1.28.2008

The (R)Evolution of carpet (Part 1 of 4)

When I first arrived in Chattanooga and at Tricycle I understood that I had a great deal to learn. While I was familiar with “green issues” the contexts of carpet manufacturing and sustainable design were new to me. Fortunately for my learning curve, there was no lack of resources from which to draw. In the Tricycle library I found a copy of Thomas Deaton’s book: Bedspreads to Broadloom: the Story of the Tufted Carpet Industry. This history of the Georgia carpet empires and their unlikely beginnings proved to be first enlightening, then a valuable reference in understanding the subtext of the fierce competitiveness and neighborly resource sharing happening, often simultaneously, in the manufacturer’s rows of North Georgia.

I also noticed how the story of the growth of tufted carpet seemed familiar in the way that seeming obstacles (like geography and resources) became agents of innovation instead of barriers. I knew I’d heard this story before and I wrote this essay to help myself better understand what I was learning.


I've split the essay into four parts and will post them over the next few days.

PART 1

Carpet is big business in Dalton and the surrounding communities. Manufacturing facilities all located within one hundred miles of Dalton produce 70 per-cent of the world’s tufted carpet and bring in over $11 billion in revenue. In contrast to its unremarkable beginnings, the story of that growth is completely, wholly amazing. In fact one of the truly surprising things is how closely that story follows the story of another, later revolution that rose from humble beginnings to shake and then dominate the very industry that had dismissed its potential—the computer and internet revolution.

The carpet industry had remained virtually unchanged for one hundred years. Weaving was the method and wool was the medium. There was so much investment, and sales were so lucrative that there was little motivation for change. The established industries resisted rather than encouraged innovation. Think of the existing carpet industry at that time as IBM—Big Blue. For decades IBM was the largest computer company in the world. The company that famously stated the future of computers is in hardware and that no one would want a computer in their home. Like the computer giant would later do, the carpet mills couldn’t imagine the world would change simply because it hadn’t yet.

In 1895, a fifteen year-old girl named Catherine Evans made a bedspread. This event would have gone entirely unnoticed because quite frankly it was precisely the kind of event people tend not to notice. But something happened, two things that were uniquely, remarkably boring. The first is how Catherine made her bedspread. She purchased the muslin squares and the cotton yarn and began to sew it all together. She used part of the yarn to make large looping stitches to emphasize the pattern. Then using household scissors, she cut the top of the loop creating two tufts of thread from the single loop. She unraveled the twists of yarn and spread out the tufts to create a textured pattern on the face of the bedspread. This technique was called “tufting”.

The second thing was where this happened, in North Georgia just outside of Dalton. At a time when the city of Atlanta, which would go on to become one of the nation’s most important urban centers, was still a backwater, Dalton had even less to recommend it. There was little infrastructure, few manufactured goods were produced locally so products were shipped in. And while Dalton was the home of two textile mills, the only real industry was the foundries over the state line in Chattanooga, Tennessee (see, boring, but stay with me).

There’s nothing efficient about making a bedspread in this manner. The investment of money for material and thread, the extensive time required, not to mention backache and cramped fingers meant that while the tools and materials were commonly available not many people produced these goods by hand. Even in the south, most people purchased woven textiles produced in northern mills from imported raw materials. But Catherine, after making the first spread, actually did do something remarkable—in a way. Ignoring the difficulties and slow pace, she began working on another bedspread, and another after that. So thanks to a teenager with a stunted social life, the Georgia Tufted Carpet Industry was conceived. And though the event happened with little notice there was a bit of fanfare. The second bedspread was a wedding present for a sister in law and though by all accounts the wedding was a modest affair it’s worth mentioning here because everything else up to this point had been so perfectly boring. Outside the local community the wedding passed without notice as did the gift of a hand-made, tufted bedspread. And although the great Northern Woolen Mills didn’t know it, they were on borrowed time from that point on. (to be continued…)

1 comment:

Mr. Annoying said...

I'd always wondered how the whole Dalton carpet thing came about. Dalton's a much more interesting area than people realize. I know an attractive, eccentric woman there. Some people I knew made her a house. It began as a simple Cape Cod, but it evolved expensively into a wild, eccentric treehouse-like living contraption. Totally cool.

Her bf seemed somehow much more local than she did. He wished he was dangerous. He showed me his AK-47 clone one day when I was there. Showed it off in a friendly way, smiling through randomly-arrayed and tannin-darkened teeth, radiating a kinda AC/DC vibe. He was nice. He was not actually dangerous. He just wanted to be.

He was a guy who made carpet. He recycled carpet scraps into targets. Of course, they had to be pretty large so he could hit them, but his recycling practices made it clear that he was green.

She had money and was very well educated. She seemed lonely, almost. I always wondered where her money came from, but I never asked. I think it's more fun to speculate. Perhaps she's one of Catherine Evans's heirs.

I can't wait to read your next installment.

Our blog is mostly about sustainable design in the interiors industry,
especially carpet. Sometimes it's just about us. Updated when we've got something good to say.