The tale of Catherine Evans Whitener is a familiar one around Northwest Georgia.
In the late 1800s, the young Dalton entrepreneur crafted hand-tufted chenille bedspreads that were sold all over the country. The cottage industry eventually led to the founding of the carpet industry.
An interesting and less publicized offshoot of the chenille industry is the popularity of garments made from the fabric: beach capes, boleros, dresses, jackets, kimonos, robes and more.
Ashley Callahan is telling that not-so-well-known story.
“The bedspreads to carpet story has been well documented and published, but the garment side of the industry receives only brief mentions,” Callahan said. “Certainly there was not as much money in this part, but fashion goes out into the world in such a different way. You wouldn’t wear your bedspread on the beach, but you can wear a patriot cape with a red, white and blue anchor motif. It’s a chance to talk about chenille within the context of the history of American fashion: leisure wear, local design, etc.”
The book’s working title is “Southern Tufts: The Regional Origins and National Vogue for Chenille Fashion.” It is scheduled for a 2015 release and will be published by The University of Georgia Press. Callahan believes it’s the first book to focus on the history of the chenille fashion industry and the first to address chenille in-depth from a crafts/decorative arts viewpoint.
You could call the subject a natural fit for Callahan. She’s a native of the Carpet Capital of the World and a 1992 graduate of Dalton High School. Callahan holds an art history degree from The University of the South and a degree from the Smithsonian masters program in the history of American decorative arts. After two years in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., as the curatorial intern at Cranbrook Art Museum, she returned to Georgia to be the first curator of decorative arts at the Georgia Museum of Art. She held that position from 2000 to 2008. Now, she is an independent scholar and a contributor to Ornament Magazine.
Callahan has spent time in her hometown researching the chenille fashion industry. In addition to interviewing those involved in the business or their descendants, she has dug through information at the Bandy Heritage Center at Dalton State College, the Carpet and Rug Institute and the Whitfield-Murray Historical Society’s Crown Gardens and Archives. She has also relied on old newspaper stories and advertisements for chenille garments.
She has amassed many images of people at the beach in their chenille beach capes or children on Christmas morning wrapped in their chenille robes.
From her research, Callahan found chenille fashion dates to at least 1923 and the popularity tapered in the 1950s. There was a chenille fashion revival of sorts in the late 20th century when individuals began cutting up old bedspreads to make garments, she said.
She is interested in seeing more chenille garments or materials related to companies and the individuals that made them.
You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or Ashley Callahan, c/o J. Mike Brown, P.O. Box 30722, Dalton, GA 30722. You can also read more about the chenille fashion industry at facebook.com/chenillefashion and view garment photos at http://chenillefashion.tumblr.com.