Tufted Tales: Chenille Garments Volume 39.3

Georgia and textiles, cotton in particular, have a long association, and the West Georgia Textile Heritage Trail is bringing increased recognition to the history of the industrial growth resulting from that union. In addition to the expected cotton mills, the trail highlights numerous factories devoted to the production of garments and accessories including hosiery, underwear and—in Bremen—menswear. In the northwestern corner of the state, especially in the town of Dalton, the trail focuses on the old highway where small roadside businesses sold souvenirs like tufted peacock bathrobes and on the mills that manufactured chenille bedspreads and garments before focusing on the production of carpet. My book Southern Tufts: The Regional Origins and National Craze for Chenille Fashion, published by the University of Georgia Press, is part of a growing body of research into the region’s textile history and the first to focus on tufted fashion.

      In the spring of 2015 the West Georgia Textile Heritage Trail organized a conference focused on using the arts to tell textile stories; the event included presentations about mill town music, life in a mill village, using theater to convey information about the past, and incorporating narrative elements into the promotion of historic destinations. I shared stories about the makers and manufacturers of tufted garments, encouraging the careful reconsideration of well-known stories and the inclusion of individuals at all levels of production, as well as stressing the importance of preserving objects. Following are five tufted textile stories.

CATHERINE EVANS WHITENER AND CANDLEWICK KIMONOS

CATHERINE EVANS WHITENER with a candlewick bedspread, circa 1960. Courtesy of Bandy Heritage Center for Northwest Georgia, Carpet and Rug Institute Photograph Collection.

      Almost any recounting of the history of Georgia’s tufted textiles begins with the story of Catherine Evans Whitener (1880-1964) and her “rediscovery” of the traditional candlewick technique for decorating spreads in the late nineteenth century. Actually, there was increased interest in these historic textiles in many parts of the United States as part of the Colonial Revival. As Americans celebrated the country’s centenary and reflected on the people, places, and objects associated with its founding, they turned to forms like candlewick spreads, originally popular in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, for inspiration. 

Whitener, inspired by an antique candlewick spread in a relative’s home, made her first few spreads as gifts, then began selling them. Orders quickly outpaced her individual production capabilities and she taught neighboring women her process. She either drew her own pattern or copied an existing spread by placing it fluff-side down with a fresh sheet on top that she rubbed with a greased tin (or other “stamping iron”) to transfer the pattern. Then she stitched the pattern with plain running stitches, clipped the stitches with scissors, and boiled the fabric to shrink the weave and hold the stitches in place. Finally, she dried and fluffed the spreads, creating the familiar pompom decorations. The women she taught in turn instructed others, and a cottage industry developed. By the mid-1910s department stores throughout the Midwest and New England carried the popular southern bedspreads. As automobile travel increased (especially by the late 1920s), Dalton also developed a thriving culture of roadside stands, known as “spreadlines,” selling tufted products.

As consumer demand for the textiles increased, and due to government pressure for fair wages, the industry mechanized in the early 1930s. The new machine-tufted textiles were called chenille, French for “caterpillar,” to distinguish them from the earlier hand-tufted candlewick goods. As the mechanization process progressed, the machines evolved from single-needle converted sewing machines to large, multi-needle machines that could produce tufted yardage. Later, carpet became the dominate tufted product, eclipsing chenille in the 1950s. 

MRS. RALPH HANEY wearing a candlewick kimono with a peacock design, circa 1920. Courtesy of Georgia Archives, Vanishing Georgia Collection, gor466.

      The tufted textile industry whole-heartedly embraced and promoted the story of Catherine Evans Whitener by the 1930s. For example, in 1953 a buyer for Rich’s department store in Atlanta wrote an article for the Tufted Textile Manufacturers Association Directory, the industry’s annual publication, advising stores to tell their sales forces “about the young farm girl, Catherine Evans, who made the first modern tufted spread in 1895 and launched a multi-million dollar industry.” As Philis Alvic details in her book Weavers of the Southern Highlands, other textile production centers in southern Appalachia in the early twentieth century offered similar stories in order to connect their modern textiles with antiques and capitalize on the popularity of the Colonial Revival.

