Up until the 15th century, designs on Italian velvets tended to be small and were regarded as suitable for any type of silk designs including velvets. Velvet weavers, for example, were producing small, crowded animal designs similar to those on contemporary silks. Small knot designs were also very popular.
But changes were taking place, and by the 1430’s a new style of velvet designs was evolving based on floral forms and worked on a much larger scale than previously known, with broader areas of velvet pile (especially using voided velvet forms). These patterns developed into large-scale asymmetrical and symmetrical forms. In addition, another type of velvet design developed that was called ferronnerie, because of its resemblance to ironwork tracery.
One of the most popular large scale asymmetrical designs were the so-called pomegranate and foliage motifs that became very popular from the 1430’s onwards. The repeat size on these could be about 50 cm or more and several widths of velvet were required to create the final motif.
Another very expensive and popular form of cloth in the late 15th and early 16th centuries was brocaded velvet (cloth of gold velvet), which included both gold and silver metal threads and velvet techniques. But the height of luxury for many clients were velvets woven with their coat of arms or personal badges. These commissioned velvets were produced in both Italy and Spain for royal courts, nobles and churches throughout Europe.
Changes in fashion and taste meant that by the 17th century velvets were becoming much lighter in weight and the designs started to become much smaller and the repeat distance much shorter.
A feature of velvet patterns, in general, is that weavers often copied earlier designs, but using ‘modern’ equipment. It is possible, therefore, to find copies of 15th century Spanish motifs produced in 19th century Italy and France. This makes the dating of velvets more complicated! The same process of copying older motifs continues to the present day and such velvets are often used to restore the appearance of, for example, a 17th century room, or to replace well-loved wall hangings.
During the 19th and 20th centuries, a wide range of designs started to be produced using the Jacquard loom. This machinery was quicker to weave cloth and could produce more complicated designs, especially in the background. The motifs chosen reflected current tastes, such as the Neo-Gothic forms, or the Arts and Crafts motifs of the 1880’s and later. The latter can be seen in the velvet hangings in the Tweede Kamer of the Dutch Parliament buildings in The Hague. These include the so-called sunflower motifs that are now regarded as a typical Dutch velvet form.
Similarly, the Art Déco movement of the 1920’s and 1930’s created a wide range of geometric designs that reflected architectural forms, paintings, as well as other forms of textiles.
By the end of the 20th century the developments in modern computer driven looms have meant that virtually any type of design can be produced using velvet weaving techniques.