Category Archives: Textiles

Currently Reading – Southern Tufts by Ashley Callahan

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.

 

 

14 Comments

Filed under Currently Reading, Sportswear, Textiles

Update on Key West Hand Print Fabrics

I’ve written quite a bit about Key West Hand Print Fabrics in the past, especially concerning their relationship with Lilly Pulitzer.  For those of you who don’t know, for years Key West Hand Prints designed and made the distinctive fabrics Pulitzer used in her dresses.

Before 1961, Key West Hand Prints was a small fabric printing business in Key West, Florida, owned by Walter Starkey. The company made small printed linens, like tea towels. In 1961, Peter Pell and Jim Russell were visiting the island when they decided it was a good place to live. They bought Key West Hand Prints and hired a designer for the prints, Suzie Zuzek dePoo. 

On the other side of Florida, another entrepreneur was at work developing a line of tropical print dresses. Lilly Pulitzer had enlisted the services of a dressmaker to make dresses in loud prints that would cover juice stains she got while working in her family business, an orange grove and juice stand. So many customers at the stand asked about Pulitzer’s dresses that she saw an opportunity to make similar dresses for sale. She learned about Key West Hand Prints and visited the island to see if she could use the prints in her new line.

For the next fourteen years (or so, as I don’t have the exact dates), Key West Hand Print Fabrics designed and made the iconic Lilly Pulitzer fabrics. The little hand print business employed as many as two hundred people during this time, and they worked around the clock to keep up with demand. They were producing fabric not only for Lilly Pulitzer, but also for their own line of dresses, labeled “Vanda Fashions, Key West Hand Prints” and for yardage that could be purchased in their Key West store. Vanda was designed by Virginia Peirce. 

Artist Suzie dePoo designed the prints, but the colors were worked out by others on the staff, including co-owner Peter Pell. Lilly Pulitzer would fly into Key West to visit with Pell and Russell and to pick out the fabrics for her next collection. They would spend the day involved in  business, and then they would retire to the bar to celebrate. 

It was a system that worked well until a new business manager hired by Pulitzer in 1976 or 77 ended the relationship between Lilly Pulitzer and Key West Hand Print Fabrics. It was a decision that ultimately harmed both businesses. Key West Hand Prints lost their largest customer, and the atmosphere of the business changed, especially for Peter Pell, who lost interest in the enterprise. Lilly Pulitzer prints changed, becoming more “fashionable” and less “Florida” and in 1984, Lilly shut down her business.

A lot of the information above was given to me by Jacq Staub, whose mother Jacquolyn was the in-house model and the merchandising manager for Key West Hand Print Fabrics. He has shared with me all these stories as well as some wonderful photos.  The model in all these photos is Jacq’s mother. In the photo at the top, Jacquolyn is modeling a caftan that was ordered for Elizabeth Taylor.

Key West Hand Prints was a casual, family business, though most of the staff were not actually related. Jacq refers to Pell and Russell as Uncle Peter and Uncle Jim, though they were actually his godfathers. The photo above was taken in Vanda’s design studio, and was used for the company’s catalog.

Here’s another look at that distinctive corner in Vanda’s studio. These photos were taken in the early 1970s.

This photo wasn’t dated, but the hairstyles sure are saying mid to late 1960s. Just when we thought men were going to loosen up in their clothing choices, Dress for Success came along and swept it all away.

Here’s Uncle Jim and Jacquolyn at a fashion show in 1973.

The designer holding onto Peter Pell? Lilly Pulitzer, of course! And how about those printed jeans?

So, where is Key West Hand Prints today? The owners are long gone, but Key West Fashions continued in business until 2007. The original screens used to make the prints and the dye formulations were bought by Ed Swift, who stored the items for years. It appears that these items have now been sold, with the new owner exploring the possibility of reopening the print business.

It also appears that there is also a book, exhibition, and film about Key West Hand Prints in the works. Behind this project is the Cooper Hewitt Design Museum, a division of the Smithsonian. It will be interesting to see how they tell the story, as many of the people involved with Key West Hand Print are still with us.  It’s a chance to tell the story of a unique American textile business that had a lasting influence on how we dress. 

My thanks to Jacq Staub for the photos and the stories.

 

11 Comments

Filed under Designers, Sportswear, Textiles

Bradley Knitting Company of Delavan, Wisconsin

Over the years I have written quite a bit about Bradley, maker of bathing suits and wonderful 1920s sweaters, but a recent project I’m working on led me to revisit the company. Previously I wasn’t able to find great details on Bradley, but a newer article on a Wisconsin news site, The Beacon, was full of really interesting stuff.

