Popular opinion would lead one to believe that the only appropriate form of historic American bedcovering is the patchwork quilt. Actual textile history is wonderfully rich and diverse. Two lesser known but related bedcovering forms are candlewicking and tufted chenille. These forms have a lovely three-dimensional quality and usually have white cotton threads stitched on white woven cloth. Both groups have traditions of wonderful original designs.
There is a long, continuous history of white embroidery stitching on white cloth in Europe. Examples can be found in a variety of forms in France, England, Ireland and Scotland. Bedcoverings embroidered with heavy white multi-ply cotton thread (similar to the wicks of candles—hence the name) can be found in the United States from the latter part of the eighteenth century. These very elegant embroidered bedcoverings have been found in all parts of the eastern US. They reached the their height of popularity between 1790 and 1845, corresponding to the neoclassical preference for all white in soft furnishings for interiors. The background cloth could be homespun or commercially woven cotton, although linen was sometimes used. These bedcoverings were designed and hand stitched by individual women for their own homes or as wedding gifts. Designs were wonderful in their originality. Typically, these bedcoverings had a central motif such as an urn or basket with flowers, cornucopia or eagle. This center motif would then be surrounded with one or more border patterns. Grapevine, flowers on vines, swags and bowknots were frequently found. There were a wide variety of stitches used to create the highly textural effect; most common were satin, outline, bullion, Turkish, and French knots.
The story of tufted chenille began in 1895 in America with Catherine Evans Whitener of Dalton, Georgia. At age fifteen, Evans attempted to copy a candlewick bedspread she had seen three years earlier. Not having anyone to teach her the candlewicking stitches, Miss Evans invented her own stitch. This stitch became known as the “turfing stitch”. 12 ply cotton yarn was directly stitched through the cloth with a large bodkin needle.
Neighbors soon requested bedspreads—the one bedspread created for her brother's wedding quickly grew into a thriving cottage industry. Soon, others in the Dalton area were starting their own “spread shops,” as they were called, and creating their own patterns. Patterns were geometric and often based on the layout patterns of quilts. Thousands of bedspreads were shipped from this tiny southern town to individual clients as well as large department stores.