Part II – A stroll through fabric stores 1920-1959
World War 1 changed the nation’s attitude toward lifestyles. The rich and fashionable, like our Madame the Society Matron in Part I, no longer needed personal seamstresses. Those whose fortunes survived the Depression intact turned exclusively to Poiret, Vionnet, Chanel and the following generations of designers for their clothing.
The department store now became the domain of the blue collar and middle to upper middle classes. Persons like Madame’s maid or seamstress who a decade earlier would not have been able to afford to shop at fabric emporiums now enjoyed the luxury of purchasing inexpensive yard goods at the best of stores. Here’s the new popular fabrics they and their families would encounter over a 40-year period:
Any large department or fabric store 1920-29
The decade was the beginning of the unencumbered woman whose unshackled body could at last romp freely in loose and skimpy styles. Hemlines started just above the ankles, shortened to the knee by mid-decade and returned to about lower mid-calf by the decade’s end. But woman was forever unrestricted in movement and fashion fabrics reflected this emancipation.
Dress yard goods, except for wool, were mostly 24″-32″ widths with 36″ and 39″ beginning to make an appearance. Rayon wasn’t commercially available until about mid-decade. It was of poor quality, unreliable, mostly shunned and called silk fiber or artificial silk until legislation permanently labeled it rayon.
There was renewed interest in ratines, particularly New Cloth’s blend of silk with cotton or wool ratine crepe to produce a lustrous linen effect in 42 shades. Galatea, a sturdy twill for sports and children’s wear, was much desired, boldly striking in prints, stripes, solids and fancy patterns in white combined with red, navy, green or brown.
By mid-decade with its short shimmy dress and indoor/outdoor loungewear and underwear, clingy fabrics were the new fashion statement — striped batiste, extra-wide colorful sateen and satin-finish charmeuse for lingerie and a special charmeuse for bloomers. Cotton Lingette which looked and felt like silk was touted not only for lingerie but nightwear, linings, children’s wear, shirtings and frocks. A white check nainsnook resembling windowpane dimity was much desired for breathable sleepwear for all ages.
A multi-use high-quality muslin called indigo print was favored for aprons, housedresses, shirting and children’s wear. Heavy gingham and muslin called romper cloth and kindergarten cloth were also popular for young children. [These three fabrics were probably similar to or an imitation of Indian Head]. Another heavy-duty favorite was 24″ plain oiled calico, so called because it was boiled in oil to retain color. It came in turkey red, orange, green, black and navy blue, suitable for children’s wear, trimmings, aprons and much desired for housekeeper uniforms.
Silks, wools, highly textured silk/wool crepes, ginghams, pongees and percales continued to be the standard popular staple carryover fabrics from the teens, now in colorful checks, diagonal plaids and geometric patterns. By 1928 the hemline dipped to mid-calf and inching downward. Frocks were very feminine, two piece and form fitting. Sheers such as Normandy voile with its applied dots to imitate swiss, lawn [or linon], organdy and dimity were vogue. And improvements in rayon technology made figured rayons a hit for summer frocks.
An early 1920s salesman sample book for Ironclad galatea, a sturdy twill for play and work clothes.
An early 1920s salesman’s sample book of New Cloth ratine crepes in 42 colors!
The unrestricted woman sports the latest in fashionable housedresses of 1925.
- Montgomery Ward Catalog 1925, courtesy Cindy Crook
Percales and other bright washables for work and play.
- Montgomery Ward Catalog 1925, courtesty Cindy Crook
Thoroughly modern Millie, slim and slinky in silk.
- Sears Catalog 1928
Any large department or fabric store 1930-41
Another fluctuating hemline decade gradually rising to abount an inch below the knee by 1938. Styles were sophisticated and elegant throughout the decade, changing to a more sporty look by 1939. Fabric widths between 36″-39″ were now common; dyes more stable and vibrant.