The name Bradley has long been associated with Delavan, Wisconsin, first as a dry goods store, then as a department store, and finally as a maker of woolen knitwear. But the factory actually started in Chicago as Globe Knitting Mills. The operation was moved to Delavan in 1903, and in 1905 it was bought and renamed by the owners of the Bradley Department Store (which still exists, by the way).

The company quickly grew. By 1914 it was large enough to accept an order from the British government for one million sweaters to outfit soldiers fighting in World War I. Unfortunately, the shipment was loaded upon the Lusitania, which was sunk by a German U-boat in May, 1915.  The order was duplicated, and when the US entered the war, Bradley made sweaters for the US Army as well.

Being located in a small town, Bradley often had problems keeping a full work force. In 1919 they built Bradley Hall to house young woman workers. The building still stands an apartment building.

As you can see on my fan above, the Bradley slogan was “Slip into a Bradley and out-of-doors.”  They were primarily a maker of sportswear, especially knit wool bathing suits and athletic sweaters. Several major league baseball teams had team sweaters made by Bradley, and Babe Ruth was pictured in 1926 on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post wearing his Bradley sweater.

All was well until the stock market crash of 1929 and the resulting Great Depression. Bradley made it through the 1930s, but just barely. In 1941 the business was under bankruptcy reorganization when it was bought by one of the investors. With the US entering World War II, Bradley received another large order for sweaters. And after the war the company limped along by making a more diverse line of textile products. Finally, in 1949 Bradley was sold to AA Empire Company, and was relocated to New York. Items continued to be made under the Bradley label until sometime in the 1960s or early 1970s. The old Bradley mill was torn down in 2003.

Today there is a little museum of sorts in the Bradley Department Store. While doing a sprucing up of the store’s decor several years ago some great old items were found in the store’s storage. Included is a large banner showing the same diving pair you see illustrated on my fan.

9 Comments

Filed under Sportswear, Textiles

Homespun Museum at Grovewood Village

I recently found myself with a free afternoon and a desire to see something interesting. Sometimes we forget to be a tourist in our own towns, so I decided to take in an old favorite, the Homespun Museum, which is tucked behind the Grove Park Inn in Asheville. I’ve written about the museum before, here, and here. 

The Homespun Museum is not actually about homespun fabric. It is built around the artifacts left from Biltmore Industries, which closed in 1981. Biltmore Industries was established in 1905, and for a while was a school of handicraft. The products were sold to the increasing numbers of tourists who visited Asheville. By the 1920s Biltmore Industries had moved from Biltmore Village to the grounds of the famous Grove Park Inn. The focus was on making woolen textiles, though woodcrafters were still employed to build looms and furniture and such for the enterprise.

The woolen fabric production was called Biltmore Homespun, even though the yarn was not handspun at all.  The business was much too large to produce cloth from yarn spun on old fashioned spinning wheels, though Biltmore Industries did give the impression through store displays that spinning wheels were employed.

The yarn was, however, woven by hand on people-powered looms. The looms were based on ones brought back from an information-gathering trip to Sweden. Many of the looms still exist, and one is set up in the museum.

The looms were very large, as you can see, and a special long and narrow loom building was built to accomodate what was eventually forty looms. At peak production, Biltmore Homespun produced 950  yards of cloth a day. It was marketed in magazine ads across the country, and in the museum you can see letters by celebrities like Eleanor Roosevelt praising their purchases.

It’s interesting that so much from Biltmore Industries still exists, When the business closed in 1981, much of the inventory of wool was given to former employees and local crafters, but the machinery, furnishings, displays, and ephemera was just left in the old buildings.

The table above is a cutting table used to cut the yardage. There was a shop in one of the buildings where visitors could shop for the fabric and other items.

There were quite a few of these samples on display, along with many larger samples, and garments made up from the cloth. The man in the photo is Harry Blomberg, who bought the business in the 1950s. His family still owns the property.

I’m telling you, my fingers were itching to feel these samples.

This visit was made even better because the owners have opened up the old dye shed, which has much of the machinery set up with notes about how each was used. Until seeing all these machines and reading about how each was used, I had no idea this was such a huge operation. These barrels are the dye vats where wool that had been cleaned was dyed.

After the dyed wool was dried and mixed, it was sent through a huge carding machine. It in no way resembles the hand cards (they look like brushes on a paddle) used by families who spun their own fiber.

Carded wool, ready for the spinner.

