The history of the chenille loom is relatively complicated since the fabric was developed on three fronts independently in Scotland, the United States and France. The word comes from the French word for caterpillar, because the fabric is very soft and elicits a great tactile response. In France a fabric was introduced in the 1780s that was woven in a knot stitch, which is the description for any stitches that are looped around the needle. These add texture to a weaving project, but are very labour intensive. Appliqu chenille fabric was introduced as a labour-saving device for creating nature images such as grass on linen backgrounds. The technique spread to women’s clothing patterns because the tufts were incredibly soft.
In the 1830s, Alexander Buchanan, a Scotsman, created fuzzy shawls employing chenille tufted fabric in coloured yarns against a blanket backdrop. These were cut into strips and frizzed on heated rollers. James Templeton further refined the technique to produce imitation oriental carpets.
In Dalton, Georgia of the US, Catherine Evans invented a technique at the precocious age of 15 that was a shortcut to create tufted candlewick embroidery. She created a white-on-white bedspread with loops, which she cut in half to produce a soft tufted appearance. When she attempted to boil the bedspread to shrink the fabric to hold the tufts in place, the tufts frizzed dramatically. Her unique bedspreads quickly became an industry since the demand for the product was great.
The city of Dalton became a major centre for chenille production and the technique was co-opted to produce carpet, as had been the case in Scotland. Singer Sewing Machine developed impressive tufting machines with multiple needles that automatically produced the fabric much more quickly and efficiently. The plants were closed during World War II, built reopened afterwards. Broadloom carpet was invented in Dalton and today 90% of the world’s wall-to-wall carpet is produced within a thirty-mile radius of the city.
In France, chenille fabric was employed to manufacture ultra-soft tapestries that frequently contained religious representations. But simpler images were also used such as a bird, a bowl of fruit or a butterfly. A simple splash of colour can have a dramatic effect in an otherwise staid room. Chenille can appear iridescent at times. It is mostly woven from cotton, but that is very delicate, so sometimes olefin, rayon and acrylic are used for greater durability.
Chenille was often woven on a variety of looms. The jacquard loom was sometimes used to produce the tufted effect, because it could handle complex instructions by employing punch cards to program individual needles.
But it was the Singer adaptation of single and multi-needle machines that quickly developed in the Dalton area with more complicated and technologically capable versions. Machines were built by the thousands to accommodate the demand for chenille products. Carpet, bedspreads, bathroom sets, robes, Oriental rugs and beachwear became major textile exports from the area. In the 1950s, synthetic fabrics were introduced and new spinning techniques were developed to reproduce the tufted effect. Today, 90% of manufacturing processes employ tufting equipment for carpets and bedspreads and other products. The original weaving process provides less than 2% of chenille fabric production.