Though rarely mentioned, Whitener made garments—aprons and kimonos—as well as spreads. While none of her garments are known to survive, a single photographic image from the region showing Mrs. Ralph Haney (née Exzene Carter, 1894-1962) wearing a kimono suggests the type of work Whitener would have done. Haney’s kimono appears to be hand tufted in a single color on a solid color background and shows a peacock next to a vase in a trellis setting.

I found several advertisements from 1923 in northeastern newspapers for candlewick kimonos, and while the ads do not mention Georgia, the garments are similar in style and description to Haney’s. One ad, for the Joseph Horne Company in Pittsburgh, lists some of the color combinations of these garments as “gray with rose designs, orchid with lavender, orange with blue, pumpkin with white, black with rose, old blue with white, yellow with yellow, leaf green with green.”

These were part of a vogue for Orientalism in fashion, and the butterflies, peacocks, and kimono form are relevant to that theme. The production in southern Appalachia of kimonos that were handcrafted using a traditional technique related to the Colonial Revival and reflecting a Japanese-inspired contemporary fashion trend, represents a remarkable combination of influences that enriches Whitener’s story and helps expand its significance beyond local history.

A PINK CANDLEWICK DRESS

CANDLEWICK COTTON DRESS, circa 1930s. Photograph by Michael McKelvey. Collection of Bradley Putnam.

      While visiting with a collector in Tunnel Hill, a small town north of Dalton, I encountered an unusual pink dress and bonnet. The dress was a mystery to the collector; he purchased it because it was tufted, but did not know its history.

At the time, I was well into my research and particularly interested by how in the late 1920s and early 1930s women from the region helped promote candlewick spreads by traveling to department stores throughout the country to give hand-tufting demonstrations. Often these women wore Colonial Revival style costumes with bonnets. An ad for a demonstration at Macy’s in New York in 1931 reads, “You’ll have to imagine the log cabin and the cotton fields background. But the girls themselves, in cotton frocks and sunbonnets, will be here, tufting the spreads by hand, just as they do in their native Georgia.” Other evidence suggests that these “native costumes,” as they often were called, were sometimes tufted.

As I examined the pink dress—hand tufted then dyed, assembled with a sewing machine, a silhouette that recalls a French shepherdess—the details all suggested that this was a rare survival: an example of a costume worn by a hand-tufting demonstrator. It is not an accurate copy of anything that existed historically and it is not a style that was ever popular during the twentieth century, but it is appropriate as a circa 1930 interpretation of something from “golden olden times.”

The marketing of candlewick spreads was not the only entrepreneurial enterprise that benefited from the incorporation of Colonial Revival style costumes. Fashion historian Beverly Gordon, in an article on Colonial Revival fashion published in Dress, explains that by the interwar years the practice was popular in businesses such as Colonial-style tea rooms (with costumed waitresses) because the high moral associations with the style helped increase profits. She also notes that historical accuracy was less important than conveying a sense of a charming and picturesque past. The lovely image that the candlewick demonstrators presented helped sell bedspreads, but it was actually a far cry from the experiences of many of the tufters, often desperately poor women working long, hard hours for very little pay.

EMILY BENNETT AND U.S. 41

TWO VIEWS of Mrs. J. H. Bennett’s chenille business, with Willie Jean Chitwood, Helen Bennett (Mrs. Bennett’s daughter), and Aveline Chitwood seated at left, circa 1937. Photographs probably taken by Iduma Chitwood. Collection of Helen Johnson.

      Many small businesses existed along the highway, first called the Dixie Highway and later U.S. 41, in northwestern Georgia. One belonged to Mrs. J. H. Bennett (née Emily Mealor or Mealer, 1904-1997). Select records from her business survive in the collection of the Whitfield-Murray Historical Society in Dalton, and one of her daughters, Helen Johnson, who lives a few miles from where her mother worked, recalls many details about what she made.

