Working with Velvet

Project: Long Robe commissioned by friend

Fabric: Wine coloured polyester velvet and 15cm pink fringing from House of Adorn, cotton lawn for lining from Spotlight

When my friend commissioned me to make this robe, she told me she used to think velvet was the height of sophistication when she was younger. It lead me to visions of 1920s Erte illustrations of beautiful women swathed in luxuriously draped garments whilst reclining on a chaise lounge. Indeed they looked effortless in their style, but I had somewhat of an idea that the making of such a garment would require a fair bit of effort.

Erte illustrations.

Velvet is not something I work with often. It can be a very tricky fabric, and has to be treated quite differently than other fabrics. Every seam can bring with it new challenges, and I found making samples along the way to be very useful. House of Adorn had a great range of high quality velvets and fringing and they were great to communicate with.

The reason why velvet can be so tricky to work with is mostly related to the pile. The pile is created in the weaving process when two pieces of velvet are woven at the same time joined by the pile, and then sliced through the middle to create the cut pile. Piles can be of varying lengths and velvet can be made from a number of natural and synthetic fibers. This velvet also had some stretch in it so I had to account for that at different stages.

Marked up pocket pieces on single layer of fabric.

One thing I had to work around was the fact that you can’t use too much heat or pressure when pressing velvet or you could crush the pile and leave shine marks. One way to press velvet is by using a needle board, I didn’t have one of those around so instead I used a large offcut of the same velvet plain velvet for the robe, and I covered my ironing board with it and used pins to hold it on the underside. In a way this works similarly to the needle board, so when pressing the piles should always sit on top of each other (right sides together) and provide support when pressing. Having done this, I still never applied full pressure when pressing, maybe only using the tip to open seams and steaming with the iron hovering over the fabric.

The other thing I had to work out was interfacing. I wanted to stiffen the collar section but fusible interfacings need full pressure to adhere to fabric. I would recommend a sew-in interfacing or in my case I used a stiff organza fabric. I secured it to the seam allowance at the front and back neck then sewed the full collar piece into the neckline. Matching notches from the collar and neckline also made sure I didn’t stretch the main fabric whilst I was sewing.

Collar lined with organza to stiffen instead of interfacing.

The pile proved difficult at a few stages. I realised that when I sewed against the pile it really didn’t work out. The fabric would jump around whilst being stitched and be almost impossible to sew in a straight line. Doing samples along the way where I could match the exact same way the pile was running and test out how it would sew, made it a lot easier and meant I didn’t leave stitching marks in the velvet which can get damaged after repeated stitching in one place.

One thing I did notice once I had the robe together, was that because the sleeves were quite dramatic and heavy, the shoulder seam was getting stretched out and not sitting where I had cut it to sit. One way to help those seams hold weight and not stretch out more over time, is to add cotton tapes. Before adding the lining to the robe, I steamed some cotton tape to pre-shrink it, then I used my pattern piece to measure out the tape to exactly the measurement of the shoulder line. I attached one end of the tape to the seam allowance at the neck line and the other to the seam allowance at the armhole. You can add stitches through the whole seam allowance, but you still want the movement to look somewhat free and not like its pulling anywhere.

Cotton tape securing shoulder line from stretching.

So to wrap up, here are my main tips when working with velvet:

  1. Decide which way you want the pile to go in your garment. Usually it feels nicer to have the soft pile running down the body, but you may prefer the way the light hits it going in the other direction. Whichever way you choose, always double check before you cut out your pattern.
  2. When you do cut it is much better to cut your pieces in a single layer. Cutting two pieces with the fabric right sides together will result in uneven cutting as the pile will move the fabric around as you cut. I know it takes way longer, but for large pieces especially it is worth it.
  3. Do lots of samples along the way. Velvet can be really sensitive and overstitching even a couple of times can leave marks and create holes.
  4. Don’t over press or over steam. It doesn’t take much for velvet to get shiny marks or a crushed pile from the iron. Use a needle board or press velvet pile to pile with limited steam or pressing.
  5. Use sew-in interfacing instead of fusible if needed.
  6. Test out the best finishes for your garment. I ended up doing a blind hem on the robe using my domestic and a stretch needle, but you could also hand stitch. Avoid topstitching or creating too much bulk with double fold hems.
  7. If your velvet starts to creep when sewing, baste your seams before sewing, check your stitch length isn’t too small, or try stitching in another direction.
Finished robe! I love how the light bounces off velvet.
My beautiful friend looking like a truely luxe and glamorous Erte babe in her new robe. Thank you Bon!

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