Sandy Erdman: Chenille, barkcloth were the fabric of a half-century ago
Have you taken a look into your mother or grandmother’s linen closet or one of the old dresser drawers, or even that trunk or cedar chest in the attic? You just might find an old chenille bedspread or even a few pieces of the big floral barkcloth tucked away.
Or check the summer cottage — the chenille spreads may even be on the beds or a few barkcloth pillows on the chairs.
In good to excellent condition, a vintage chenille spread is selling for $200 and up on many of the online selling sites. Chenille has resurfaced, and new cotton spreads can be found in many catalogs and bedding stores.
Old chenille has become quite the collectible. Vintage floral barkcloth starts at $20 for a half-yard. Hand-made barkcloth pillows start in the same price range, around $25, in good condition on many of the online selling sites.
In “Chenille: A Collector’s Guide,” author Judith Ann Greason tells us that chenille, a French word, refers to the tufted-cotton textiles that were first hand-stitched in the late 1800s by women from Dalton, Ga. In no time Dalton became the chenille capital of America, even calling its main road “Bedspread Alley.”
By the 1930s, machine-made chenille spreads became available and everyone enjoyed them through the 1950s. But around the 1960s, chenille fell into obscurity when manufacturers switched to more cost-effective polyester to make bedspreads. The old chenille was packed away or made into rags.
In Margaret Meier’s book “Vintage Textured Barkcloth,” we learn that the term “barkcloth” refers to the nubby texture of the weave, rather than a specific fiber content or design.
The original barkcloth was produced in Southeast Asia and the Pacific Islands by soaking and beating the inner bark of certain trees into a paper like fabric. Often these fabrics were dyed, painted or printed. Exotic tropical designs began to become popular in the United States in the late 1940s. Barkcloth Hawaiian shirts and furnishing fabrics were brought home by American GIs stationed in Hawaii, and soon became all the rage.
The original barkcloth was soon being reproduced to supply the demand by using a heavy Momie weave, which is a pebble-surfaced crepe with a cotton, rayon, or silk warp and a wool filling to produce what we know as barkcloth today. Barkcloth is typically a medium- to heavyweight fabric which dominated interior textiles, particularly curtains and upholstery, from the 1940s right through into the 1960s. Some countries, including Australia, were still producing barkcloth into the late 1970s.
The lighter weights were also used in apparel. In the past, barkcloth was almost exclusively used for interiors, but these days its heavier weight and durable texture plus its nostalgic and often kitschy prints have inspired sewers to produce some fantastic accessories.
Where to find
It would be hard to find chenille from the 1800s. You’re more likely to find it from the era of the 1930s through the 1960s. The most sought-after are those with a pattern and vibrant colors. Find them in antique malls and flea-markets where vendors are selling textiles and fabric.
Barkcloth produced in the 1940s to the 1960s can still be found in antique, thrift and junk shops, flea markets and on many online sites. Sometimes it goes for a real steal.
Ann Collins, owner of Churn Dash Antiques, Rochester, said, “I don’t have any chenille bedspreads in the shop at this time, but we do have vintage, colorful, 1940s-era barkcloth. The price depends on the size and condition of the piece. A large single drapery panel sells for $65-$75. Their heavier weight makes them ideal for re-purposing to use as cushion and pillow covers.”
Check out local garage and estate sales and country auctions. It’s better to see the items than to shop online. I find my bargains at the area antique shows, flea markets and craft shows coming in May, from Rochester Antique Gold Rush to the 100 Mile garage sales and the occasional and seasonal markets.
A note on condition
Stained or threadbare chenille and barkcloth have little value as collectible. We call those pieces “cutter’s cloth,” used to make items such as pillows and chenille stuffed animals.