A History of Chenille
By the end of the twentieth century, though, fueled by nostalgia and a re-use mentality, designers and crafters nationwide began repurposing and reimagining chenille in fashion, making new garments from old bedspreads and manufacturing bathrobes with updated designs.
By the late 1920s travelers on the Dixie Highway, a popular route from the upper Midwest to vacation sites in Florida, witnessed line after line of chenille bedspreads fluttering in the wind along the side of the road as they drove through the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains in northwest Georgia. They also passed numerous Civil War battle sites and local landmarks, as well as motor camps, filling stations, and restaurants established for the tourist market. The chenille spreads and related articles of clothing, many with multicolored peacock designs, inspired memorable nicknames for the route, including Bedspread Boulevard and Peacock Alley, and their market quickly expanded from roadside stands and laundry lines to stores throughout the country.
This humble material plays an important role in the history of the modern tufted textile industry. The often-told story of the industry’s genesis begins in northwest Georgia with a young woman named Catherine Evans (Whitener, 1880-1958) who saw an antebellum candlewick coverlet (a form of whitework embroidery) owned by a cousin in 1892 and a few years later decided to make her own. She developed a method of placing a clean cotton sheet over a finished spread and rubbing it with a greased tin pan to transfer the design, which she then stitched, clipped, washed, and fluffed. As interest in her spreads grew, she employed others to help with the process. During the first decades of the twentieth century, more women in the Dalton area began doing the same, and as prosperity became evident, men entered the business. By the mid-1920s the cottage industry supplied spreads to major department stores across the United States. Through ever-increasing mechanization during the next several decades, the bedspread industry evolved into the carpet industry for which the region, and the town of Dalton in particular, is now well known.
Ashley Callahan is an independent scholar in Athens, Georgia, and former curator of decorative arts at the Georgia Museum of Art. Callahan grew up in Dalton, Georgia, and enjoyed seeing the last remaining roadside chenille stands as a child and took for granted the fact that road medians everywhere were carpeted, as they were in her hometown. While she finds the whole history of the area’s tufted textile industry fascinating, the study of chenille robes and capes provides an exciting intersection between regional craft and national fashion trends. Her current research interests include Georgia decorative arts and early modern design in the United States.
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