In a world of constantly revolving design trends, brocade has done the miraculous: it’s been around for over 1,500 years, and it has never once gone out of style. For centuries, this luxurious fabric was available only to the upper class. While it’s now widely available—and affordable—brocades still exude a feeling of royalty, luxury, and timeless elegance. Whether you're looking to add some flourishes of brocade to your home, or are simply curious about the history of textile design, here’s a primer on the beauty of brocade.
What Is Brocade?
Brocade is an elaborately and exquisitely patterned fabric with a raised design that is woven on a Jacquard loom. Even though all brocades are Jacquards, all Jacquards are not brocades. This is because the term “Jacquard” refers to all multi-thread woven fabrics that are produced on Jacquard looms, like damask and, but of course, brocade.
The name “brocade” comes from the Italian word brocatto, which means “embossed cloth." Originally, it was made by weaving silk threads with other fabrics to create a design that gave the effect of hand-stitched embroidery. In weaving, the warp is the threads stretched across a loom horizontally, and the weft are the threads woven between them. To make brocade, extra weft threads are used to create the design, and to slightly raise it from the surrounding fabric.
Originally, brocade designs were created with fine silk thread, and according to some textile purists, any woven fabric—no matter what the design—that does not use silk cannot be a brocade. Still, most mass-produced brocade fabric does not use silk, favoring more affordable materials like rayon, cotton, and polyester. No matter what types of threads are used, they are dyed prior to the weaving process.
Types of Brocade
Within the overarching world of brocade fabrics, there several different types of brocades, each with its own variation on the basic weaving process.
In continuous brocade fabric, any leftover thread from the extra weft is left loose on the back of the fabric. These threads are either cut short or closely shaved, and will still be at least partially visible.
In a discontinuous brocade, the additional weft is only woven into the patterned areas, creating a smoother back.
Imperial brocade uses gold or silver threads to create the design.
The pattern of brocade velvet has a raised pile and a woven ground.
Brocatelle is made of heavier fabric, with highly-raised patterns that look like they’re practically leaping out of the surrounding material.
True brocade is a woven fabric, but today, the term “brocade” can sometimes be used to describe a highly-patterned aesthetic that’s reminiscent of traditional brocade designs. Outside of fabric, brocade patterns can most commonly be found on wallpaper.
The History of Brocade
Brocade first emerged in the early Middle Ages, when the production of silk—which for centuries was only done in the Far East—began in the Byzantine empire. From the 6th to the 9th century, Byzantine weavers were the primary manufacturers of woven silk fabrics for the western world, including brocades. Their weaving techniques spread across the globe as empires grew across continents, and brocade became culturally important in many corners of the world. These fine fabrics were, and still are, prized across Europe, Asia, and Africa.
Because brocade was made from expensive silk, only the wealthiest members of society were able to purchase it: brocade was commonly used for draperies and furnishings in royal palaces, and in ceremonial attire. More than the cost of materials, the reason brocade was so expensive was because of the labor involved. Made entirely by hand, only the most skilled weavers were able to make brocade, usually with the help of at least one assistant.
When the Jacquard loom was invented in the late 18th century, allowing brocade to be mass-produced, the price of this regal fabric dropped quickly. However, it was still out of the financial reach of most people. During the 19th century, brocade was embraced by the upwardly mobile middle classes, who prized it as a status symbol.
How Brocade Is Used Today
The most common applications for brocade in home design are draperies, upholstery, and bedding. Heavy brocade drapes give living rooms and dining rooms an elegant and formal feel. In the bedroom, brocade window treatments can create a regal atmosphere, and their thickness helps block out light. Brocade drapes are normally topped with a valence of matching brocade, which hides the hardware needed to hang such heavy fabric. That heaviness is what makes brocade a popular choice for upholstery and bedding; the thickness not only makes it durable fabric, but it also adds a layer of padding that provides both comfort and protection.