Bennett began working as a hand tufter while her husband farmed; they lived out in the country at the time and she sold her wares on the spreadline of a friend who lived near the highway. Then the family moved to U.S. 41 and she set up her own spreadline near the Resaca Confederate Cemetery, just south of Dalton. In the early 1930s her husband built her a little log cabin and she worked there alone. In many ways, she epitomized the popular notion of a traditional Appalachian craftswoman; she almost always wore a bonnet, she used an old-timey needlework technique, she was near a Civil War historic sight, and she worked in a log cabin, albeit a brand-new one. In 1936 the Atlanta Journal even included two photographs of her business on a rotogravure page about Bedspread Boulevard, as the highway was called at the time. In addition to bedspreads, she made pillows and aprons, which the newspaper described as “novel.”

CHENILLE COTTON APRON by Mrs. J. H. Bennett, undated. Photograph by Michael McKelvey. Courtesy of the Whitfield-Murray Historical Society, Crown Gardens & Archives, Dalton, Georgia, gift of Helen Johnson.

      Bennett soon acquired a single-needle tufting machine, adding bath sets, capes, jackets, and robes to her inventory, then moved to a new spreadline down the road. Her daughter believes that Bennett’s ability to sew clothing—a skill learned of necessity because she had four daughters and limited income—helped her translate the tufted textiles into appealing garments.

Bennett had regular customers who would visit her when traveling U.S. 41 to vacation in Florida and who would write to her during the year to place orders. Sometimes travelers would make purchases as they traveled through and she would ship the goods to their far-away homes. She also sold to a few department stores in Chicago. Bennett continued her business until Interstate 75 opened in 1965 and drew away the tourist traffic from the older highway, though she still tufted until she was eighty years of age.

ARTHUR RICHMAN AND THE ART-RICH MANUFACTURING COMPANY

MATCHBOOK COVER advertisement for Blue Ridge Manufacturing Company, circa 1945. Private Collection.

      As chenille garments became increasingly popular in the late 1930s, several big spread companies realized that they needed to bring in specialized talent. They knew how to manufacture and design and market spreads, but clothing was new to them. Samuel Hurowitz (b. Russia, 1898-1975), who had founded Blue Ridge Spread in Dalton in 1933, added a garment department and in 1939 had hired Arthur “Artie” Richman (b. Poland, 1904-1965), an experienced garment designer in New York, to run it.

Richman’s designs for Blue Ridge included a series of chenille robes with playing card motifs, recorded through patent applications. He filed for the patents in April 1943 and was granted them in December 1943, but during that time much of Blue Ridge’s production was turned over to the war effort.
Blue Ridge featured the heart design in an advertisement in Glamour in 1944 that acknowledged the reality of wartime retail. Part of the text reads, “We are still trying to make shipments… to at least one store in each city so that you may have yours.”

Sometime before World War II ended Richman left Blue Ridge to start his own company, Ann-Lee Chenilles, which existed only briefly. By 1947 he had established Art-Rich Manufacturing Company, a large, long-lived business that focused on chenille robes for women and children. The overwhelming majority of chenille manufactories were in northwestern Georgia, and in 1949 the industry produced almost five and one half million chenille robes. Even though Richman’s business was one of the younger ones in the region and it never manufactured hand-tufted candlewick products, he still capitalized on the appeal of the industry’s early southern roots by adding paper tags to his robes that read, “This chenille robe is made where the candlewick tufting industry originated,” with an image of cotton.

MODEL wearing a chenille robe by Art-Rich, circa 1953. Courtesy of Bandy Heritage Center for Northwest Georgia, Carpet and Rug Institute Photograph Collection.

      For many years robe companies used the same basic pattern to make traditional wraparound robes, but as chenille robes started to lose favor in the 1950s—as national fashions changed and as carpet became the dominant tufted product in northwestern Georgia—robe manufacturers introduced a variety of different styles to try to maintain market share. Richman even wrote an article for the Tufted Textile Manufacturers Association Directory in 1954 addressing how the production of robes had shifted from employing single-needle machines (as multi-needle machines that could produce tufted yardage were common by that time) and one pattern that was used for years with just some variation in the decorative motifs to an industry with “constantly changing” styles requiring “new patterns... to keep pace with the trend.” He pointed out that the small changes, including the buttons and buttonholes and various trimmings, required additional materials and labor.

