Southern Tufts: The Regional Origins and National Craze for Chenille Fashion is one of those books for which one would have thought there was not enough information to fill two hundred plus pages. But Ashley Callahan has proved me wrong with this publication. Actually, I heard Ashley speak on the topic in 2012 at the national Costume Society of America symposium in Atlanta, and I’m amazed at how much she uncovered in the time between her presentation and the book’s publication in 2015.
This is a great example of a seemingly small story of what is pretty much one product that was produced for a short time in a specific place. In today’s world when so much is written about Chanel and Dior, it’s great learning about how a small town industry made a product that became popular across the USA. The product was cotton chenille and the bedspreads and garments made from it, and the small town is Dalton, Georgia.
I think that one reason I enjoyed this book so much is because so many of my interests are addressed in it. The story begins with the early twentieth century crafts revival, tells about an obscure sector of the Southern textile industry, brings in the early tourist industry in the USA, and includes the making of sportswear.
Tufting is a form of candlewick work, where thick cotton threads are stitched in rows to produce designs, and then the threads are cut on the front of the fabric, and the threads separated to form tufts. The end result is called chenille.
The chenille industry that was centered around the little town of Dalton in Northwest Georgia began with Catherine Evans Whitener, who in 1895 took up hand tufting to make a bedspread after seeing an antique one in a neighbor’s house. Catherine continued with the craft, and began selling them. As other women saw the spreads, Catherine began getting orders for more. By 1910 she was selling her tufted bedspreads to department stores, and other women in the area were recruited to help make the spreads.
By the mid 1920s the industry was firmly established with many women and men involved in the making and distribution of tufted spreads. The craft spread across North Georgia and even into neighboring states.
The earliest products are all hand stitched, but in the 1920s experiments with machine tufting began. By the mid-1930s the use of tufting machines was widespread in Georgia’s chenille industry. It’s fairly easy to tell a hand tufted fabric from a machine tufted one. On machine made tufts, the lines are very uniform, but hand tufting can be very irregular.
With the improving of highways and the growing popularity of the automobile in the 1920s, American hit the road and the tourist industry boomed. The Dixie Highway which started in Michigan and ended in Florida was begun in 1915, with one branch going through the Dalton area. It didn’t take long for the tufters to realize there was money to be made from all the people traveling to Florida on vacation. Roadside stands selling chenille goods sprang up all over Northwest Georgia.
Chenille clothing was advertised as early as 1921, but it was not until the single needle machine tufter was invented that clothing became a major product. Most of the clothing made was suitable for wear at the beach, with capes and robes being the most widely available. This chenille dress is a rare early example of a garment made by a single needle machine.
In these examples of beach capes, look closely at the one on the right to see that the cape was made first, then it was tufted. Some makers made the tufted fabric first, then cut it out and made the garment. This became more prevalent after 1941 when multi-needle machines were patented, making the process much faster.
Here’s a cape from my collection. You can see the regular stitches on the interior of the cape, a sign of machine tufting. Note also that the lines of chenille are fairly far apart, with probably means this cape was tufted using a single needle machine.
This example from my collection is later. See how close the rows of tufts are? This points to the use of a multi-needle tufting machine. Also, the anchors and ropes are tufted over the white tufting. This is a process that was developed after the multi-needle machine came into use.
Another way to tell the later multi-needle garments is that often the lines of the tufts run horizontally around the garment. Note how in my earlier cape the lines of tufts are diagonal, a process that was easier with the single-needle machine.
This was not addressed in the book, but many of the later examples are made using lighter colors, like the green seen around the border of my cape. Starting in 1957, rayon was sometimes added to the threads, and in 1963, nylon was used. I’ve seen plenty of the nylon tufted bedspreads. They have a very different look and feel from the cotton ones.
And just when you think you have seen it all, photos of the most amazing chenille pants appear. These were made around 1940. I’ve never seen a pair, and now I must find one for my collection.
During the 1950s, long chenille bathrobes were the most popular garment produced by the tufters. But by the 1960s, terry cloth robes were gaining in popularity, with chenille being thought to be an old-fashioned option. Even worse, the chenille companies were having a difficult time figuring out how to comply with the fire prevention laws that were passed in the 1950s. Times grew tough for the chenille industry. Many of the companies closed, but others survived by switching production to carpets. Today Dalton calls itself the Carpet Capital of the World.
There were dozens of companies making chenille products in the mid twentieth century, and Callahan has documented the history of many of them. Unfortunately, chenille garments tend to not be labeled. I have four examples in my collection, none of which have labels, and from looking at them obsessively on Etsy and Ebay, I rarely ever see one with a maker’s label.
I really loved reading this book, especially since I learned so much about how to date my examples. My thanks to Liza at Better Dresses Vintage for knowing I’d love the book, and for loaning her copy to me.