment is cut with the nap running up (i.e. pet from the bottom hem to the shoulder) as the color deepens when the nap is pushed the wrong way. My cotton velvet color did not change noticeably when the pile was pushed up verses pushed down. In all instances, you will ALWAYS cut all pieces with the nap running the same way (I will admit one piece of my lining is cut with the nap running the wrong way due to how much fabric I had, but all my outer pieces have the nap running down).
Always place velvet right side down and place your pattern pieces on the wrong side. Due to the pile, the fabric will squirm a bit. Placing pattern pieces on the wrong side of the fabric helps minimize this as the pile is not connecting with the pattern piece at all. By the same logic, only cut one layer of fabric at a time. If you need to cut something on the fold, make a complete pattern piece instead of half a pattern piece and cut the whole pattern piece in one layer instead of cutting on the fold. This prevents the two sides of the velvet from sliding against each other an distorting the shape of the piece you are cutting. Somehow in my initial research, I missed this part – I both had my velvet face up and was cutting on the fold. In the end, I had to trim my bodice pieces to even out lines due to the velvet pattern pieces squirming. I did find pattern weights were much easier than trying to pin the pieces down.
I also found a suggestion after the fact to use a rotary cutter instead of scissors as this lessens the amount of squirm in the velvet when cutting.
How to sew velvet?
Use a new, sharp, smaller (70/10 or 80/12) needle. I was already using a fine needle due to the sheerness of the sari border I was using as trim and it was new when I started this project. Take a trial run on a piece of cabbage before you sew on your main fabric. You may need to loosen your tension ( I did not have to). I have no advice when using a serger as I do not have one and did not need to cross that bridge.
Velvet creeps or crawls. Creeping/crawling is the independent movement of the layers when you try to sew them together. I had three different situations: velvet to velvet, trim (sari border and velvet ribbon) to velvet, and velvet to silk dupioni. Each of these behaved a little differently; however, in all instances pinning the dickens out of the project helped a lot. I loathe hand basting but I probably would have had fewer issues if I hand basted some of these areas I had the most trouble with. I ended up having to pull stitches out twice for the same spot in the center front when my trims did not line up between my bodice and skirt. One other option is basting spray. I have never used basting spray and was hesitant to try it but I might if I work with velvet again.
Another point, when sewing the lining to the front trying to sew with the nap helped minimize creeping/crawling as well. Grade the seams to help reduce bulk at the seam. Grading is when you trim the different layers of the seam to different widths to help lessen bulk when you turn the garment right side out. As usual, also clip your corners and clip/notch curves prior to turning fabric.
Speaking of ripping out stitches, velvet (and my silk and delicate sari border) all did not like having stitches put in and then taken out. I finally found that lining up the trims at center front and then starting in the MIDDLE of the trim and working out kept the creeping to a minimum when joining the bodice and the skirt and allowed the trims to get matched perfectly. Once I was out of the center trim, if it creeped a little, it was not a big deal because the skirt was gathered into the bodice.
How to press velvet?
Don’t! You will mess up the pile. Steam on the wrong side and then finger press. If you have to press it, put the right side on a towel and press from the wrong side to help prevent messing up the pile. In the case that the pile is crushed and looks off, hold the piece over steam and brush with a soft brush such as a tooth brush to reinvigorate the pile.