The Creativity of Women
Through the centuries, women have possessed an inner strength and creativity that when sparked, brings forth beauty and artistry.
Chenille bedspreads are but one example of the artistic visionary of women.
It started with a technique known as candlewicking, whereby bedspreads were embroidered using tufts of yarn.
Using the white cotton thread that was used for wicks in candles, women embroidered their creative designs onto a white cotton sheet. All work was done by the women in their homes. As the years passed, the art of candlewicking faded.
But an inspired and creative woman elevated candlewick bedspreads to a new realm: the birth of the chenille bedspread whose heyday lasted for decades – and produced creative, whimsical and multicolored bedspreads that still grace many beds today.
Chenille: The Fuzzy Caterpillar
As a young child, Catherine Evans Whitener from Dalton, Georgia, saw a candlewick bedspread, observing that strands of tufts were pushed through fabric and then clipped, which produced a fuzzy look, just like a caterpillar. The tufting became known as “chenille,” which is the French word for caterpillar.
Catherine’s inner creativity was sparked. She created a replica of the bedspread she saw, using the yarn that was available to her. Her first three bedspreads were given as gifts, but her fourth was her first sale: $2.50 for her chenille bedspread.
Catherine’s bedspreads gained in popularity – so much so that she hired others and taught them the craft. By the early 1900s, multitudes of women were crafting chenille bedspreads from their homes; in the 1930s and beyond, passerby were able to catch a glimpse of these unique bedspreads, displayed along Highway 41 in Dalton, GA. Instead of large and bold billboards dotting the highway, colorful, vibrant, flashy, splashy and elegant chenille bedspreads were flapping in the wind.
The peacock design became a crowd-pleasing adornment on many chenille bedspreads, with their bold and dramatic colors. Soon Highway 41 became known as the now infamous Peacock Alley.
The Fuzzy Caterpillar Inches Along
While many of the chenille bedspreads were still hand sewn, innovators altered their sewing machines to tuft. Since women could work out of their homes, the popularity of the chenille bedspreads allowed them to be with their families – and earn extra income. Chenille bedspreads roared in popularity, just like the infamous 1920s decade, and even survived the Great Depression.
But by the 1940s, chenille bedspreads reached the zenith of their popularity, which lasted into the 1960s. Industrialization was able to produce chenille bedspreads in quantities – and quality – as well.
The Caterpillar Blossoms Into A Butterfly
Catherine Evans Whitener’s creative contribution to the textile industry eventually graced the fashion world – and beyond.
Chenille bath robes, baby quilts, coats, blazers, bed jackets, aprons and even capes were popular during the heyday of chenille.
Super soft tufts, a literal rainbow of colors and innovative designs and patterns allowed for creative imaginations to run wild.
And that trend has continued to this day.
Women’s Creativity Is Unending
Due to their quality of material, vintage chenille bedspreads can still be located today in excellent condition.
While many are still used to showcase a bed and make a statement in any bedroom, vintage chenille bedspreads are re-purposed and upcycled into a delightful array of handmade items. Upcycled bathrobes, jackets, pillows, baby quilts, stuffed toys and much more all feature the creative talents of women.
And vintage chenille bedspreads aren’t just for people: Pets LOVE the soft, thick tufts and vintage chenille bedspreads make great pet beds, pet cushions, and even pet jackets and vests.
Catherine Evans Whitener’s gift of chenille keeps on giving over a century after her creative spark. Her gifted ingenuity and love of chenille can be seen in every vintage chenille bedspread that was inspired from her original…
…and those who have discovered the beauty of a vintage chenille bedspread, they admit they feel the love tucked in every tuft.
For such a well-known American textile, one would easily assume that there is a wealth of information readily available on vintage chenille. Such is not the case.
One resource we highly recommend for the collector (or even for those interested in vintage fashion) is Southern Tufts: The Regional Origins and National Craze for Chenille Fashion by Ashley Callahan.
If you have other resources to add or have history to share, we would love to hear from you. We’re dedicated to gathering as much information as we possibly can on what is now a bygone era in American textile manufacturing – a time that represented innovation and economic growth, pride in design and craftsmanship, and the use of quality materials that were meant to last for generations.