The continued improvements in rayon made the 30s a decade of experiment, spinning and blending rayon in every conceivable way. Flat rayon/ cotton crepe and rayon/cotton alpaca were early 30s fashion favorites as were eyelets, all-over laces, wool jersey for campus wear, frocks and children’s wear; wool flannel with a broadcloth finish[smooth] in dressweight for dresses, skirts, frocks; washable flannels of 25% wool blended with cotton [similar to Viyella]; wools to resemble cashmere and wool crepe blended with chiffon.
Weaving variations on cottons produced some startling effects. Some were made to resemble nubby ratines, looking and feeling like wool in bold diagonal plaids, tweeds and thick/thin mesh weaves. Others were plain and lacy cotton knits and plain and brushed meshes in gorgeous shades of coral and spring green; epongees with raised threads to form ¼” squares; cotton suedes; plush velveteen pique resembling narrow wale corduroy; colorful embroidered chambrays with brilliant tufts; silky pima percales, broadcloths and dress poplins of plain weave variations in lime, tangerine, faded blue and turquoise prints; and medium dressweight cotton broadcloths that were highly lustrous and indistinguishable from silk.
With all the novelty weaves on the market, a long-time popular cotton for children was demoted when longcloth was relegated to pillowcase and underwear duty.
By 1933 hemlines were near ankle length. Pique, lawn, lawn organdy and organdy were more in demand along with colorful opaque printed and patterned batistes for frocks. New rayons were a ruff crepe [highly textured] and a washable rayon/cotton chamois for frocks; improved rayon taffetas, twilled satins and a rayon/cotton alpaca especially for loungewear and lingerie.
Silks continued to be durable standbys with flat, shantung, pongee and crinkle crepe plus washable prints the fashion favorites.
By 1938-39, hemlines had risen to just below the knee. Dresses were more casual and sporty. These styles demanded cottons suitable for the look – broadcloth with a shantung weave; washable rayons in bold, colorful prints, tubfast batiste taking on a new look in gold prints and designs.
Heading into 1940-41, hemlines remained the same and styles more casual and perky. By now 36″width was becoming the standard for dress fabrics. Quadriga cloth, a fine cotton with a needlized finish that made it easy to cut and sew, was popular in a variety of textures and designs including seersucker, polka dots, stripes and checks. Also fashionable were fabrics with a ground of picotage or fine dots, usually black, combined with floral designs.
Fashions in rayon for the 1930-31 season.
- Sears Catalog, 1930
Beguiling spring colors in cotton for 1931.
- Cotton Textile Institute swatch book 1931
The decline of longcloth. Even though it has a kid [soft] finish, it is only suitable for children’s underclothes. Finish washes out leaving a muslin look and texture.
The many deceiving textures of cotton — knits, ribbing, nubby and brushed mesh which look and feel like wool.
- Cotton Textiles Institute swatch book, 1931
Fashions in colorful soft summery prints as hemlines lengthen.
- Sears Catalog 1933
1935 Butler Bros. swatch sheet of textured rayons and silks in fall colors.
Perky cotton prints, perfect for sporty styles and shorter hemlines.
- Montgomery Ward Catalog 1939
Latest in spun rayons and blends of subdued colors.
- Montgomery Ward Catalog 1939
Two mainstays of the 30s — blanket or Indian cloth for blankets, bathrobes and jackets (courtesy of Linda Learn) and a silky flat rayon (1939-40) for nightwear and loungewear.
Any large department store or fabric store — the war years 1942-45
World War II changed everything. With most every company in the country geared to war-time production plus rationing, the textile industry was heavily affected including the delay of introducing commercial nylon. Wool, too, was scarce, being reserved for military use.
To conserve fabric, hemlines rose about one and a half inches above the knee and dress styles were a little on the skimpy side. Housedresses, zippered or buttoned down the front, slack suits with snoods for the factory workplace and midriffs with shorts or slacks or short skirts called playsuits were hot items.
Colors became patriotic and colors were lighter to save on dyes – the trio of rosy red, faded blue and white appeared in many combinations and countless designs. Many patterns were whimsical to lighten the war mood such as cute stuffed animals and modernistic and tropical flowers.
