Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Elephant No. 171: Embossed Velvet

I was going to do something more elaborate with velvet today, but time is still at a premium, so I decided on this much simpler activity. Or at least I hope it's simple, since it's something I've never tried before.

The art of weaving velvet likely originated in Kashmir during the fourteenth century A.D., soon making its way to the Middle East. Cairo quickly became the world's largest producer of velvet, much of which was exported to Venice, Spain and Mali. European weavers began producing their own velvets sometime during the fifteenth century, particularly in Italy, with an industry that eventually rivalled those of the Middle East and Asia.

Today, many countries make velvet, with some silk velvets selling for several hundred dollars a yard. India and China are currently among the world's largest producers of velvet, although artisan velvets are still made in England, Italy, France and several other countries.

Silk velvet.

Although velvet can be made with various fibres, silk is the most traditional material. The fabric is produced on a special loom that weaves two layers of velvet at the same time. The fabric is then sliced between the two layers to create the characteristic pile. Before the invention of industrial looms in the eighteenth century, velvet-weaving was an expensive and labour-intensive proposition. Interestingly—for those of you with some knowledge of weaving—velvet is created by warp threads (the ones that run the length of the fabric), and velveteen is created by weft threads (the ones that run from side to side).

There are several different kinds of velvet:

Acetate: Synthetic velvet with a definite synthetic look and feel. It is usually very shiny and somewhat slinky, and is often combined with Lycra® or spandex to produce stretchy knit fabrics—which, according to some sources, is not real velvet.

Crushed: Velvet that is produced by twisting and pressing the fabric while wet, creating a patterned appearance. 

Devoré: Velvet produced by "burning out" part of the pile with sodium bisulphite. 

Embossed: Velvet patterned with a heat-stamping process, usually with a metal roller for repeating patterns. 

Hammered: Velvet with a crushed, dappled surface. 

Panné: Velvet that is made very shiny by applying pressure to force the nap in one direction. 

Plain: Firm velvet that is usually made of cotton. 

Rayon: Synthetic velvet with a feel somewhere between silk and cotton velvet. 

Silk: Velvet that is softer and more lustrous than cotton velvet. 

Velveteen: A low-pile dense fabric that is considered a form of imitation velvet. It is usually made of cotton or cotton and silk and is usually less shiny than velvet. 

Viscose: Synthetic velvet with a similar feel to silk velvet.

For today's elephant, I'm sticking to embossed velvet. Embossed velvet has likely been around since the sixteenth century, when metal dies were heated and pressed into the napped surface. The same effect, however, can be achieved using a simple rubber stamp and a household iron.

In sorting through some art supplies, I came across this stamp that I've had for years—but of course never used. It's made of a sort of foam rubber, rather than firmer plastic-like rubber, so I wasn't sure if it would stand up to the heat of the iron. But it only cost me a couple of dollars, so I was willing to risk it.

Embossing velvet is actually very easy. You place the velvet, nap side down, over the stamp. Spray the whole thing with water so that it's reasonably wet. Iron it on whatever setting suits the fabric, or slightly hotter. Essentially you don't want to melt the velvet, but you also want the stamp to print clearly. Speaking of which, it's easier if the velvet is synthetic, as you're more or less compressing it under heat. At some point I'll try this with different types of velvet, but for today I used this scrap of dark green rayon velvet.

I put the stamp face up on the ironing board.

Next, I placed the velvet on top, nap side down.

I sprayed the whole thing with water.

Then I ironed it until the fabric was dry wherever it lay against the elephant. When you're ironing, it's better to lift the iron and set it down again if you want to go over a specific area more than once. If you slide the iron around on top of the velvet, it may smudge.

One thing I would do differently next time is make sure the steam holes in the iron didn't come into contact with the embossing area. On part of the elephant's back leg there are strange smudges where the steam holes didn't allow the sole plate of the iron to connect properly. In this case, it creates some interesting shading, but I'd rather not have them next time. One way around this is to use a Teflon® shoe on the iron to give you an even surface.

Teflon® shoe for iron.

I quite liked this activity. It took all of five minutes once the iron was hot, from placing the stamp on the ironing board to the finished elephant.

I'm already thinking of ways I can use this newfound skill. It seems pretty much idiot-proof—even the rubber stamp survived—so this is definitely a good activity for me.

Elephant Lore of the Day
I love this little story from Alex Edwards of Natural High Safaris. Last year at a safari camp in Tanzania's Katavi National Park, one of the normally well-behaved elephants in the area suddenly took to ripping the canvas flysheets on the camp's tents.

At first everyone assumed this was an accident, despite the fact that elephants are usually clever enough to pick their way over guy ropes and other obstacles with no trouble. The safari operators called in a tailor, who carefully sewed the tears in the sheets.

A day or two later, it happened again. This was repeated several times, until the guilty elephant was caught in the act. Resting his tusks on the flysheet at the back of a tent, he was gently pushing down on the canvas to make it rip. At first no one could figure out why this particular elephant had become so destructive. Then in occurred to them: he simply liked the noise of ripping canvas.

Because the flysheets could only be mended so many times, the safari operators came up with a clever solution. Instead of sewing the flysheets back together, they fastened on new pieces of canvas with Velcro®. The elephant still gets to enjoy the sound of tearing Velcro, but now it's easier to patch up.

African elephant near a vintage-style safari camp.

Elephant's World (Thailand) 
David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust

Elephant Nature Park (Thailand)

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