The fiber was then ready to spin into yarn. Above is the spinning machine, a mule spinner. The machine has moveable parts (see the little wheels) that pull out the wool, seen on the left, twisting it and winding the finished yarn on the right. For some reason they used red wool on the bobbins to show the finished product, but the unspun wool is white!

1068 bobbins were needed to set up the loom for weaving. The bobbins on these racks were ready for the warp roller.

After the yarns were organized on the roller, the roller was placed on the loom where each yarn was attached by hand.

This vintage photo shows the looms in the weaving shed. Today the shed contains Harry Blomberg’s antique car collection.

The woven wool was then washed in the machines above using Ivory Soap and pure mountain spring water. The moisture was extracted, and the cloth dried out-of-doors. It was then shaved to smooth it, and was carefully inspected for flaws. A group of women workers repaired any flaws with needle and yarn.

I’m still amazed by all the stuff that remains at Biltmore Industries. Bags and bags of wooden spools…

machines that still contain bits of fleece…

and fabric still on the machines. It’s like a moment in time, frozen.

The tour through the dye house is open April through November, and the museum is open April through December.

 

 

11 Comments

Filed under Museums, Textiles

1918 Fleisher’s Knitting & Crocheting Manuel

The reason that old sayings tend to endure is that so often they are true. In this case, “You can’t judge a book by its cover” applies.  This dull brown cover gives little hint of the treasures within.

At over two hundred pages, the Fleisher’s Knitting and Crocheting Manuel is more than a basic how-to book. First of all, it’s an advertisement, as Fleisher’s was a brand of yarn. It’s also a book of knitting and crocheting patterns with garments for the entire family. And best of all, it’s a time capsule.

In 1918 the USA was involved in the Great War, now known as World War 1. There were a dozen patterns for garments and accessories for the man in service. Many were easy to make, and I’m sure many clubs and groups were busy making  Service Sweater, Type “C”, or mufflers and socks.

This cap and face protector and muffler in one was called a helmet, and was often mentioned in magazines of the period as a prized possession of many doughboys.

I learned how to crochet in high school (it was, after all, the crafty Seventies) but I really had no idea that so many stitches were possible beyond the standard single and double crochet, and the popcorn stitch. My eyes have been opened to the wonders of crocheting.

There’s a whole range of sweaters, all photographed in the out-of-doors – on the beach, in boats, on a woodsy walk.

One thing I really love about this book is how there are piece charts for many of the sweaters.

It’s not all sportswear. There are quite a few patterns for bed jackets, shawls, and “kimonos”. Even the bed jackets are called kimonos.

In 1918 it appears that the sizes of knitting needles and crochet hooks were not standardized.  Fleisher’s helped to solve the problem by numbering the metric diameter of each tool. I’m not sure that still applies because I measured my 10.5 knitting need and it has a diameter of  7mm.

One could either crochet or knit a tam.

By 1918 the middy blouse was wildly popular. I love the middy influence in this sweater.

While most of the sweaters have a waistband or belt, and definitely have an early Coco Chanel look, this one is looking forward to the more streamlined  Twenties.

Now, if only my skills were as good as these designs, I’d be making a sweater instead of just writing about them.

8 Comments

Filed under Fashion Magazines, Proper Clothing, Sportswear, Textiles

Fireside Industries: Handwovens in Berea, Kentucky

I had been meaning to visit Berea for some time now. I knew it was a weaving center dating back to the early days of the crafts revival in the US, which started in the late nineteenth century. And had I known how much of the weaving heritage still exists, I’d have visited sooner.

First, you need to know that Berea started as a grammar school in the mid 1800s. Founder John Fee started first the school, and then an academy and college with a radical idea – that the school was open to all, regardless of sex or race. This was unheard of in a state where people were enslaved, and it did not go over well with some of his neighbors. After the Civil War, the school grew, still an anomaly in the former slave states.

That all ended in 1904 when the state of Kentucky passed a law forbidding the education of Blacks and White together. Reluctantly Berea became a school for Whites only, with a separate school founded to serve their Black students. At this time the focus of Berea changed to one that served the children of Appalachia who could not afford to pay for most colleges.

They instituted a work-for-tuition program that exists to this day. A few hours work a day in the school’s Boone Tavern or the Berea farm covered tuition, with extra work granted to those who needed to cover room and board. Even as late as the 1970s when I was applying for college, Berea was known as a school where kids from the greater Appalachian region could attend college in exchange for work.  I know that at least one girl from my high school attended Berea,

In the 1890s the Arts and Crafts Revival was spreading across Europe and North America. At Berea the idea came about to capitalize on the interest in handicrafts by seeing if any of the women in the surrounding area could produce handwoven articles for the college to sell in order to raise additional funds for the school.

