The basic process of weaving fabrics, the interlacing of
horizontal threads over vertical ones, hasn't changed much since the invention of the loom.
What's new is the way some textile designers are changing the face of fabric: They are rethinking the way threads are dyed or put together, the design of the pattern and even how a fabric might be embellished -- with everything from rhinestones to embroidery.
Color, pattern, weight, texture and touch are what grab our attention when we shop for fabrics, whether in clothing, upholstery, drapery, tablecloths or bed linens.
With all the varieties available today, it's no wonder that upholstered furniture alone is a $5-billion-a-year business.
Although the most innovative fabrics may not be affordable for the mass market, there is a trickle-down effect that brings $200-a-yard ideas to a more comfortable $20 a yard. But, ironically, some of the most sophisticated fabric designs may be rooted in humble home crafts such as the weaving of rag rugs.
Rag rugs were Judie Landis' springboard. A former director of a school for the neurologically handicapped, Ms. Landis became fascinated with weaving in the late '70s after taking a weaving class. She bought a loom and, in 1985, sparked by a clever idea for updating rag rugs, she launched Facets/Textile Designs.
Instead of using scraps of material, Ms. Landis takes a new, colorful glazed floral chintz, for example, and cuts it on the bias (diagonally) into 1/2 -inch strips. The strips are sewn into hollow cords, which are stuffed with cotton, then woven on 12-foot looms into rugs.
Or she has the ribbons of fabric sewn end to end, woven, then rinsed and dried by machine to create a piece of medium-weight fabric that resembles chenille. "The effect is like a wool sweater shrunk in a dryer," she says.
Several yards of the original fabric yield one yard of the new material. Naturally, this can be expensive. The chenillelike cloth can cost up to $90 for one 56-inch-wide yard. The rugs wholesale from $18 to $32 a square foot, depending on the complexity of the weave.
Fancy fabrics don't thrill Michele Mancini as much as barkcloth, a nubby, heavy, textured cotton that was popular in the '30s and '40s. An aficionado of vintage furnishings, Ms. Mancini was first attracted to the fabric's texture and funky patterns -- typically prints of bold motifs such as big flower blooms of the '30s or tropicals of the '40s. She began stockpiling vintage barkcloth draperies from thrift shops or flea markets, where they're still sometimes available. Although Ms. Mancini initially bought them for herself, many went into an antique shop she opened in Newport, R.I., in 1984.
When she stumbled on some of the long-out-of-service loomthat first produced barkcloth, she decided to remanufacture it. Ms. Mancini realizes that the exuberant cloth is not for everyone -- "not something to coordinate wih Laura Ashley." But celebrities such as Madonna, Cyndi Lauper, Anjelica Huston, Christie Brinkley and Billy Joel have snapped it up, as have Hollywood prop people for use in movies such as "Kiss of the Spider Woman," "Radio Days" and "Tin Men." The Smithsonian's
Cooper-Hewitt Museum has some of Ms. Mancini's originals in its archives.
Today there are 11 patterns in Ms. Mancini's line, which sells through interior designers and architects for $38 ot $120 a yard.
When Judith Rose's husband John bought her a table loom as a birthday present in 1976, she treated weaving strictly as a hobby and began making scarves, place mats, table runners and pillow covers.
Friends loved the Bloomington, Ind., woman's work, and demand pushed the Roses into business about 15 years ago. First there were wall hangings; then came fashion, with beautifully woven and hued scarves. Apparel design naturally progressed to home furnishings, and mohair-wool and cotton-chenille throws were added to the product line, under their new label Textillery. The company develops and dyes its own yarns, which are smooth or slubbed, matte or shiny.
Today, Textillery throws sell for $135 to $550 at Bloomingdale's and other department stores. Textillery also produces woven goods for other designers, among them Jena Hall, for her "Old Country" collection for Broyhill, and for artist Bob Timberlake's country furnishings collection for Lexington. A chenille upholstery line also recently became available.
Another recognized high-end source for rich chenilles is Van Vechten Textiles. Owner Dan van de Vrede is constantly experimenting with new weaves and combinations, as with his latest marriage of boucle (a type of yarn, usually three-ply, with one loose crinkly thread, which produces a rough-textured cloth) and chenille. "It's a very luxurious product that has guts and better strength than chenille alone," Mr. van de Vrede says. "It comes in strips, diamond, check or herringbone pattern in about 20 colors. There are some 450 colors or patterns in the entire fabric line."