‘Chenille’ is the French word standing for ‘caterpillar’. The name exactly describes the fabric, as it is fuzzy, soft, and feathery. The chenille type yarn is fairly modern, with the origins dating to no more than 300 years in the 18th century. This contrasts with other yarns such as wool having its origins in 1500 BC. Due to its hard wearing, luxurious and comfortable feel, chenille is a commonly used for many soft furnishings and as a popular upholstery fabric for furniture.
As per the textile historians, such a yarn is a modern introduction originating in France. Before that, chenille yarn was produced by knitting the leno fabric and cutting it into strips. As per the historic records, the chenille fabric surfaced between 1754 and 1895 in three nations namely, France, Scotland, and in the United States.
As per the most famous story, the fabric was introduced during the 1830s in the Scotland by Alexander Buchanan. He came up with a new method for knitting fuzzy, textural shawls. The outcome was a highly soft, fuzzy fabric. This fabric was termed chenille.
However, it was only during the 1930s that this fabric got a head start for making carpets, mats, bedspreads, and throws. Today, the chenille yarn is commonly made from cotton although other options such as olefin, rayon, and acrylic are available.
Let’s take a look at how the chenille fabric made its way up to the 21st century, since its discovery in the 18th century.
During the 1780s, chenille was discovered in France. So, it can be said that this fabric first emerged in France. The weavers know about the knot stitch, which is a stitch that is looped just about the needle and gives texture to a knitted or woven piece. Nevertheless, the two major issues with this stitch are that it is time-consuming and manually exhaustive.
To replace this judicious stitch, an appliqué fabric was established as an effort saving device for generating pictures of nature, such as trees and lawn. This resulted in a fuzzy woollen thread pad atop the base of linen. The fabric was then termed as chenille. Due to the extremely soft tufts, this chenille advanced to be famous for clothing designs for women.
Regarded as a foreman of an industrial fabric mill in Paisley historic town in the Renfrewshire County in Scotland, Alexander Buchanan is considered the pioneer of this chenille. By weaving coloured wool tufts into blankets later cut into strips, he realised that using heated rollers on these strips gave an extremely fuzzy fabric in bulk. While it was unsure as to how this name chenille surfaced at that time, it was undeniable that the similarity was much like those fuzzy caterpillars.
After this discovery, two enthusiasts namely, William Quigly and James Templeton came together to further develop this Buchanan's technique. Mr James was a shawl manufacturer, while Mr William was a weaver with a more probing approach whose inventive thought process enabled this joint venture to gain a patent for weaving cords of chenille to carpets.
Finally, William Quigly sold half of the patent to James who rapidly became quite victorious. In 1841, he manufactured the carpet for the baptism of the future Edward VII, which was in St. George's Chapel standing proudly in the Windsor Castle. James was successful in refining the Buchanan’s technique for manufacturing tufted carpets via machines that were able to imitate the look as well as the quality of hand-woven carpets.
This was the time when the chenille was speedily becoming the leading fabric for carpets in different parts of Europe. At the same time, it extended its wings up to the United States where it was gradually becoming a trending fabric for home goods.
In 1895, in the Dalton city, a girl named Catherine Evans at the age of 15 devised something that nobody would have ever thought of. She was been allured by a family heirloom quilt built out of the old candle wicking process. However, this way of quilting was out of style but its richness inspired her to reform it all by herself. After many trials, she came up with an easier, time saving, and more efficient way of generating such a beautiful work.
Catherine devised a time-saving method for having the tufted candlewick embroidery look, which was the New England version of 17th century tufting that she had once read. Catherine discovered this method while creating a white-on-white coverlet for bed for gifting to her sister and brother in law.
She started sewing a coating of cotton cloth on a base of cotton to form an ornamental pattern. Then, she shrunk the fabric in boiling water so that the yarn would stay in its position. The outcome was fizzed yarns as pom poms. Upon this finding, these bedspreads took no time in becoming a masterpiece in cottage industry across the Dalton households.
