Catherine Evans was born in 1880 in Whitfield County, Georgia in the United States. She was the second child of six children and only received a fifth-grade education, which was relatively normal for rural Georgia women during that period of time. But her natural curiosity and intelligence made her a successful businesswoman and an important historical figure within the textile industry.
Whilst visiting relatives at the age of twelve, she discovered a family heirloom quilt made be a process called candlewicking that had fallen out of style. The quilt was very soft and she became determined to make one of her own when she returned home. She experimented to duplicate the lost process and tried to develop shortcuts to reproduce the time-consuming process. She succeeded at the age of fifteen by creating a white bedspread with loops at a 90-degree angle rose across the fabric. She cut the loops at the top and then boiled the bedspreads to shrink the fabric to set the loops so they would not fall out of the fabric. The ends frizzed dramatically and created a plush bedspread that she immediately duplicated to verify the process.
Family and friends greatly admired the quilts and asked Catherine to make them and were willing to pay cash. Catherine was more than happy to do so and her fledgeling enterprise began. The fabric and weaving process created became known as chenille. Chenille is the French word for caterpillar since the fuzzy texture was reminiscent of the feel of the insects. The demand grew so great that Catherine enlisted younger women from the area to help her meet the demand. She later added mats and bathrobes and founded the Evans Manufacturing Company in 1917 with her brother James. The next year she received her first commercial contract when Rich’s department store of Atlanta ordered 24 bedspreads.
The business grew steadily and often the women’s work became the primary source of income for some farm families during tough economic times. Many families in north-west Georgia were able to survive the Great Depression due to Catherine’s altruistic efforts to assist struggling families by providing work and support during these troubled times.
Catherine never enjoyed the kind of resources necessary to capitalise on her success. When businessmen noted the company’s success as a cottage industry, they quickly invested the necessary capital in making the industry grow. Other families in the area also began to produce the chenille fabric and the Bandy family received aid from Catherine to launch a tufting business. Dicksie Bradley Bandy grew her business into a major concern. The tufted carpet industry grew into the major industry in that part of Georgia and is now the world’s leading centre for wall-to-wall carpeting. Although Catherine never made millions herself, her work created an opportunity for many other individuals to become extremely wealthy.