Toward 1944 into 1945 there was an erratic mixture of every design imaginable. Diagonals and geometrics gave way to more relaxed florals and patterns, squares became softer and were combined with figurals, stripes were either bold roman or soft florals. While Bemburg rayon and silk continued enjoying popularity, anything cotton and two-piece summer suit dresses of nubby poplin were the fashion statements of the moment.
Plisse, a perennial favorite — crinkle crepe, 1930s; crinkle crepe, 1940s; embossed and glazed, 1940s.
More plisse in the traditional puckered striping — 1920s (the bluebirds are magnificent), 1930s, 1950s, 1940s.
Calvert brand cambric (1942-44) with its wartime stickers in accordance with government recommended guidelines. This particular bolt is off-grain and loosely woven, suitable only for Halloween costumes. Glazed finish washes out leaving fabric limp and meshy. A woeful sight for a once cherished and fine fabric.
Another perennial favorite, percale. These are high count, silky pimas — 1930s, mid-1920s, 1930s and 1940s (design is woven).
A dazzling array of wartime cottons, many probably leftovers from 1940-41 due to rationing and shortage of fabric.
- America’s Fabrics 1947
The post-war years 1946 –50: a walk though the Crescent Department Store in Spokane, Washington in 1947 is fairly representative of post-war popular fabrics
A return to normalcy and abundant goods. The style was the new look with long hemlines, big shoulders, cap sleeves, side drapes and peplums and the indispensible black cocktail dress.
While luxurious wools were enthusiastically embraced, rayon was king. Marimba Enka, Bur-Mil Cohama, Car-A-Q, Helman Bemburg and anything with California before it were the big names. Florals, stripes and black were the leaders.
Pure rayon — faille for dressy affairs, shantung for suits, jersey prints and stripes for loungewear and blouses; crepe for dress and lining; woven pinchecks for all occasions; Salyna Cloth for casual wear; luana cloth for smart two-piece dresses; duchess crepe for sophistication; Verdugo linen crash for summer suits; sheer Bemburgs for summer wear; spun for play clothes; gabardine for sportswear; washable lambskin crepe in prints; rough crepes; washable Narco high tenacity for street and evening; crisp, silky Situra for special occasions; the unbeatable Earl Glo linings for coats and suits; acetate satin for evening wear, nightgowns, blouses; linen-like spun mist border prints; netting; Strutter Cloth for sportswear, casual and daytime classics; sharkskin for blouses, dresses and uniforms; and crush-resistant velvet.
Rayon blends — nubby acetate and silk for dresses and suits; butcher linen with cotton for casual wear; tubular Natura jersey with wool and fur fiber for sack dresses; Marvylon with nylon for dresses, lingerie and children; tropical suiting with wool.
Nylon began appearing in ready to wear but yard goods were limited and did not sell well. Fabric was still difficult to work with and frayed easily. Many persons bought surplus military parachutes for $13.95 which yielded 45 yards and was suitable for baby clothes, lingerie, negligees and some clothing.
Wool was thick, soft and luxurious with tweeds, plushy long fibers and cashmere the top favorites. Tartan plaids were a must for pleated skirts, straight or pencil skirts and the ever-versatile box jacket. Milliken, Botany and Forstmann were at the head of the list.
Cotton remained steadfast and new technology for preshrunk, waterproofed and wrinkle free fabrics made them even more popular. Tattersall plaid was chic for raincoats; striped pique for casual styles; narrow-stripe seersucker for coat-style dresses; bleached fine Hope muslin for lingerie and quilting; ABC percales for housedresses and aprons; gingham plaids for coke dates; Everfast solid and print waffle pique; roman stripe broadcloths; gay pique border prints for broomstick skirts and sports dresses; lawns and batistes with dark grounds that were Apponized to assure permanent crispness.
On the dressier side, white eyelet pique was a favorite for dresses and formals. Sheers such as dotted swiss and organdy matelasee with its frost effect in ice cream colors were the choice for party dresses and blouses. While silk took a back street to rayon, colorful wide streamer stripes and brilliant, bold prints in flat silk, georgette and crepe de chine were best sellers.
