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The Great Debate

What is found on countless sofas across the country, available in a wide range of prices, designs and colors, and super-soft to the touch?

Would your answer be velvet? Or would it be chenille?

Velvet and chenille, two of the hottest fabrics in the marketplace today, have generated some heated discussion in the industry. Some chenille suppliers sell their fabrics as "velvet-like, " while some velvet suppliers tout sculpted looks that simulate the appearance of chenille.

New fiber and finish technology continues to blur the lines between the two fabrics, which are in fact very different. In simple terms, one is a yarn and one is a construction. But makers and buyers alike agree that most consumers don't know which is which. And some fabric and furniture suppliers even contend that some retailers aren't sure of the differences.

According to Jack Arthur, vice president of merchandising for Norwalk Furniture, "I would imagine there is confusion at the point of retail. They are often called by each other's names. Generically, pile things with lots of texture are called chenille, whether they are or not from a technical standpoint. And smooth things are called velvet."

Elizabeth Hough, senior director, fashion marketing, home fabrics, Cotton Inc., notes, "Most consumers feel velvet is more formal than chenille. There is a debate and great crossover."

Adds Michael Shelton, president of Valdese Weavers, a designer and weaver of fabrics, including chenilles, "Aesthetically, the differences are very minor. You can make a chenille as velvet-like as you choose."

Many suppliers contend that these differences are vital. There are construction issues, durability questions, technological advances in both fibers and finishes, design innovation -- all of which play important roles in differentiating chenille and velvet.

But fabric manufacturers such as JL de Ball argue that the consumer does, in fact, know the difference between the two fabrics. Says JL de Ball general manager of home furnishings Michael Marzen, "The consumer can tell the difference. Velvet can give an even surface. Chenille can't. It can only imitate plush. We can weave very, very fine velvet.'

Though both chenille and velvet have enjoyed periods of popularity and decline, today's manufacturers, buyers and retailers agree that these fabrics have a viable place in the market and that each is clearly on the ascent and will be for some time to come because of their broad appeal to the consumer: part nostalgia, part lifestyle, and part fashion statement.

Under Construction

The technological breakthroughs of the '90s have had a dramatic impact on both chenille and velvet fabrics.

New constructions and fibers enable these fabrics to out-perform their predecessors. Fibers alone, for example, can create stronger, softer fabrics in trend-right low luster. And new finishing techniques yield a softer hand and eliminate shrinkage.

"There have also been advances in protective finishes," says Sara John, market development manager, 3M. "Part of our job is to tell consumers what to expect. [For example], we need to remind the consumer that there are more than 75 products that carry the Scotchguard name for different end uses and results."

The construction of both chenilles and velvets is key to their durability. For example, Quaker Fabrics, the largest supplier of chenille to the market, has several proprietary processes that strengthen its chenille fabrics, including the Ankyra process, which locks the chenille into the core. (In addition, the company offers a five-year Wear-Dated warranty program from Solutia on its fabrics.)

Quaker vice president Tom Muzekari believes the company's new programs are partly responsible for bringing chenille to its present level."It's been around forever but was not that big because companies were concerned about durability. You had to pad down weaves, tighten constructions and be conscious of not having a quality problem," he says. Muzekari points out that faster looms and computer-aided design are also propelling the market.

Chenille makers tout its flexibility. Because chenille is a yarn, it can be used in combination with other yarns, from boucles for a dry, nubby look, to metallics for a more formal look. Chenille yarns can be woven into fabrics that are often mistaken for velvet. But suppliers like JL de Ball's Michael Marzen contend nothing can imitate the look of true velvet, which has "an even surface. We can weave a very, very fine velvet."

In the velvet arena, Milliken has two proprietary pieces of equipment that allow it to either "sculpt" or " engrave" velvets for a multidimensional effect.

Milliken's Stafford Brook describes "engraved" fabric as looking solid from a distance but revealing a soft pattern up close; whereas "sculpted" fabrics are more obviously patterned. Cut velvets in general add interest to a category that was once plain-cloth dominant. Says Kristin Praeuner, furniture buyer at Covins, "We're seeing a lot of cut velvets [that], while still formal, are less formal. Cut velvet is more of a breakthrough."