By this time, even in Appalachia, cheap mass-produced textiles had all but replaced handwoven goods. Many women still spun wool and flax, but the yarn was used primarily for knitting. But many families still had old looms stored in their barns, and many of the older women still retained the skills needed for weaving.

So a program, called the Fireside Industries, was started where the school paid local women to bring in handwoven goods in exchange for either cash or money applied toward the tuition of a child or grandchild. Berea College resold the goods through a network of women’s clubs. Eventually it was decided to let students learn to weave, with the sale of the finished goods being applied to tuition. A weaving master, Anna Ernberg, was hired, and eventually a log house was built to house the looms and a store for the crafts sales. The Log House, built in 1917, is still used as an outlet for student and local crafts today.

A few years later the looms were relocated to a smaller log building behind the large Log House. Today it still houses the Berea weaving program. The students use modern looms, with some of the original ones that had been developed by Ms. Ernberg on display in another building.

The weavers of Fireside Industries were girls who made smaller woven goods such as napkins, placemats, scarves, and handbags. In the mid 1920s a program was started in which boys were set to weaving on the larger looms that would produce fabric yardage. This program ended in the 1940s, but Fireside Industries continues, making scarves, throws, pillows, and other finely woven items. The proceeds still go to support the college.

We got lucky because even though classes at Berea were still two weeks away, there was a woman working in the weaving cabin, and we were treated to a small tour. There were several different types of looms set up waiting for projects to be finished.

One thing that makes the program at Berea so important was that it was so influential in the development of other weaving programs across the Southern Appalachians. Many of the developers of other weaving centers such as the Penland School of Crafts and Crossnore School trained at and obtained looms from Berea.

A scarf in progress…

and a throw.

And yes, I did my bit to help fund the education of a Berea weaver. With each item you get a card with the name of the maker, along with a little booklet explaining the crafts program.

At one time the town of Berea was home to four thriving weaving concerns – Fireside Industries and the Mountain Weaver Boys which were associated with the college, and Matheny Weavers and Churchill Weavers which were independently owned. Matheny closed in the 1940s, but Churchill remained in operation until 2007. There is a small display of Churchill artifacts in the town’s historic depot.

Churchill Weavers was a large business, at one time running their own stores across the US. I was lucky enough to run across this lovely shawl at my Goodwill bins!

The story of the weaving revival in the Southern Appalachians is a fascinating story. If you are interested in learning more, the best book I know of on the subject is Weavers of the Southern Highlands by Phillis Alvic.

 

8 Comments

Filed under Made in the USA, Textiles

How Not to Waste a Scrap

I recently found a set of twelve unfinished patchwork pieces in the Dresden Plate pattern. I scooped these up from the bottom of a bin at the Goodwill Dig, knowing I had absolutely no use for them. But the thought of these Depression Era fabrics ending up in a ragger’s bundle made me so sad I had to rescue them.

All the fabrics are 1930s dress fabrics or feedsack fabrics. Some of the fabrics are the same but in different colors, like the blue and green examples above. Maybe a mother made matching dresses for her little girls – blue for one girl and green for the other. And since that same design is also present in red and in purple, maybe there were four daughters.

What really impressed me the most is that some of the pieces are actually pieced from even smaller scraps. The center piece above is made from five tiny scraps, some of them much smaller than an inch in width and length. The maker really knew how to use up every tiny bit of the precious material.

Amazingly, these designs were all pieced by hand. Do you see why I just had to rescue these?

In my own sewing, one of the things I hate facing is the large amount of unusable scrap fabric left over from the cutting. I’m not a quilter, and for the most part, don’t indulge in fiddly crafts that use tiny scraps of fabric. I do make lots of pillows, and all my scraps are cut even smaller to make filling. After reading about how much textile waste ends up in the trash dumps of the world, I can’t bear to add to the problem.

I know that in some areas there is textile recycling. And if worst comes to worst, scraps can be donated to Goodwill where they end up in the ragger’s bundles.  Are there any other ideas?

So now I have twelve pieces of Dresden plate, which I don’t need. I’d love to pass them on to someone who will actually use them, and that person has been located. Thanks, Joni, for taking these off my hands!

A few of the pieces have stains. This is the worst one I have noted.

 

 

 

10 Comments

Filed under Shopping, Textiles, Uncategorized