Imagine: you’ve piled the family into the car and are driving south for a Florida vacation. You’re traveling along U.S. Highway 41 in northwest Georgia, when suddenly both sides of the road become flanked by row after row of clotheslines chock full of stunning chenille bedspreads. Congratulations! You’re in the thick of “Peacock Alley.” And most likely you’re in downtown Dalton, GA as well. 1930s travelers often stopped and bought these bedspreads, and of the many designs adorning the spreads, the most popular among tourists was the peacock. Hence the nickname.
Sometimes the bedspread buyers believed their purchases to be examples of authentic American folk crafts, when in fact by that decade a well organized industry had formed around the tufted beauties. Catherine Evans (later Catherine Evans Whitener) revived the handcraft technique of tufting in the 1890s near Dalton. Tufted bedspreads consisted of cotton sheeting to which Evans and (later) others would apply designs with raised “tufts” of thick yarn. These tufted bedspreads were often referred to as chenille products. Chenille, the French word for “caterpillar,” is generally used to describe fabrics that have a thick pile (raised yarn ends) protruding all around at right angles.
By the 1920s merchants had organized a vast “putting out” system to fill the growing demand. They established “spread houses,” usually small warehouses (or homes) where patterns were stamped onto sheets. Men called haulers would deliver the stamped sheets and yarn to thousands of rural homes in north Georgia, Tennessee, and the Carolinas. Families then sewed in the patterns. The hauler would make another round of visits to pick up the spreads, pay the tufters (or “turfers,” as they sometimes called themselves), and return the products to the spread houses for finishing. Finishing involved washing the spreads in hot water to shrink them and lock in the yarn tufts. The tufted spreads could also be dyed in a variety of colors.
The participation of farm families in this industry provided badly needed cash incomes and helped these families weather the Great Depression. It also produced fortunes for some. Dalton’s B. J. Bandy (aided by his wife, Dicksie Bradley Bandy) was reputedly the first man to make $1 million in the bedspread business by the late 1930s, but many others followed.
Also in the 1930s such companies as Cabin Crafts began to bring the handwork from the farms into factories. The bedspread manufacturers sought greater productivity and control over the work process and were also encouraged to pursue centralized production by the wage and hour provisions of the National Recovery Administration’s tufted bedspread code. These new firms also began mechanizing the industry by adapting sewing machines to the task of inserting raised yarn tufts.
Today, Dalton remains the tufted bedspread capital of the world.