Explore the history of brocade, learn how it’s made, and see how designers and artists are using the ancient textile in new ways.
Originally crafted from silk, brocade is a lustrous, high-quality woven fabric featuring intricate designs. Frequently used for upholstery and drapery, the luxurious textile is now made from a wide variety of fabrics, including silk, linen, wool, cotton, taffeta, rayon, and other synthetic fibers. Once a popular choice for men’s formal suiting as well as women’s formal gowns, the unique woven textile boasts ancient origins as well as an ever-evolving following today.
The English word brocade (a term for both the weaving process and resulting fabric) comes from the Italian broccato, meaning “embossed cloth,” from the word brocco (“small nail”) —which evolved from the Latin broccus, meaning “projecting” or “pointed.” The brocade tradition itself, however, comes from an even older process that may have originated in China as early as 475 BC.
Miami-based visual artist Jen Clay, known for her bizarre and engaging textile-based installations and performances, says she began working with brocade during a graduate costume design class in the University of Florida theater department. “It reflects light in super-interesting ways,” she says. “I wrote it off for the textile costumes I was making for a long time, because my goal with those was to create an unsettling sense of ambiguity.“ For her early works, brocade’s crispness and subtle reflectivity—which tends to show every stitch—were reasons to steer clear for nearly a decade. “It’s not a forgiving fabric if you make mistakes. It puckers easily. And for costume design, it’s a bit itchy. It’s also expensive, which wasn’t really feasible for my artist’s budget back in the day. But now that I’m experimenting more with quilted fabrics and video projections, I’ve been reconsidering it.” Now drawn to the way brocade plays with light, Clay’s recent works weave together unusual tactile, linguistic, and digital elements into unsettling, eerily reflective worlds.
More than anything, brocade makes you want to take another peek at whatever it’s hiding, and the designers using it best are those who understand this quality and how to use it. Brocade can enrich a space with a sense of depth without actually needing to add texture or depth—a subtle, elegant optical illusion that we can harness to uplift our space with little winks of light.