In general, textile weaving is based on the idea of moving the weft (threads that run horizontally) over and under the warp (threads strung vertically).
Weft and warp are both old Germanic words, wound together in weaving since the beginning of the language. Over time, the word weft, which has almost always had woof as a synonym (perhaps stemming from a variation in pronunciation), expanded meaning-wise into other areas of textiles (as the name for fibers and for use in basket weaving) and giving rise to waft.
Waft, as a noun, started as a word for a “bad taste” and moved to be “an odor floating in the air”, resting finally on the designation “a current or breeze”. The verb to waft is a back-formation (that means it was taken from a longer word, in this case wafter “to watch” from German) used initially for directing sea-travel and eventually merging with its noun-side to mean “go back and forth”.
Warp has had perhaps a more glamorous life. Inspired by the bending over and under the weft, warp takes on meaning as an adjective “bent, contoured” and eventually achieves fame as a portion of a favorite sci-fi concept: warp speed. Previously used only for the fastest of weavers, warp speed was popularized in the 1960s by Star Trek, to mean (and I have to quote the OED here), “a (hypothetical) faster-than-light speed, attained by a spaceship with a propulsion mechanism capable of manipulating space-time”. Along with its sibling, warp factor “the degree to which one achieves warp speed”, warp speed has traveled a journey that started on the loom and now extends to countless crossings of outer space.
The word velvet is descended from the Latin vill-us “shaggy hair”, which makes sense given the fact that its surface is really a fine pile. To make velvet, a weaver intertwines two sets of warps and wefts on a special loom, using a double-weaving technique, a technique developed in medieval Kashmir. The double-layered fabric is then separated into two ‘sheets’, as the threads are split down the middle, leaving each side with a nap facing inward.
After the cutting, each side is a length of velvet that can be wound into a separate roll.
Traditional velvets are made of silk. That, and the fact that the weaving and cutting was all done by hand, explains why (before industrialization created mechanical looms) velvet was affordable only to the wealthiest of the wealthy. And perhaps even then, only for special occasions. In 1399, King Richard II decreed that, upon his death, his body should be wrapped in velveto.
If the Kashmir weavers were making velvet in the early 14th c, it didn’t take long for the term (and the fabric) to make it into English language and culture. The first apprearance in print of velvet is in 1320, with a mention of a “couerchief de veluett”.
300 years later, we see velvet being used figuratively, as in “Thou speakst as true as veluet” as well as in the phrase to be on velvet, which means “to be in an easy or advantageous position”.
We see the latter being used in early America. The OED contains a quote from Thomas Anburey’s 1789 letters (collectively titled Travels Through the Interior Parts of America), which state, “Therefore, only tell General Phillips ‘that on that day I fought upon velvet’”.
May we all stand on velvet.
Speaking of . . . crushed velvet is created after the velvet is cut, at the same time that dye is added. Wet velvet is twisted during the dyeing process, creating the look of crushed pile.
What if your velvet is not made out of silk, but of cotton?
Well, then you have an important part of a children’s classic, velveteen. The fact that one could use cotton in place of silk made this velvet-esque fabric usable for things like stuffed animals.
Velveteen was (officially) born the same year that the United States was, as it first appears in print in a patent for Wollstoneholme’s “new kind of goods called velvateans, being an improvement on velveretts”.
(Velverett must have been a coarser kind of pile woven from cotton that, apparently, wasn’t able to make the grade.)
Velveteen was also used (briefly, in the mid-1800s) as a more general term for “trousers or knickerbockers made of velveteen”.
Which brings us to velour.
Velour, unlike velvet and velveteen, is a knit fabric. Recall that weaving is accomplished by running one thread across a series of others in an over and under motion. Knit fabrics are comprised of a series of loops, the new row picking up loops from the row that preceded it. (Apparently NASA has made fabrics in which the threads are ‘woven’ from three directions instead of just two, giving them a triangular grain instead of one that is square. Possibly these fabrics are in anticipation of warp-speed design requirements.)
Velour is the French word for “velvet” (in French it is spelled “velours”, yet still pronounced “velour”) and, in English (at first) velour was velvet. In the 16th c, we see velour (or vellure) as a term for the velvet pad used by hat-makers to smooth the surface of their wares.
And yet velour does not retain its ‘synonym status’ with velvet in English. Eventually, in what can only be called a velvet-making-like process, the two words are cut apart and their now-separate meanings wound upon their separate rolls. Velour now denotes the knitted fabric made with cotton thread or with a blend of cotton and synthetic fibers, often with spandex added for extra stretch.
Velvet made from silk retains its noble aura (the real thing can cost 100s of dollars per yard), velour is relegated to sweatpants and bathrobes (and is $4.95 a yard).
Napoleon Bonaparte once said, “A throne is only a bench covered in velvet”. Well, yes, but that’s what thousands of dollars worth of fabric can do for you.