While obtaining admirations for her work of art from family and friends, the young girl laid down the foundation of business, which was about to evolve swiftly. Her family started producing materials for working ladies who were in the field of hand tufting. These tufted designs were then promoted as chenille.
Educating the local working females about how to generate the today named chenille quilts seemed to be the main cause of its quick growth in reputation. Dispersing via the southern regions of Georgia, Carolina, and Tennessee’s, these chenille items quickly became the choice of retailers. As a result, the industrial chenille movement started its expedition from here.
In the Dalton city, the Singer Sewing Machine after being swiftly developed in the region brought about a shift in tufting. The brand designed machines having an assortment of time-efficient needles for the production of tufting in bulk.
Comparable to the James Templeton’s replicas of oriental carpets, Dalton city started to create their own such replicas. It was in this city where the Broadloom carpet was first produced. Bathroom sets, bedspreads, and robes soon became the prime textile exports. Interestingly, even today, around 90% of the planet’s wall-to-wall carpet is designed in and around this city.
During the 1920's and 30's, the Dalton city in Georgia was tagged as the continent’s Tufted Bedspread Capital. This plush innovation saw a steeply rising demand and soon it entered into the manufacturing of bath mats, throw blankets, and other furnishings.
Hand-tufted bedspreads featuring embroidery grabbed attention from every corner of the city and were tagged as chenille. With simple effective tactics of marketing, these bedspreads started to showcase in the local department stores. Soon, tufting achieved much significance in terms of economic development in the northern areas of Georgia.
Surprisingly, these bedspreads even fulfil the financial needs of families in that area even during the Depression era. At this time, the vendors set up what was known as ‘spread houses’ wherein the items tufted on farms were shrunk by giving a finishing with the help of heat washing. This also resulted in set fabric.
Trucks were loaded with dyed yarns of chenille and pattern-stamped sheets, which were then sent to families for tufting prior to going back to pay the tufters and gather the spreads for the purpose of finishing. Until now, across the state, the tufters were forming bedspreads, mats, and pillow shams for selling besides the highway.
It is worth knowing that in the business of bedspreads, the first to make a million was the B. J. Bandy who was native to Dalton. He made millions of dollars with his wife, Dicksie Bandy during the late 1930s. Soon after this achievement, many gained this prestigious financial status.
With the growing popularity, the vendors recognised that these spread houses and work of the original learners of Catherine were inefficient. The companies and makers were now moving to factories and mills from houses in farms.
They gained more control and productivity and were even more motivated by the provisions of wage and working hours for making tufted bedspreads by National Recovery Administration. Although this small industry supplied incalculable income for countless during the crisis of Great Depression, it had spread across its hometown. However, the fabric was still not used in apparel.
Due to increasing mechanisation trend, tailored sewing machines were preferred for adding hoisted yarn tufts. The sewing industry had evolved significantly since the time when Catherine started her first chenille enterprise. Developments in the sewing machines contributed to the increased trend of mechanisation.
Singer machines were modified to accommodate the heavier chenille yarns as well as thread the fabric in transpose, for fitting a special cutter that can cut the passing chenille loops. Such a customisation saved too much time as well as resulted in a high production of chenille.
During the 1990's, this industrial production got standardised, as the first set of standards were introduced. The Chenille International Manufacturers Association (CIMA) was set up to build as well as boost the manufacturing process of this fabric. This marked the peak of chenille’s popularity. The association was also responsible for maintaining the production standards up to a mandatory level.
During the 1970’s, the fabric was paved its way to the industry of clothing. Since this time, the head of each sewing machine formed two chenille yarns directly onto bobbins. Similarly, it was fine for a machine to possess more than 50 heads or 100 spindles. In these days, Giesse was among the initial machine manufacturers.
