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History of Carpet
History of the Carpet Industry in the United States
In the Beginning -- Woven Carpet
The carpet industry in the United States began in 1791 when William Sprague
started the first woven carpet mill in Philadelphia. Others opened during the early
1800s in New England. Included in that area was Beattie Manufacturing Company in
Little Falls, New Jersey, a company that operated until 1979.
In 1839, Erastus Bigelow permanently reshaped the industry with the invention of
the power loom for weaving carpets. Bigelow's loom, which doubled carpet
production the first year after its creation and tripled it by 1850, is now part of the
Smithsonian Institution's collections. He continued to devote his life to innovation --
35 separate patents were issued to him between 1839 and 1876. Bigelow
introduced the first broadloom carpet in 1877.
The power loom with Jacquard mechanism was developed in 1849, and Brussels
carpet was first manufactured by the Clinton Company of Massachusetts. The
Brussels loom was slightly modified, making possible the manufacture of Wilton
carpet. Later, the Hartford Carpet Company joined with Clinton Company to become
Bigelow Carpet Company.
In 1878, four Shuttleworth brothers brought 14 looms from England and established
their manufacturing plant in Amsterdam, New York. In 1905, the company introduced
a new carpet, Karnak Wilton. Its instant success was phenomenal. Flooded with
orders, a new building had to be constructed to exclusively handle Karnak
production. Weavers worked four and five years without changing either the color or
pattern on their looms.
Alexander Smith started his carpet manufacturing plant in 1845 in West Farms, New
York. An American, Halcyon Skinner, had perfected the power loom for making
Royal Axminster in 1876. He and Alexander Smith combined, forming a very
successful carpet company. Alexander Smith was elected to Congress in 1878, but
died on the evening of election day. Sixteen hundred people were employed at his
factory at the time of his death. Alexander Smith & Sons continued. During World
War I, the carpet looms were converted to make tent duck and navy blankets. In
1929 Alexander Smith & Sons was the largest manufacturer of carpets and rugs in
Simulating the "Oriental" Rug
Industrialist/retailer Marshall Field had a traditional Axminster weaving loom modified
to create what no one else had ever created -- a machine-made rug woven through
the back, just like a handmade Oriental, featuring intricate designs and virtually
unlimited color variety. Karastan’s rug mill was established in 1926, and introduced
the first Karastan rugs to the public in 1928.
Alexander Smith, Bigelow, and Karastan are companies continuing today as
divisions of Mohawk Industries, headquartered in Georgia.
There are many manufacturers today producing both simulations of antique designs
and updated "Oriental" type rugs by both weaving and tufting processes.
The Tufted Carpet Industry Born in the U. S. A. – the Pride of Georgia
Through the late 1800s, Dalton, Georgia, struggled with cotton mills and steel
manufacturing works to forge a small town in the north Georgia hills. Northwest
Georgia, with its hard-packed clay, poor farmland, and rolling hills was among the
last areas of Georgia settled. Rich in a heritage of Cherokee Indians and Civil War
battles, that northern corner of the state was rugged and spawned people who were
independent and self-sufficient. Those were the people who brought forth and
nurtured the tufted textile industry. The industry's infancy was in Dalton; it has gone
through intense growth in Dalton; and it has now matured in and around Dalton. The
carpet industry's impact is great on this region, this state, and the nation; and the
story of its growth is unique.
The industry began in a simple way, around the turn of the century. A young, Dalton
woman, Catherine Evans Whitener, recreated a bedspread in a hand-crafted
pattern she had seen, for a wedding gift. Copying a quilt pattern, she sewed thick
cotton yarns with a running stitch into unbleached muslin, clipped the ends of the
yarn so they would fluff out, and finally, washed the spread in hot water to hold the
yarns in by shrinking the fabric. Interest grew in young Catherine's bedspreads, and
in 1900, she made the first sale of a spread for $2.50. Demand became so great for
the spreads that by the 1930s, local women, who were real entrepreneurs, had
"haulers," who would take the stamped sheeting and yarns to front porch workers.
Often, entire families worked to hand tuft the spreads for 10 to 25 cents per spread.
The local term for the sewing process was "turfin" for the nearly 10,000 area cottage
tufters -- men, women, and children. Bedspread income was instrumental in helping
many area families survive the depression.
