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Peacock Alley: A Cottage Industry

The Folk Method of Tufting

Dalton's chenille bedspread industry was originally a true cottage industry, begun by people working out of their homes, using folk methods, tools and materials to produce their hand-crafted spreads. What began as a hobby for one young girl grew into a way of life and a living for a region. Catherine Evans Whitener, after selling the spread that caused such a stir, went on to show her friends, relatives and neighbors the process she had devised to craft her spread.

The design for that first decorated spread was borrowed from a traditional quilt pattern, as were many of the patterns thereafter. Miss Evans sewed together flour sacks to form the spread. Later, cotton-sheeting material would be used for this. She drew the pattern ~ copied from the Irish Chain quilt ~ onto the sheet. For subsequent spreads, Miss Evans found that she could use a completed spread as a pattern. She came up with a shortcut method of "stamping" the pattern on a cotton sheet.

First, the tufter would lay a completed spread face down on the floor and place a large cotton sheet over it, smoothing out wrinkles with her hands. Next, she would rub across the surface of the sheet with a "stamping iron." Stamping irons were tools specially made for the purpose, out of ordinary household items. Typically a stamping iron might be a piepan or the round, flat lid of a baking-powder tin, rubbed with a meatskin that had been dipped in a little soot to form an inky residue. Later stamping irons were small blocks of wood coated on one side with waxed ink. This improvised tool was rubbed over the cotton sheet, thus picking up the pattern from the bumpy tufts of the original spread and leaving a finished pattern of faint dots on the new sheet.

The next step, as explained by a practitioner of the craft, was to "turf" or tuft the sheets. Thick cotton yarn was needed for this. Cotton skeins came in single threads, so someone, usually a daughter, would spin together twelve strands of "number eight" thread to form the yarn. The yarn would then be threaded into a long, single or "double" needle ~ that is a needle with two eyes ~ depending on the desired stitch. The tufter would run the threaded needle through the sheeting, picking up each dot to form a generous stitch. An experienced tufter could quickly finish row after row of stitches.

Once the dots were stitched, each stitch had to be clipped with scissors to form a tuft. The spread was hemmed and ready for fringing. All the while the tufter was working on the spread, her children were busy with related tasks ~ usually making balls or twists for the fringe. A simple or elaborate fringe might be woven on a "fringing bar" ~ a bar of wood laid across two chairs, with the sheet pinned at intervals with clothespins. The fringe was now sewn onto the hemmed spread ~ unless the spread was to be dyed first and the fringe left white.

The spread was now ready to be boiled. Each spread was placed in a large washpot heated by a fire outside by the spreadline. Boiling was necessary, not only to help separate or fluff the strands of yarn, but also to shrink the material around each tuft so that the tufts wouldn't fall out. For this reason, each spread was boiled several times. Boiling also cleaned the spread, removing stains or residue from the stamping process. Often, the spreads were tufted with colored yarn on a white sheet. Some spreads were white on white, though, and could be dyed if desired. Vegetable dye and salt to set the dye were added to the boiling pot.

After the boiling came the fluffing. Tufts were fluffed, to some extent by boiling; but it took still more work to really fluff the yarn. The spread would be hung on the line. When it was nearly dry, two people would take down the spread and shake it briskly. Then they would re-hang the spread and either brush it with a clothesbrush or beat it with a broomstick ~ a task that was usually left to the children. Fluffing, no doubt, could be heard up and down Old 41. The sheet-shaking produced a loud pop, and children were likely quite vigorous in their chore of beating the spreads on the line. Dew falling on the sheets dampened the tufts, so one last beating might have to be applied in the morning. The finished spread was now ready for market.

* "Chenille," as a technical description of Dalton's tufted spreads, is not accurate. Though our spreads became known as "chenilles,quot; true French chenille differs from American chenille.





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