There’s something about chenille that just makes a person want to touch it. Soft, slightly stretchy, and wonderfully textured, there’s nothing like it in the world. But what is chenille material, anyway? And what is chenille made of? How is chenille material different from chenille yarn? And, of course the most important question of all: how do you sew with it?
What is Chenille?
The word chenille has a number of different meanings. First, the word itself means “caterpillar” in French. And it makes sense when you look at the fabric’s namesake.
Chenille also refers to both chenille yarn and the fabric that is made with chenille yarn.
There are also various crafts and processes that create products that are called chenille. The crafts and their products are all quite different from one another. However, they all share that defining feature: a soft, fuzzy, lumpy-bumpy texture.
What is chenille made of? It’s not the fiber content that matters in the production of chenille, but the process. Today you can find cotton chenille fabrics, as well as chenille made from silk, nylon, and rayon, among others.
A Short History of Chenille
Chenille yarn dates back to the late 1700s. As the name suggests, it came from France. Rather than being made from a specific material, chenille’s characteristic texture comes from the production process.
The first chenille involved a three-step process. First, fabric was woven using a process called leno. Leno weave means wrapping two warp yarns (the strands that stretch from top to bottom) around single weft (right to left) yarn. This produces a strong but sheer open-weave fabric. Weavers then filled in the gap with additional strands. 
Finally, manufacturers cut the leno fabric into strips to make chenille yarn.
Around 1830, Alexander Buchanan, a foreman in a shawl factory in Paisley, brought the idea of chenille to Scotland. Workers at this factory would give this process a new twist, so to speak.
At Buchanan’s factory, weavers wove tufts of colored wool into blankets. Next, workers cut the blankets into strips. Then the strips were treated with heated rollers in order to create the characteristic soft, fuzzy texture. Finally, weavers wove the fuzzy yarn into fabric, which the factory used to produce a new type of shawl.
James Templeton and William Quiglay would further refine the process, adapting it to facilitate the production of intricately designed imitation Oriental rugs. Templeton’s factory would become one of the world’s leading carpet factories in the 19th and 20th centuries.
Chenille in the United States
Technique and application took another giant leap forward in the 1890s in the United States. Artisan Catherine Evans Whitener revived the craft of hand-tufting, and used it to create bedspreads with an embroidered appearance. This, too, took on the name chenille, and eventually became a pillar of the economic development of northwest Georgia. 
For the next 40 years, Dalton, Georgia would become the “tufted bedspread capital” of the country. In addition, the technique would appear in the production of pillow shams, mats, carpets, and more.
As the craft developed and grew, it incorporated other techniques, as well. Some of these included:
- Stamping colors and patterns onto the fabric
- Heat-washing chenille to shrink it and set the colors
- Dying yarn before tufting it
- Eventually adapting sewing machines to tuft fabric
Aside from shawls, manufacturers didn’t begin to use chenille for clothing in a widespread way until the 1970s. At this time, rapid technological development allowed for mass production of chenille yarn. Further developments in the 1990s allowed for industrial scale production of chenille fabric.
Mass production allowed the price to come down, and today, mass-produced chenille is a very popular material for all sorts of products.
How is Chenille Used Today?
You’ll find chenille anywhere you want a soft, touchable, stretchy fabric. And that means clothing, household goods, and crafts.
Chenille is a popular fabric for sweaters, tops, and dresses. Its softness makes it a delight to wear against the skin. Its stretch means that a garment made with chenille fabric will be forgiving of bodily flaws. And it drapes and flows beautifully.
Chenille is also excellent in a variety of climates. It’s naturally insulating. At the same time, its loose weave means that it allows good air flow in warmer weather.
Chenille has long been a favorite for use in upholstery. Its texture is similar to that of velvet, but chenille is less expensive to produce. Chenille is also a top notch material for blankets, bedspreads, pillows, and throws.
Chenille quilting is actually several different crafts. First, you can cut pre-made chenille fabric into quilt blocks and use them to create a quilt top.
