Did you know? Chenille is the French word for caterpillar.
Vintage Chenille Bedspreads: The Beginning
According to the New Georgia Encyclopedia, a woman by the name of Catherine Evans Whitener revitalized the technique of tufting in the late 1890’s near Dalton, Georgia. Tufted bedspreads became highly popular not just in Georgia, but around the country.
Chenille is the term used to describe fabrics with a thick pile, and while most tufted bedspreads don’t really meet the true definition of “chenille”, the term held.
Tufted bedspreads starting showing up on department store shelves in Atlanta, New York, Philly, and other major cities around the United States by the 1920s.
Merchants created “spread houses”, which were generally small warehouses or homes where patterns were stamped onto sheets. Then, these stamped sheets and yarn were delivered to thousands of rural homes in Georgia, Tennessee, and the Carolinas, where families would sew in the patterns.
A “hauler” would then come and pick up the spreads, pay the tufters, and send the products to the “spread houses” for finishing, which included washing the spreads in hot water to shrink them and lock in the tufts of yarn. Sometimes, the spreads were dyed as well.
Clotheslines of Vintage Chenille Spreads
US Highway 41 through Dalton and other communities in northwest Georgia would soon be filled with clotheslines featuring the popular spreads adored with a variety of patterns. Of all patterns, the most popular (and perhaps even today, well known) was that of the “peacock”.
So infamous was the peacock that a section of Highway 41 became known as “Peacock Alley” for the many spreads featuring peacock designs that dominated the displays.
Farm families in the chenille industry used the income they earned to help survive the Great Depression. For others, chenille just wasn’t a source of income – it was a gold mine, with many in the bedspread business making over $1 million.
Vintage Chenille Comes in Many Forms…
Many familiar with chenille will undoubtedly recognize the “Cabin Crafts” name – they, along with other companies at the time, began to drive change in the industry as they sought higher productivity and greater control over the work process.
Sewing machines would eventually take on the task of inserting raised yarn tufts, and it was this industrialization of tufting that boosted productivity and established a bustling textile industry in Dalton, GA.
Over time, other chenille items like clothing (robes, pajamas), towels, toilet tank covers, and curtains became popular.
Through the World War II era right into the 1960s, chenille was all the rage before falling out of fashion with the general public. By 1965, “Peacock Alley” vanished when Interstate 75 was constructed…and chenille bedspread-making slipped into obscurity.
Chenille Makes a Comeback
Many people credit the popular TV show The Nanny with bringing chenille back into the mainstream, but a throwback article from 1996 on EW.com indicates the chenille trend began a bit earlier. No matter how it all began, celebrities from Ellen DeGeneres to Tracy Ullman were wrapping up in the robes that put a smile on everybody’s face, made by Canyon / Damze.
At the time, Damze Co. also made pajamas, nightshirts and slippers, but it was their charming line of bathrobes (price: $100-$130 then!) that made a big Hollywood splash. Their robes made appearances on The Nanny, Frasier, One Life to Live, Melrose Place, Hope & Gloria, Baywatch, NYPD Blue, General Hospital, Lois & Clark, Friends, Murphy Brown, All My Children, and Beverly Hills, 90210, to name a few.
Said a Damze sales rep interviewed for the article, ”People recognize them by TV show. They’ll say, ‘Oh, that’s Alison’s robe on Melrose Place.”
Nevertheless, it was indeed The Nanny that takes the credit for making those chenille robes, with their whimsical patterns and unforgettable designs, a worldwide phenomenon. The audience’s burning question after “Is that really Fran Drescher’s real voice?!” was…you guessed it… “Where do you get those robes?”
Nanny costume designer Brenda Cooper used a robe in almost every episode and added shoulder pads for a heightened (no pun intended) sense of “glamour”.
Chenille Bedspreads…An American Legend
Beginning in at least the 1990s, reproduction chenille began popping up at department stores nationwide, but as many will attest, there was simply no comparison between a 1940’s genuine piece of chenille and a department store repro. Many cheap imitations were a cotton/polyester blend that was nothing like the original. If you’d like to learn more about some of the great chenille bedspread manufacturers, visit this summary post we created on the subject (individual links within the post will take you to pages for key manufacturers of the time).
Chenille Tip: If you’re looking for a true vintage or antique piece, one of the easiest ways when you’re first beginning to collect is to play detective. Examine the tag – anything that says “Made in India” (or China, Pakistan, Turkey…you get the idea) is NOT old and is likely an inferior quality.
If there isn’t a tag on the piece, but you’re still not sure, look online or compare it to a piece of chenille fabric you’re absolutely certain is true vintage. Many people note that new chenille has a much thinner backing and lower pile (tuft) height than the original. In short, it simply seems “cheaper”.
What About Vintage Chenille Bedspreads Today?
Today, chenille of all varieties is available in abundance if you know where to look. From whole bedspreads, baby blankets and throws to towels, pillows, rugs, and yes, even toilet seat covers – you can buy chenille for almost any price – from just a few dollars to over $1,000+ for a rare piece.
Cabin Crafts, Hoffman, Bates, Morgan Jones, Ret-rac, Dellinger…you name it, you’ll find it online – and even to this day, at local antique shops and estate sales.
As you become more familiar with chenille, you’ll discover which particular brands, styles or patterns you favor the most. Online sites like eBay, Etsy, and Ruby Lane can be a great starting place for the new collector, but prospective buyers can also Google any phrase related to “chenille” to find a number of small online shops selling original vintage chenille spreads and handmade wares.
So, is chenille really a legend? Indeed, to the chenille connoisseurs of the world, it is. Most describe their “first meeting” with the fabric in fond and vivid detail, often describing it as being “bitten” by the chenille bug.
Whatever way you describe it, once chenille has found its way into your life, it’ll have you coming back for more…and more…and more!
Have a piece of chenille history to contribute? How did you start collecting? We’d love to hear your chenille story![simple-author-box]