As an example of the spirit of these early entrepreneurial women, Mrs. J. T. Bates
stated that she simply "shipped 15 spreads to John Wannamaker’s department
store in New York. On a piece of plain tablet paper I made out a bill for $98.15 and
put it in with the spreads. Although there had been no previous contact whatsoever
with the store, Wannamakers sent us a check for $98.15." Chenille bedspreads
became amazingly popular all over the country and provided a new name for Dalton:
The Bedspread Capital of the World.
Mechanization -- the 1930s
Buyer competition, which tended to lower the prices, the change in the minimum
wage laws, and development of machine-produced spreads soon made the hand-
crafted spreads too expensive. Gradually the industry began to pull the workers
from surrounding hillsides and small towns into mills in Dalton, beginning the rapid
growth of the mechanized tufting industry.
In the 1930s, as a result of the demand for more bedspreads, the first mechanized
tufting machine, attributed to Glen Looper Foundry of Dalton, was developed.
Looper modified the single needle commercial Singer so that it would tuft the thick
yarn into unbleached muslin without tearing the fabric and an attached knife would
cut the loop. Machines quickly developed into four, then eight, twenty-four, and
more needles to make the parallel rows of tufting known as "chenille." By 1941, all
but about one percent of tufted bedspreads were machine made. Mats and rugs
were created with the same process, using cotton yarns and fabric. Volume
increased rapidly after World War II, because people were hungry for color and
beauty. To show the extent of growth, 30,000 bales of cotton were consumed in
1946 by the industry. By 1950, approximately 500,000 bales were used, and the
industry was the third largest consumer of cotton grown in Georgia in 1952.
Sales were created by correspondence or by taking spreads to department stores,
but by far the most famous and enjoyable way to buy a spread was on "Bedspread
Alley," U. S. Highway 41 between Dalton and Cartersville. This stretch of the major
north-south highway got its nickname because of the bedspreads the tufters hung
on clotheslines to dry in the breeze and sun.
The salesmen and tourists enjoyed seeing the colorful, gaudy spreads and enjoyed
the novelty of buying them "off the line." The most popular pattern to the travelers,
outselling all others 12 to 1 was the Peacock -- feathered birds facing each other
and spreading tails over the breadth of the spread. This "Bedspread Alley"
phenomenon lasted into the ‘70s, and even now a few spreads can be seen on lines
just south of Dalton.
As the number of tufted products produced annually went into the millions, the job of
supplying the industry became equally important. Yarn, sheeting, duck mills, and
agents were established in the area, with their entire output going to the industry;
and larger mills elsewhere vied for the growing business. Machine shops were
established to manufacture the thousands of single and multi-needle machines
needed, as well as to design improvements aimed at making even more beautiful
and better spreads, bathroom sets, robes, beach wear, and rugs. Dye plants for
yarn were built. Laundries were erected for finishing the spreads. Printing shops
were established to supply the millions of tags and labels needed. Box factories
turned out cartons for shipping. Moving these spreads to market was big volume for
rail and motor freight lines.
Machinery was developed for making chenille rugs and was widened, creating larger
rugs and broadloom carpet. At the same time, machinery was changing,
developments of new fibers accelerated the growth of broadloom carpet.
Synthetic Fibers are Introduced
Until about 1954, cotton was virtually the only fiber used in tufted products. Wool
and manmade fibers -- polyester, nylon, rayon, and acrylics -- were gradually
introduced by textile men in Dalton. Nylon was first introduced in 1947 and grew
steadily to dominate the market. Polyester was first used in 1965 and was followed
soon by polypropylene (olefin). Most manufacturers will agree that the single most
important development in the industry was the introduction of bulk continuous
filament nylon yarns. These yarns provided a luxurious quality, durable carpet,
similar to wool, that was more economical to produce. Therefore, a durable, luxury
product was offered to the consumer for less money.
In 1950, only ten percent of all carpet and rug products were tufted, and ninety
percent were woven. However, about 1950, it was as if someone had opened a
magic trunk. Out of that trunk came man-made fibers, new spinning techniques, new
dye equipment, printing processes, tufting equipment, and backing for different end
uses. Today, tufted products are more than 90 percent of the total, followed by less
than 2 percent that are woven, and 6.7 percent for all other methods, such as
knitted, braided, hooked, or needle punched. By 1951, the tufting industry was a
$133 million per year business made up primarily of bedspreads, carpet, and rugs,
with carpet accounting for $19 million. The industry broke the billion dollar mark in
1963. Through the years, the Dalton area has continued to be the center of the
tufted carpet industry, and today, the area produces more than 70 percent of the
total output of the world-wide industry of over $9 billion. Dalton is now known as the
"Carpet Capital of the World." (The Carpet & Rug Institute)