But chenille quilting can also refer to different techniques using stacks of regular quilting cotton.
One technique involves sewing your batting-stuffed quilt blocks with the backings together so that the edges stand up in tufts. You might recognize the technique from the ever-popular easy rag quilt, as shown below.
Another technique involves stitching fabric stacks on the bias, cutting them with a special chenille cutting tool, and then brushing the resulting rows into tufts. You can then sew the blocks the traditional way, or edges-up, as in a rag quilt.
You can see this technique in the video below.
What is Chenille Fabric Like?
With so many techniques and products that use the word, it’s natural to be confused. However, all chenille yarns and fabrics share a few characteristics.
Whether you’re talking about velvety chenille yarn or hand-tufted cotton chenille fabric, the first characteristic anyone will notice is fluffiness.
Chenille yarn is fabric cut on the bias. This gives it a built-in stretchiness. When chenille yarn is woven into chenille fabric, the result is a highly stretchy, pliable fabric with a wonderful drape.
Because chenille is made by wrapping fibers, it is thick and sometimes lumpy.
What color is chenille? It can be any color, of course. However, some chenille may also appear iridescent. This is because the fibers will look different when seen from different directions.
Chenille fabric is characterized by raised rows of either tufted or wrapped fibers. These rows sometimes look like ribbing. They can also look spiky, like the caterpillar for which chenille is named.
The loose weave of chenille fabric means that it readily absorbs liquids.
For such a delicate-feeling fabric, chenille is surprisingly abrasion-resistant and durable. Just mind the edges, as loose fibers can fray quite easily.
How to Sew Chenille Fabric
Chenille is a wonderful fabric with unique qualities. However, it’s not the best fabric for every project. Also, those unique qualities mean that there are a few unique issues when it comes to sewing chenille.
Advantages of Chenille Fabric
- Soft and silky
- Drapes well
- Resists abrasion
Disadvantages of Using Chenille
- Unravels easily
- Difficult to retain its original shape
- Needs special care
- Prone to shrinking
How Easy is Chenille to Sew?
Sewing with chenille can be tricky. It’s very stretchy, which means that it can be hard to get a piece to hold its shape while you sew it.
It can also be slippery, especially if your chenille is made from synthetic fibers. And this can cause puckering, thread-bunching, and other problems when you try to put it through your sewing machine.
Also, chenille is prone to fraying and unraveling.
Here are a few tricks to make things easier.
Use a walking foot to help your fabric to feed through the machine in an even manner.
Pinning the edges of your fabric at one-inch intervals, or even less, can also help your fabric to keep its shape while you’re sewing.
Sew with a ballpoint needle, rather than a universal needle. A ballpoint needle is specifically designed to work with stretch fabrics. You might also see ballpoint needles packaged as Jersey needles or stretch needles.
Choose a stretch stitch on your sewing machine. The design of a stretch stitch is meant to keep stitches from popping when the fabric stretches. Many sewing machines represent the stretch stitch with a glyph that looks like a lightning bolt. In absence of a stretch stitch, you can also use a narrow zigzag stitch.
Don’t finish the edges. Chenille fabric frays very easily.
The techniques used to create the first chenille also created a revolution in fabric. For more than two hundred years, artisans, crafters, and manufacturers have developed new processes and technologies that have increased the variety, popularity, and uses of chenille-type yarns and fabrics. Today chenille is a favorite for both clothing and housewares.
Working with chenille takes patience and a few tricks, whether you’re using pre-made chenille fabric or making your own. But the results are always striking and one hundred percent unique.
Have you made your own chenille? Do you have any tips or tricks for sewing with chenille fabric that you’d like to share? We’d love to hear about it in the comments.
- The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica | Weaving | https://www.britannica.com/technology/weaving#ref290553
- Randall L. Patton | Chenille Bedspreads | https://www.georgiaencyclopedia.org/articles/arts-culture/chenille-bedspreads