I visited a clothing shop today that was holding a sale on velvet. Long, flowy dresses with a thick wine nap, inky, blousy trousers, tunics in burnt umber that made your neck feel cossetted. Velvet draws me. I have a long, coat-like jacket in royal blue with garniture around the wrists and covered velvet buttons – I rarely wear it but I would never bid it goodbye. You don’t part with velvet, you prize it.
My New York grandmother was a Levy, one of the commonest names I could imagine. Her parents, I always thought, had brought the name with them from Poland when they arrived in this country at the turn of the 20th century.
I discovered through my brother’s sleuthing a few years ago that the family name, the name that came over the sea from the shtetls of Europe, was actually Axamit. The word means velvet.
Somewhere along the line my family were textile workers, velvet makers, perhaps somewhere around Lodz, where the family hailed from.
I love to think about the velvet in my background. The fabric has a long tenure – it’s been manufactured for almost 4,000 years in one form or another. It requires more thread to manufacture than other fabrics, as well as multiple steps. And it’s traditionally made with silk thread. So it’s always been a luxury material, from the Ottoman Dynasty on. Of course, velvet came about rather late in the game of cloth-making – sewing needles have been discovered dating to 40,000 years ago in France, and fertility figures famously wear girdles of thread.
Turkey is thought to be the site of the oldest known woven cloth, just a piece of linen found wrapped around an antler, dating to around 7,000 BC.
But velvet. That’s different. An inventory list from 809 AD, of treasures belonging to one Caliph Haroun al-Rashid in Persia, includes five hundred bolts of velvet.
The ancient Turks learned to produce the fabric on looms that had a raised series of loops. When you cut them, that produced the rich, deep pile that distinguishes the stuff.
The Italians took up the craft during the Rennaisance and all of Europe coveted what they produced. They took their patterns seriously, embellishing with ripe pomegranate fruits, artichokes, or thistle blossoms. It was all done by hand, of the finest silk. Methods were top secret. Affordable only by the very wealthiest noblemen and women.
I imagine the men (and women?) of my family bent over their looms, cutting the fibers with razor-sharp shears, experts in their domain.
The Industral Revolution made all that drape and sheen available to mere mortals.
Did the new era drive my hand-crafting ancestors out of the velvet business? As far as I know they didn’t bring their textile ingenuity to these shores. And they left the name, the velvet signifier, Axamit, behind when they stepped onto Ellis Island.
When I touch the scarf I brought home today, blush-pink and soft as thick rose petals, I connect to the warp and weft of my ancestors.