Chenille means caterpillar in English, forever linking the fuzzy insects that one day become either a moth or butterfly with fluffy yarn and fabrics. The French word was known early on in the United States and can be found in translations of French periodicals from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
Chenille yarns begin as fabric, with very loosely spun yarns used as the weft in a leno weave fabric. Leno weave, also called gauze, is a fabric in which a pair of warp yarns is twisted over or under the weft and does not alternate passing over and then under the weft yarns as they do in plain weave. Yes, this is complicated—remember that textile production includes some of the most sophisticated machinery ever invented by humans. When dressing the loom, the weaver sets the warp yarns far apart, allowing the fabric to be cut between each pair. This frees the loosely spun wefts to create the fuzz associated with chenille.
The loose characteristic of chenille yarns makes them difficult to use in weaving. Many early examples of chenille yarns are found in embroideries, where the yarns are couched onto fabric. The sampler above is almost entirely covered with chenille, made with silk weft and possibly linen warps. The linen warps would be strong to withstand the initial weaving process while the silk is more easily dyed and can be loosely spun to create the desired fuzzy effect. The woman who stitched this sampler was very sophisticated in her choice of yarn colors and in the way she laid the yarns flat, in different directions, to depict the varying textures of the plants and trees in the cemetery.
A set of statuary garments in the collection at the University of Rhode Island also demonstrates the use of silk chenille for embroidery, in this instance onto silk. These garments could have been cut down from an adult woman’s outfit and donated to a church for the decoration of a religious statue. The stomacher, sleeves, and skirt are all decorated with pastel-colored chenille stitched onto the silk.
Chenille could also be used for weaving, as seen in the example above of an eighteenth century brocade fabric from Spain or Portugal.
Chenille remained popular in the nineteenth century, and with the advent of water-powered machinery, it could be produced on a large scale for consumption by the ever-expanding middle class. One problem for consumers remained the loss of the weft tufts with age and laundering. This problem was solved when low-melt nylon began to be used for the core of the yarns in the twentieth century. Combined with the comfort of knit fabrics, so popular today, the soft, comforting feel of chenille has guaranteed its continued popularity into the twenty-first century.
Susan J. Jerome is collections manager at the University of Rhode Island Historic Textile and Costume Collection. She earned her MS degree from the University of Rhode Island, Department of Textiles, Fashion Merchandising, and Design. Prior to continuing her education, she worked for a number of years at Mystic Seaport Museum. She lectures on topics of fashion history and needlecraft; works as a textile and quilt conservator; and is a consultant to museums and historical societies. An avid textile enthusiast, she is happiest when writing, talking, and doing all things textile.