Crisp lawn organdies [poor man's swiss muslin] were a favorite for hostess aprons, children’s wear, blouses and accessories. 1940s, 1920s (red swiss muslin), 1930s, 1950s.
Extremely fine, sheer organdy. Embroidered flouncing has Heberlein finish, 1930s. An unusual double-sided soft velvet flocking decorates the pale aqua organdy, late 1940s.
Wool was back in a variety of weaves, lush textures and soft colors.
- America’s Fabrics, 1947
Any large department or fabric store 1950-59
This was a glamorous decade where the hemline stayed around mid-calf. The effects of the new look continued to dominate during the first part. Trademarks increased daily as manufacturers developed new ways to protect, enhance and market fabric. It was still a world of natural fibers, rayon included, with nylon at last becoming respectable.
As full and circular skirts were predominant, fashion fabrics continued to reflect elegance. The newly patented L’organza [now simply organza], heavy rayon satins, lush rayon taffetas, wool felt, Swiss woven cottons and embossed and flocked cottons and nylons of every description were particularly suited to this style. Waffle and honeycomb piques and Moygashel linen topped the summer must-have list; Italian D’angelo wools for winter.
During the latter part of the decade, 40″ and 42″ fabric widths were creeping in, mostly in broadcloth which became the first wash and wear fabric available in yard goods. Cotton became more daring with metallic prints, colorful denim stripes, sporty poplins and bold shantung weaves. Knife pleated skirts were enabled by prepleated cotton which were cut to fit waistband measurement and side seams then sewn. Coordinating fabric was available for blouses or other top wear.
But the big news was the offsprings of nylon – Dacron, Orlon, Arnel. These man-made fibers infinitely increased the ability for blending and variety and paved the way for a revolution in the textile field. As the decade ended there were dacron linen, rayon mesh, nylon chiffon, dacron shantung, arnel sailcloth, arnel and cotton checks and rayon tissue shantung.
Quadriga Cloth was a line of fine needleized cottons which were easy to cut and to sew.
- ad from Good Housekeeping 1953
E&W’s Swiss woven reversible cottons were a summer favorite in the mid-1950s (courtesy of Linda Learn). Inset – honeycomb pique made a popular re-appearance in the early 1950s. Crinkly figural nylon was the preference for housecoats and blouses, early 1950s.
Fine muslin and lawn gauzes in ice creams shades in a variety of flocking patterns were always in style late 1930s through 1950s (courtesy of Leona Stormoen).
Easy care cottons — poplins, broadcloths and percales were still the choice of many sewers.
- Montgomery Ward Catalog 1957
High-fashion summer fabrics in metallic prints and embossed figurals.
- Montgomery Ward Catalog 1957
From 1960 onward synthetics have dominated the textile field. With each succeeding decade a new generation of man-made fibers [now called manufactured fibers] would appear with advanced technological improvements in spinning, weaving, dying and finishing.
Ironically the descendents of Madame and her maid in the late 1970s would not have the pleasure of a long leisurely stroll through aisles of fabrics of every description and know them by name and fiber content. Moreover, few would even know how to sew as most schools had discontinued home economics courses by then.
Despite the later inroads of discount stores, a decline in sewing and fewer fabric stores, fabric and sewing continue to fascinate and attract a captive audience. For the most part it is the quilters and heirloom sewers whom we owe a debt of thanks for resurrecting and renewing an interest in the knowledge, pursuit and preservation of vintage fabrics.
- Sears catalogs 1928, 30, 33
- Montgomery Ward catalogs 1925, 39, 57
- 1940s Quadriga Cloth information, courtesy Thelma Bernard
- America’s Fabrics 1947 Zelma Bendure and Gladys Pfeiffer, 1947
- Crescent Department Store advertising page proofs of 1947, courtesy of Jessie Huey
- Economy Sewing Catalog 1952
Joan Kiplinger was an antique doll costumer and vintage fabric addict who learned to sew on her grandmother’s treadle and peddled fabrications ever since.