Chenille is the French word for caterpillar. When it comes to textiles, the word chenille indicates a quality where raised tufts of yarn from the base fabric create the look and feel of a caterpillar. Chenille bedspreads, bathrobes, curtains and other items were particularly in vogue from the early to mid 20th century in the United States. Though chenille bedspreads and other items are still manufactured to this day, collecting vintage chenille is rising in popularity.
Chenille bedspread production can trace its roots to an earlier American fashion: candlewicking. Candlewicking was a form of embroidery popular in colonial times where white candlewick threading was used to make designs on muslin sheets, particularly for bedspreads. Now fast forward to 1892 when a young girl by the name of Catherine Evans visited a relative in McCuffy, GA who showed her one of these ancient candlewick spreads. Catherine was fascinated by it and when she returned home to Whitfield County, she endeavored to imitate the spread with her own handiwork.
Using a thicker yarn and a higher pile, Catherine’s creative twist on candlewicking was dubbed chenille. She gave one of her first chenille bedspread creations as a wedding gift in 1917 and it was such a hit that she soon found herself sewing one chenille bedspread after another for $2.50 apiece. To meet the demand, she got family and friends involved in making these bedspreads which gave rise to a whole cottage industry around Dalton, GA. These first chenille bedspreads, made by hand, are referred to today by collectors as cottage chenille bedspreads.
Manufacturing eventually replaced the cottage industry. The first chenille bedspread mass producer was Cabin Crafts in Dalton, GA. Following suit was Retrac of Chattanooga, TN. Established textile manufacturers who got in on the rising chenille fad were Morgan Jones, Bates, and Hofmann. These are all names that collectors look for today.
Two main variations in the way chenille textiles are made are referred to as needletuft and hobnail. Needletuft chenille has a high and loose tuft whereas hobnail has a small compact tuft. Tufting where the ends of the yarn are clipped to create that caterpillar feel is simple referred to as chenille.
At the crescendo of their popularity, from the 30’s to 50’s, vintage chenille bedspreads were made in all different colors, styles, and patterns. One of the most popular patterns, and highly sought after today, is that of a peacock. The popcorn style and the George and Martha Washington style are also highly sought after.
Collecting vintage chenille is a fun connection to the past but it is also GREEN! Actually using these antique bedspreads is a form of recycling. They can also be repurposed as furniture covers, curtains, bath robes, etc. The possibilities are limitless.