Another too-cold day, no going outside, because it hurts too much for me to breathe (that’s been a problem for 40-50 years, it’s why I moved from Ohio to California, but now it’s much worse because I have some chronic respiratory thing, all sinus and bronchial distress, that might be long Covid, or just my body giving up), so I bundled up at 4 a.m. — breakfast time — in my excellent blue velour bathrobe, sweetly worn, smelling a bit like me, warming to my body, pleasing to the touch, bearing the satisfying luxurious name velour. A delicious word. Velvety amour.

I mused on the word. And its fabric family: velour, velvet, velveteen, plush.

Lexicographic moments. Excerpts from NOAD.

noun velvet: a closely woven fabric of silk, cotton, or nylon, that has a thick short pile on one side. ORIGIN Middle English: from Old French veluotte, from velu ‘velvety’, from medieval Latin villutus, from Latin villus ‘tuft, down’. [AZ: Velvet was originally made from silk, so was extravagant; it’s now often made from other fibers, sometimes in combination.]

noun velour: a plush woven fabric resembling velvet, chiefly used for soft furnishings, casual clothing, and hats. ORIGIN early 18th century: from French velours ‘velvet’, from Old French velour, from Latin villosus ‘hairy’, from villus (see velvet). [AZ: Velour was usually made from cotton, now is often made from a synthetic fiber, like polyester (my Nautica velour bathrobe, which the company labels plush, is 100% polyester); velour usually has a shorter pile than velvet.]

noun velveteen: a cotton fabric with a pile resembling velvet [AZ: Velveteen was, originally, imitation velvet.]

noun plush: a rich fabric of silk, cotton, wool, or a combination of these, with a long soft nap … adj. plush: richly luxurious and expensive: the plush chrome and leather office. [The nap of plush is generally longer and less dense than velvet.] ORIGIN late 16th century: from obsolete French pluche, contraction of peluche, from Old French peluchier ‘to pluck’, based on Latin pilus ‘hair’. The sense ‘luxurious’ dates from the 1920s.

Etymological moments: the hairiness theme. The English fabric names are etymologically metaphorical, expressing a similarity between the pile, or nap, of threads in the fabric and human hair. The Latin sources are vill-us ‘shaggy hair’ and pil-us ‘a hair’. Meanwhile, there’s Latin capill-us ‘a hair’ (pl. capilli ‘head of hair’), appearing metaphorically in English in the name of capellini, or angel-hair, pasta.

Costuming moments: velvet clothing. The high-end stuff. Two illustrations:

(#1) The Man in the Burgundy Velvet Suit: from Indochino menswear, the Harford burgundy velvet tuxedo ($550)

(#2) The Woman in the Emerald Velvet Gown: from District 5 Boutique, a Cristallini emerald green velvet off-the-shoulder gown ($1,015)

Usage moments. Many people seem to use velvet (the oldest of the terms) to cover the whole territory, and there clearly is considerable variation in the way the terms are used, a situation made rather chaotic by attempts, on the parts of various commercial interests (designers, producers, and sellers of fabrics, clothing, household furnishings, toys, hats, etc.), to enforce their various in-house usages.  (And then there’s velour as a subcategory of plush.)

My own usage allows for substantial overlap — similar to more familiar cases, like sofa and couch — in the use of velvet, velour, and plush, though I think I’m inclined to reserve plush primarily for furniture and toys; to use velour rather than velvet for “less fancy” fabrics (like my polyester bathrobe, rather than like the clothing in #1 and #2); and to use velveteen only in referring to the children’s book The Velveteen Rabbit, though I recognize it as a name for a kind of velvet. Others will no doubt have different patterns of usage.

Footnote on the –een of velveteen. From Michael Quinion’s affixes site on –een:

Forming diminutive nouns. (Irish diminutive suffix ‑ín)

Most words in ‑een are characteristically Irish, though many are now more widely known … A few words come instead from the French ending ‑in or ‑inecanteentureen; some names for materials were formed in English in imitation of bombazeen, an older spelling of bombazine, for example velveteen and sateen. The modern equivalent of this ending is ‑ine.


3 Responses to “velour”

  1. arnold zwicky Says:

    Easter egg alert: Sloan Wilson’s 1955 novel The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, the basis for the 1956 film starring Gregory Peck and Jennifer Jones.

  2. Anneli Meyer Korn Says:

    Weavers might take a different view: “velvet” is woven in parallel sheets with the pile stretched between the layers, which are then cut apart. Velvet is unique in this weave.

    “Velveteen” is a different weave structure, and “velour” is usually knitted, not woven, which implies stretch.

    I once read a SF/F novella that featured people in velvet woven from a fiber that couldn’t be cut by ordinary blades, and wondered how they cut the cloth properly.

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      Pretty much everyone concerned with fibers, fabric, or clothing in one way or another has their own view about how these words are to be used — often re-defining the words and sharpening the senses to express the distinctions that are important to them. Everybody then thinks that their technical usage is the right and true one. However, the technical usages don’t fit the etymologies very well, and everyday usage has much fuzzier categories and exhibits very considerable variation. The weavers’ usage is just that — the usage of a particular community, for particular purposes — but autres temps, autres lieux, autres mœurs.

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