When I was a little girl, my Grandma and Grandpa Sweek had chenille bedspreads. I was fascinated with the chenille. Often when I would visit their house, I’d tiptoe into the bedrooms because I just had to touch the chenille bedspreads. My fingers would trace the chenille pattern or separate the chenille where it had been stitched. I would crush it and make the chenille fluffy again; I loved its softness. There were two chenille bedspreads in their home, both white, one was a popcorn pattern and the other a floral scroll. I realize now my fascination with textiles started when I was very young.
A few years ago, I started to make purses with a “stitch and slash” method. At some point someone asked me if this was chenille. I was surprised, but contemplated the question and replied “Yes.” That conversation led me to look into the making of chenille, which is made differently, but similar. I can see why I was so drawn to stitch and slash. But then I had to make “chenille,” as well as learn more about those wonderful bedspreads.
History of Vintage Chenille Bedspreads
Chenille bedspreads in the early twentieth century evolved from the art of candlewicking. Candlewicking is a form of whitework embroidery, overall a knot stitch, that traditionally uses an unbleached cotton thread on a piece of unbleached muslin. It gets its name from the nature of the soft spun cotton thread, which was braided then used to form the wick for candles.
As a young girl in 1892, Catherine Evans of Dalton, Georgia visited a relative who owned a vintage candlewick spread. Upon her return home, Evans set out to create an imitation of the candlewick spread she saw using the type of yarn available in her area at the time. She gave one as a wedding gift and it was greatly admired by family and friends. Through word of mouth, Evans began selling her handmade spreads at $2.50 apiece.
The bedspreads consisted of cotton sheeting that Evans would stamp familiar patterns onto blank sheets then fill the patterns with yarn, raised "tufts" of thick yarn. These tufted bedspreads were referred to as chenille, the French word for caterpillar. Very often the tufts in a chenille bedspread are cut from the top to give them that fuzzy look and feeling like a caterpillar.
Evans soon became overwhelmed by the demand for her chenille bedspreads so she began hiring and showing others how to make them. By 1910, dozens of women were making chenille bedspreads around Dalton. As the products grew in popularity, merchants in the Dalton region took an interest in marketing the spreads.
Photo By Ashley Callahan
The handcraft of tufting played an important role in the economic development of northwest Georgia. Merchants organized a vast "putting out" system to fill the growing demand. They established "spread houses," usually small warehouses (or homes) where patterns were stamped onto sheets. Men called haulers would then deliver the stamped sheets and yarn to thousands of rural homes in north Georgia, Tennessee and the Carolinas. Families then sewed in the patterns. The hauler would make another round of visits to pick up the spreads, pay the tufters and return the products to the spread houses for finishing. Finishing involved washing the spreads in hot water to shrink them and lock in the yarn tufts. The tufted spreads could also be dyed in a variety of colors.
Many families would display the chenille bedspreads on clotheslines along Old U.S. Highway 41, also known as Dixie Highway, through Dalton and other small communities in Georgia. Motorist and tourists often stopped and bought these spreads. Of the many designs adorning the spreads, the most popular was the peacock. This section of Highway 41 became known as "Peacock Alley" because of the dominance of that design along the roadside.
By the 1920s tufted bedspreads appeared on the shelves of department stores in Atlanta, New York, Philadelphia, and other major cities. In the 1930s companies such as Cabin Crafts began to bring the handwork from the farms into factories. The bedspread manufacturers sought greater productivity and control over the work process and were also encouraged to pursue centralized production by the wage and hour provisions of the National Recovery Administration's tufted bedspread code. These new firms also began mechanizing the industry by adapting sewing machines to the task of inserting raised yarn tufts.
For home use, Singer introduced the SingerCraft guide to replace the handwork.
In their Spring-Summer 1935 catalog, Sears Roebuck offered three hand-tufted spreads, "Handmade by the southern mountain women," priced at $1.59; $1.95; and $2.49 each. They also offered "Hand-Tufted candlewick cloth," 39 inches wide, that they recommended for making "matching draperies, dresser scarf, chair covers." Sears, Spiegel and Montgomery Ward carried numerous chenille products including robes, bath sets and children's bedroom pieces.
From World War II through the 1960’s, chenille bedspread making was in its heyday. As always, fashions fall out and new ones take their place. Chenille bedspread making lasted for about 60 years. Peacock Alley disappeared after 1965 when Interstate-75 was built bypassing Highway 41 and chenille bedspread making vanished with it. Vintage chenille bedspreads are highly prized now, long after they’ve went out of production.
Reproductions are available to buy, but there are plenty of vintage chenille bedspreads in good to great condition at a reasonable price. There’s nothing like having a real vintage chenille bedspread – like my grandparents. I think these tufted bedspreads remind us of a simpler time.
My Own Chenille!
So, here is my modern-day version of chenille. It will be included in one of the workshops at the upcoming Sew and Sew Retreat, October 28-30. I liked making it! The method of creating chenille has evolved and there are new helpful tools as well as a few different types of methods.
I'm going to continue my quest to discover how the "tufts" were made in the 1920s to make that awesome popcorn pattern.