During the latter half of the 1990s, chenille made its way to quilting in a variety of yarns. Due to the yarn, the feathery and soft synthetic fabric when stitched onto a supporting fabric results in a velvety look. This is what is termed as a replica or faux chenille. The genuine or real chenille quilts are devised with the help of chenille fabric patches made available in an assortment of colours as well as patterns, without or with ragging the seams.
In a nutshell, after been introduced in France, the chenille fabric developed further and extended its wings up to Scotland. As compared to the French style, the Scottish had their own specific way of manufacturing chenille and was at par. In the Scottish town of Paisley, the wool yarns even today are woven into some kind of blanket piece that is then cut into stunning strips, which are utilised for an assortment of home furnishings, such as cushion covers and upholstered furniture.
The speciality of this fabric of chenille was and still is utilised in making the world famous chenille rugs. These rugs are highly preferred not only in Europe but also across the United Kingdom. Currently, it is the latest chenille form in Scotland, which differs significantly from the tufted chenille fabric that was much well-liked in the initial 20th century in the area.
By ragging, the chenille effect has been accepted by several quilters who desire an informal country look. With such a chenille finish, a quilt is also known as a slash or rag quilt because of the patches’ frayed exposed seams as well as due to the technique of accomplishing this look. Usually, in this technique, layers of soft cotton are slugged together in patches and sewn to the front with raw but wide edges. Then, these edges are slashed or cut to accomplish a soft, tatty chenille effect.
James Templeton & Co Ltd Carpet Factory, Glasgow. Designed in 1889 by William Leiper. The building is now used as a business centre.
Today, the techniques and style of making chenille have totally transformed. It has not only become finer but also of much better quality than before. The modern way of weaving chenille takes place without any form of pre-weaving, something that was always a part of the past techniques of making the fabric.
Rather, the sophisticated modern technique employs small pile type of yarns spinning at 90 degrees between two central yarns. The pile yarn type is finer, soft, feathery, and delicate- making up for an appearance that is highly preferable. It is this that gives a distinct look and colour change according to how light shines from each direction. The fabric can be made using other varieties of fibres or yarns such as cotton, silk, rayon, and olefin.
The speciality yarn looks like a hairy caterpillar and is marked by a pile jutting on all sides. Rather than the older technique of weaving, beating, cutting, and heating, piles of short lengths between two core yarns spin such that they give a feathery appearance. These piles can be of any fibre of textile type.
On the other hand, the core yarn is usually extracted from low melt nylon. This one is made by steaming the yarn, thus setting the pile yarns into nylon without the pile being changed even a bit. This technique of weaving is considered highly useful and creative to retain the fuzz of fabric quite firm and tight in its position; in fact just perfect!
One of the issues with yarns of chenille yarns was that the tufts could form a bare fabric and could even get loose. Well, this issue was solved with the help of low melt nylon in the yarn’s core and then steaming the yarn’s hanks to place the pile in its position.
Today, chenille is produced in a process consisting of two steps: Making onto a chenille bobbin and rewinding it onto a dye tube. In the latter step, an electronic clearer is used in the way of yarn for determining the length of yarn with the missing pile. When this is detected, a cutter is switched on. This happens when the missing section is bigger than the minimum specification that is typically 3 mm. the cutter cuts the yarn and the winder pulls back the yarn to remove the missing section. Now, the yarn is re-tied for winding up.
Today, the refined fabric is used for home items and fashion wear but has a very little semblance to its actual form in the past. The modern technique enables the fabric to look sparkling, as the light catches the fibres of yarn in a distinct way at various angles.
Although the fabric has evolved tremendously, it is yet best admired for its fuzzy texture. Cosiness and cuddly feel make it an ideal choice for home furnishings, especially during the winter. The modern chenille fabrics are also often used in varsity or Letterman jackets for making patches of letters.
A myriad of fabrics throngs the market differing in aspects of look, feel, and price. However, one thing is common among them: They are named by the woven fibre, loom, weave construction, or manner in which they are manufactured. When it comes to chenille, it is named so due to the way in which it is manufactured.
Well, that’s how chenille evolved in the past three centuries!