Opulence Through the Ages: The History of Brocade

From the Italian broccato, meaning “embossed cloth”, brocade at its simplest is a weave of three different yarns: the customary warp (vertical) and weft (horizontal) threads—which are used to make any roll of cloth—plus an additional weft yarn that creates the ornamental pattern. This construction method gives the illusion of raised embroidery.

Beyond this straightforward definition, there is nothing simple about brocade. It’s a material that is incredibly varied and almost as old as civilization—and one that designers continue to reinterpret today.

Chinese silk fragment, Ming Dynasty, 15th/16th centuries

A panel of Chinese silk brocade fabric from the Ming Dynasty (15th-16th centuries) depicts a pair of riders against a field of birds and blossoms.

The production of brocade began in ancient China, where cloth was found in tombs from the Warring States period, which dates from 475 to 221 BC. At the time, China was the world’s only producer of silk—its method was a carefully guarded secret—and clothesmakers used silk thread to craft lavish brocades worn by royalty and the wealthy. The designs were revered by the Byzantines, who made their own brocades of linen and wool in emulation of these fine Chinese silks.

Ancient brocade was made by hand on conventional looms. Although the process was tedious and time-consuming, brocade fabric only grew in popularity. By the 6th century AD, the Byzantines had smuggled silkworm eggs from China into their empire and begun producing silk brocade for the rest of the Western world.

Bronzino portrait of Eleonora di Toledo

This circa-1545 portrait by the Italian artist Bronzino depicts Eleanor of Toledo—wife of Cosimo I de’ Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany—in a heavily brocaded silk dress that signifies her noble status.

Uffizi Gallery

During the creative flourishing of the Renaissance, brocade designs became exponentially more artistic and intricate, resulting in exquisite hand-crafted textiles. Italy became a major producer of silk brocade, and textiles featuring Asian motifs—a result of Italy’s booming trade with China, India and Persia—were all the rage among European nobility.

In 1804, the invention of the Jacquard loom and the automation of patterning changed everything. With this loom, seamstresses could more efficiently produce brocade designs, and brocade gowns became incredibly popular during the Victorian era.

The Costume Institute 18th-century French gown

A beautifully preserved example of 18th-century French court dress, this lavish gown is fashioned of brocaded silk in a sprigged floral motif. Circa 1775. Collection of the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Isabel Shults Fund, 2005, 2005.61a, b

Many different types of fabric can be woven into brocade, including silk, cotton, velvet, wool and synthetics. Zari work brocades from India, Bangladesh, and Pakistan incorporate actual gold and silver thread. Himroo, a traditional Indian handwoven brocade, is a mixture of silk and cotton. It’s stretchy but shiny—and perfect for saris.

In Guatemala, Maya artisans weave wonderfully intricate brocades by hand on backstrap looms. London-based Schumacher collaborator A Rum Fellow marries original contemporary designs with these traditional handcraft techniques to produce a collection of exquisite brocade panels.

Schumacher Amates Hand Woven Brocade

Amates Hand Woven Brocade, from Schumacher collaborator A Rum Fellow, is hand-woven and embroidered on a backstrap loom by master Maya women weavers in Guatemala.

While it may not be the most practical choice for modern clothing, brocade is an elegant, statement-making option for upholstery, pillows and curtains.

Shop a few of our favorite handwoven brocades below.

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