Flock velvets are also making a comeback. New fiber and construction technology allows this fabric to simulate everything from leather to suede to woven velvet. Says Ella Rabil, DuPont nylon upholstery segment manager, "Flock can take on any face. The beauty of it is its flexibility and overall value."

Fiber First

Fibers, from nylon to rayon to cotton to olefin, are now engineered to bring additional flexibility to chenille and velvet styling. In addition to adding warranties and helping tell a durability story, fiber companies have made great strides in creating fibers that address the demand for casual looks.

Jack Arthur, vice president of merchandising for Norwalk Furniture, notes: "The fiber people have found a way to de-luster with polyester fibers. And, voila! It gave the look with a good price."

The DuPont Nylon Upholstery group is rejuvenating the flock velvet business. "In the last five years, there has been an explosion of new fiber into products," says Ella Rabil, DuPont Nylon Upholstery segment manager.

"There are fine deniers plus de-lustering technology. This fiber engineering impacts the aesthetics of fabric from a luster and hand standpoint."

Infinesse by Microfibres carries a DuPont Xtra-Life five-year Limited Wear Warranty that covers wear, color loss or change due to fiber abrasion, fabric and seam tears due to wear, pilling and fiber migration.

Celanese Acetate is being used now in velvets, particularly in higher- end home fashions such as with Ralph Lauren, according to Celanese spokesperson Ellen Sweeney. In addition, Avora FR polyester is now available in velvets and chenilles for both residential and contract furnishings.

The Finish Line

It is the final finishing process that gives both chenille and velvet fabrics that super-soft hand. New finishing techniques are eliminating width shrinkage, blocking future blemishing and adding texture to fabrics in today's market.

Says Michael Shelton, president of Valdese Weavers, "Fifteen, 20 years ago, you weren't able to make chenille look as nice. Now, with washing and distressing, there are a range of looks that we can achieve."

Quaker's Muzekari observes, "This new finishing, base finishing, we call Quaker Plush -- it's the most significant change in product development. It changes the texture dramatically." Quaker Plush blooms the chenille, making it extra soft.

Creating a soft hand is the key ingredient to selling chenille fabrics. However, shrinkage occurs when doing a traditional washing process, so some suppliers have developed new techniques that eliminate the shrinkage factor. For example, Craftex uses an Airo dry finish called Synfyn, which beats the chenille to the top and maintains the width of the fabric. Craftex uses this technique with its acrylic and cotton chenilles that hit the midprice points, according to vice president Jack Eger.

But new developments are also taking place in the velvet market when it comes to finishing. Says Stafford Brook of Milliken, "We've come out with finishing technology that has really helped us. It's a patterning technology, again, put on at the end of the process. A proprietary yarn process helps us get a textural, soft product."

Mark Shuford, export sales and marketing manager for Collins & Aikman Velvets, notes, "Our technology up to this point has been in the finishing process -- making the fabric more livable, more casual, to meet the needs of the Generation Xers. We're using finishing techniques that make the fabric look somewhat distressed and more appealing to different consumers."

Perception Vs. Reality

Do consumers understand the difference between velvet and chenille? Does it matter that many don't? Norwalk Furniture's Jack Arthur notes: "I would imagine there's confusion at the point of retail -- they're called by each other's names." But velvet and chenille are vastly different -- the former is a fabric, the latter a yarn.

Consumers typically don't know about constructions, fibers or finishes that differentiate them. What they do know is that they want a soft, comfortable product that's relatively easy to care for, at competitive price points.

Says Tony Moretti of Jordan's Furniture, "If they like the look and they like the feel, they'll buy it." Crate & Barrel's Rob Pitt agrees: "The bottom line is that people want something that feels good." The key to selling either fabric, he adds, is to determine a consumer's requirements and match them to the appropriate products.

Bob Price, divisional merchandise manager of furniture for J.C. Penney, says that consumers mainly perceive versatility: "The customer can make a good match between a certain furniture style and the corresponding grade of chenille or velvet."