During the 1950s duster robes surpassed the popularity of traditional wraparound robes. These new robes, typically three-quarter-length, could be styled a variety of ways and appealed to the growing youth market. Chenille robes, though, never regained their former prominence and began to fall out of fashion. Art-Rich diversified its offerings, adding terrycloth robes. Shortly before Arthur Richman died in 1965, his son Martin Richman (1929-2007) took over the company. Art-Rich continued experimenting with new styles
and other materials, but could not compete as cheaper imported goods hit the market, and closed in the early 1980s.

MARILYN WOLF AND THE CHENILLE REVIVAL

POSTCARD of children’s recycled chenille bathrobes, 1997. Photograph by Michael Scott Studio, New York City. Marilyn Wolf Designs, collection of the artist.

      Chenille fashion experienced a revival towards the end of the twentieth century. Beginning by the early 1970s, crafters and designers began cutting up old tufted bedspreads to make new products, especially garments including jackets, robes, bloomers, aprons, bibs, skirts, pullover blouses, and hats. Many were motivated by nostalgia as well as an interest in recycling encouraged by the burgeoning environmental movement.

One of the designers to repurpose old spreads was Marilyn Wolf of Narberth, Pennsylvania. She had established a small manufacturing business around 1970 and in the mid-1990s she made a small collection of chenille robes using chenille yardage she had purchased from a close-out sale. Then, through an acquaintance who happened to own a rag factory (a business that collected leftover fabrics from thrift stores and other sources), she gained access to a seemingly limitless supply of vintage spreads. By the 1980s and 1990s, as many original owners of tufted bedspreads downsized their homes, secondary markets were flooded with inexpensive materials.

MARILYN WOLF JACKETS FLYER, “Jackets fashioned from vintage chenille,” circa 1997. Marilyn Wolf Designs, collection of the artist.

      Wolf used these to make colorful one-of-a-kind robes and jackets for women, as well as teddy bears and baby blankets, that are notable for their playful patchwork aesthetic and postmodern profusion of colors and patterns. As the supplies of chenille dwindled and material became more precious, and, she notes, as the market for high-end art clothing for children increased, Wolf turned her attention to small robes, rompers, and jackets for children. She often added non-chenille materials like marabou or vintage buttons. She sold her designs through exclusive stores including Nordstrom and Bloomingdale’s and in children’s boutiques across the country. When she could no longer find adequate supplies of quality chenille, she turned to other materials.  

 

Though the tufted textile industry was centered in the South, it became a national phenomenon. While Hollywood helped cement the iconic status of the chenille robe—with appearances ranging from glamorous actresses like Katharine Hepburn in Holiday in 1938 to Oscar-winner Shirley Booth’s downtrodden character in Come Back, Little Sheba in 1952 to Michael Douglas as a creative writing professor in the Wonder Boys in 2000—its presence in the lives of everyday Americans led to innumerable personal stories and memories about the material. In sharing my research for Southern Tufts, I have heard many recollections—about a mother’s favorite aqua robe with flowers, a child’s fascination with the rows of tufts on a bedspread, a family member who devoted a lifetime to the industry—and I welcome more stories and encourage the preservation of tufted textiles and their histories.



SUGGESTED READING
Alvic, Philis. Weavers of the Southern Highlands. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 2003.
Callahan, Ashley. “From Roadside to Runway: A History of Chenille in Fashion.” Ornament 34.4: 26-31, 2011.
The Center for Public History at the University of West Georgia. Images of America: The West Georgia Textile Heritage Trail. Mount Pleasant, South Carolina: Arcadia Publishing, 2015.
Deaton, Thomas M. Bedspreads to Broadloom: The Story of the Tufted Carpet Industry. Acton, Massachusetts: Tapestry Press, 1993.
Gordon, Beverly. “Costumed Representations of Early America: A Gendered Portrayal, 1850-1940.” Dress 30: 3-20, 2003.

 

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Ashley Callahan is an independent scholar and curator in Athens, Georgia, with a specialty in modern and contemporary American decorative arts. The University of Georgia Press published her book Southern Tufts: The Regional Origins and National Craze for Chenille Fashion in December 2015. She grew up in Dalton—known over time as both the Bedspread Capital of the World and the Carpet Capital of the World—and is pleased to be able to share information about the tufted textile industry’s history and about her home state’s contributions to American fashion.