5 Smart Tips for Sewing with Vintage Chenille Fabric

When I first started sewing with chenille, I scoured the internet looking for tips, only to come up mostly empty-handed. If you’re new to sewing with this beloved-but-messy fabric or you’re just looking for a few guidelines, I hope the ones below learned from many years of sewing will help you avoid some of the frustration I once had!

If you’re looking for specific tips to help you make the perfect chenille robe, see this post that is specific to that topic.

1. Use a quality sewing machine.

sewing room antiqueQuality doesn’t necessarily have to break the bank – you can find many excellent, used sewing machines on eBay, Craigslist, or right from your local sewing center that will more than meet your needs.

I use vintage Pfaff sewing machines, model 1471. These were manufactured in West Germany in the 1980s and our family has used them since their debut. I learned to sew on this machine and it remains my favorite to this day. It goes through just about anything, it’s easy to use, and the stitches are clean and even.

Which sewing machine to use is a matter of personal opinion – if you are brand new to sewing, ask around to see what works for other people, or contact your local sewing center for advice.

2. Consider an industrial serger.

how to sew chenilleI learned the hard way – after countless returns to Walmart and Amazon and one memorable experience where a Brother serger literally fell apart within a minute of using it, I decided industrial was the only way to go.

The trouble is, once you get into industrial sewing equipment, it’s a whole different world. It’s not as easy to find reviews, tips and troubleshooting techniques online for industrial grade machines. But if you want clean seams and smooth, efficient sewing, what else can you do?

Cheap “household”-type sergers such as those sold at Walmart, Joann, Amazon and the like just aren’t made to go through super thick, fluffy fabric like a lot of vintage chenille is. They may be ok for the thinner, lightweight chenille, but not much more than that.

I’ll be very honest – I went with a Juki and when I received it, there was a definite learning curve. It felt like I needed to be a bit of a mini-mechanic at times and without my husband, there is no way I would be using it today!

3. Choose the appropriate needle(s).cottage sewing

This one is a must – needles will typically be one of the lowest-cost items in your project budget, but see them as an investment. There are many different manufacturers out there – Singer, Organ, Schmetz, to name a few.

It’s important to choose the proper needle size for your project. The following links may help you decide if you’re unfamiliar with what size you may need:

When it comes to sewing with vintage chenille, what you’ll find is that if the needle you use is too large for the job, you’ll see little “teethmarks” or “tire tracks” on your fabric with visible punch holes that are unsightly and weaken the fabric. If the needle is too small, you’ll find out right away because it’ll shatter or your machine won’t be able to push it through the dense tufting (if you force it, it will break).

The challenge with chenille is that often, you’re going to be working with a large variation in thicknesses in a single project – think of a sheet-like ground cloth covered in uneven lines of puffy, dense tufts.

4. Find a happy medium between “push” and “pull.”

sewing with chenilleWondering what on earth that means? When you begin feeding your fabric through the machine, you want to establish a good balance between gently feeding it through (push) and subtly tugging it (pull) as it moves under your presser foot.

If you tug too hard, you’ll break a needle guaranteed, which can cause a whole bunch of problems you don’t want to deal with. But if you don’t give it a little push, the needle can just as easily get caught on the tufts and also break or create an inconsistency in stitch length.

5. Don’t neglect basic maintenance activities!

So this one seems pretty straightforward, but too many of us would rather just forget about the maintenance and keep going with our projects, right? I know that’s how I am.

Vintage sewing buttonsWhen you’re working with chenille, you’ll find that even after a single small project such as making a pillow form, your machine will be coated in a thick fluff that resembles those little poofs that fly off dandelions in the summer. You want to make sure to clean that out of the inner workings of the machine.

One time, my trusty Pfaff stopped sewing properly. I knew it was some issue with the bobbin, but I couldn’t figure out what it could be. My husband figured it out instantly – wound in the part of the machine where the bobbin inserts was old, knotted thread stuck in badly. It took him a lot of time and effort to remove it because it was would in so tightly and stuck to a million fluffy bits.

Now, I make it a point to dust frequently and check to ensure no threads have become stuck in any moving parts of the machine. Trust me – the few extra minutes you spend doing basic maintenance on your machine can save you a ton of time in the long run.

BONUS TIP: How much have you thought about…thread?how to choose the right thread

If you’re like I once was, not very much! Back when I first got into sewing, I relied on my mom to help me with everything…and I mean everything. I literally struggled even to wind a bobbin – no kidding! But once I got the hang of it, it seemed like things were moving in the right direct until one day when the Pfaff started skipping stitches.

When nothing worked I took to Google, searching for phrases like “sewing machine skipping stitches” and “pfaff not sewing” – and just about everything else you can possibly think of. Convinced there must be something seriously wrong with the machine itself, I looked to no avail for some sort of mechanical solution.

About to give up, I came across a message board where another user mentioned how Gutermann thread (which is what I had been using) had slipped in quality and was now being manufactured cheaply. With older and more finicky machines, the thread just flat out doesn’t work, causing the same issues I was experiencing.

choose the right sewing threadSurely I thought, something as insignificant as thread wouldn’t cause this.

No way. But what did I have to lose? So I ordered some Euro-made Mettler thread and voila…problem solved just like that. That was years ago and I’m seeing a lot of the newer Mettler thread I buy now manufactured in Mexico and China, unfortunately. Today, my top choice is the Sulky brand – both for the quality and excellent selection.

I’d been under the impression that Gutermann was still a quality thread since that’s what my mom used. But unfortunately (at least in the mind of my vintage Pfaff), Gutermann went the way of Ethan Allen and Ralph Lauren – once highly regarded manufacturers of premium quality goods that are now cheaply mass-produced in China and the like.

Keep in mind that this issue may not affect every machine – and even if it is a problem for you, it may not happen every time or with every color by that thread manufacturer. Very often, different colors may be manufactured in different countries – just check out the labels the next time you order a bunch of different colored thread spools.

How to sew with chenilleIf you have a newer machine, this is unlikely to be an issue, but it’s something that had me puzzled for quite a while. Moral of the story – judge not by appearances…even if it seems like your machine might have bit the dust, something as simple as using a different brand of thread can make all the difference and bring it back to life.

As I mentioned, my current go-to thread is Sulky brand – the color selection is wonderful and I experience little to no breakage/skipped stitches/other disagreeable situations. To make your next project stand out, consider Sulky “Blendables” – their line of multicolor thread. We absolutely adore this line for sewing with chenille because it highlights the natural color variances often found in vintage chenille fabrics.

What about you? What clever tips have you learned along the way?