Fabric suppliers and furniture makers agree that many consumers in the promotional segment of the market understand neither the technical nor the practical differences between the fabrics. "The average customer doesn't really understand the differences between the two," says Mark Shuford of Collins & Aikman. "A well-educated consumer does."

And adding to the confusion is the re-entry of updated nylon flock velvets to the marketplace. Some say that the new flocks, like those from microfibres, will be competitive with velvets at the more promotional end because, while some in the industry view flock as an "imitation" velvet, most consumers don't know the difference.

Dupont's Ella Rabil explains, "The perception we're dealing with is a trade perception. The consumer doesn't really know how the product is made so [the product doesn't carry] negative connotations. Choices are made in fashion and color."

Regardless of whether they understand differences in construction, many consumers have preconceived, often inaccurate, notions about velvet and chenille. "Velvet [conveys] a formality that chenille does not," says Kristin Praeuner, furniture buyer for Covins.

Says Collins & Aikman's Shuford: Customers think that "velvets go in the living room, chenilles in the den. It's our job to try to change that perception."

"I think most consumers feel velvet is more formal than chenille," agrees Elizabeth Hough, senior director of fashion marketing for home fabrics for Cotton Inc. "They also see chenille as more durable."

Fabric suppliers, furniture makers and retailers are trying to change some of these assumptions, especially the view that velvet is stiff and formal. "That's one of the things we struggle with: How do we change the perception that velvet is not an everyday fabric?" asks Shuford, adding that the firm has been developing more casual-looking velvets to meet consumers' lifestyle demands. "We're making the fabric more livable and casual to meet the needs of the Generation Xers. Consumers have a fear that velvet's going to crush, and that, in six months, it won't look the same. Through the new technology, we're preventing that. It's like wrinkle-free pants."

While some in the industry are confident that consumers are getting the information they need, others say the industry has a long way to go in educating the consumer.

"There's a lot of benefits to chenilles that I'm not sure we're getting across to the consumer, such as its wearability," says Moretti of Jordans. "It could be done on the sales side, and that's probably what we'll be focusing on."

The Bottom Line

One point that most suppliers, furniture makers and retailers do agree on is that chenille and velvet fabrics are bought and sold based on the price/value equation they represent. Both chenille and velvet fabrics are available at a wide range of price points, though velvet fabrics dominate the high end of the market.

Retailers are like everyone else, says Mark Shuford of C&A Velvet. They "want something that looks like a whole lot more than what they paid for it." C&A manufactures velvets that are priced from $4.25 to $15 and range from jacquards to prints to plains.

Even sharply priced velvets must compete against the breadth of price points available in today's chenilles. Quaker's chenilles, for example, are priced from $3.25 to $10, while the Whitaker line ranges from $5.95 to $24.

"From a price point perspective," says Broyhill's Dietra Smith, "Chenille wins out. It has a higher perceived visual value. [Lower- priced velvets] tend to look more promotional. That's where they drop the ball." She adds, "For velvet, I look at $6. In chenille, I look at $3.25 to $6.95."

Crate & Barrel's Rob Pitt says, "The trend now is to really good chenilles at lower price points. On a per-yard basis, a lot of the action in chenilles was in $8 to $10. Now we're seeing it at $4.95."

Dottie Coley of Lee Industries, a furniture maker, explains, "We have hard and fast rules about what we have to buy and meet. Everything is medium and up. You can buy chenilles and velvets at almost any price. Some of our decisions are based on delivery, as well as performance. I run chenilles from $4.25 to $26. If it doesn't perform, we won't buy it."

Still, many buyers are pushing both fabrics. Says Andy Pacuk, senior vice president of the Robert Allen Group: "Velvet is hotter than a pistol. For our jobber brand, we are way out on demand. Chenille is also skyrocketing. It's not a `versus' thing. Every one of our velvet books is like magic."

The last word: "We have the opportunity to push both [chenille and velvet] to their furthest extremes," concludes Andy Pacuk of Robert Allen.
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:differences between upholstery coverings
Author:Rush, Amy Joyce; Bernard, Sharyn
Publication:HFN The Weekly Newspaper for the Home Furnishing Network
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 8, 1999

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