Brocade and damask fabrics have long histories, being used for opulent formal garments and as decoration since before the 12th century. Both fabrics are woven and are produced today using Jacquard looms, which automate the process and allow the production of very intricate designs in the fabric. Before the invention of the Jacquard loom, the designs were produced by hand, making the fabrics very expensive.
Brocade and damask fabrics have been used for centuries to denote high status, as these heavy, lustrous fabrics were originally so expensive that only the upper classes could afford them. Both brocade and damask are believed to have originated in China, with the technique spreading to the Middle East before being brought to Europe by the Crusaders. In fact, it is thought that the word "damask" comes from the city of Damascus in Syria, where the Crusaders first encountered it.
Brocade is a richly textured fabric produced on a Jacquard loom using lustrous fabrics such as silk or satin. The patterns in brocade are generally woven into the top of the fabric surface, creating a slightly raised design. Contrasting colours or metallic threads are usually used in order to make the pattern stand out even more from the background fabric. Because of its richness, when used to make clothing, brocade is often used for evening wear and formal gowns.
Like brocade, damask is produced on a Jacquard loom from rich, heavy fabrics. However, the patterns in damask are created using a different method, which produces a subtle design in the same colour as the background fabric. The patterns are woven directly into the fabric by contrasting matt yarn in the weft (threads going across the loom) with very lustrous yarn in the warp (threads going down the loom). This creates a subtle, reversible pattern that is enhanced by light falling on the fabric.
Brocade fabrics are popular in both China and India, where they are used in the production of traditional and ceremonial garments. Damask was very popular in 18th century Europe, especially in England, where it was used in wallpaper designs and for furniture upholstery in formal rooms. Many of the designs used in brocade and damask today are copies of those used for centuries in France, Italy and Spain, where the techniques were perfected during the Renaissance period.