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Miracle Fibers – Rayon and Nylon

First there was rayon, then nylon. They weren’t very lovable, despite the hype promoting their advantages. Thanks to technology not only have they become acceptable, but they laid the groundwork for generations of new synthetics. For some reason, early rayon and nylon tend to be passed over by most vintage fabric collectors. They are not suitable for quilting nor heirloom sewing nor much in demand for street wear. It is probably the theatrical and historical costumers and to some extent doll dressers who most seek these fabrics. Up to 1960 synthetic names were marketed far enough apart to be solidly identifiable and recognizable – the rayons, nylon, orlon, dacron, acrilan and vicara. We knew what to do with them, how to sew with them; what to expect of them. Then beginning in the early 1960s fiber construction took on a whole new meaning and from that point on most of us felt we needed a degree in textiles and Latin to navigate the fabric stores. As the histories of rayon and nylon are interesting, this column talks to their development rather than the fabric. From rayonne to artificial silk to rayon Of all the synthetics rayon is probably the most confusing and misunderstood and received the worst press. To begin with, rayon is not a true synthetic. It is made from cellulose, the solid part of cell walls for plant life. Cellulose for rayon is obtained from wood pulp and cotton linters which are short fibers left on the cotton seed after the long fibers have been removed. There are three processes used in its manufacture to produce viscose, cuprammonium and acetate. Each has its own special properties. Rayon has been around for more than 250 years but not as a fabric. The term rayon has only been with us since 1924. The idea to artificially duplicate the silk worm process was advanced in 1665 by an English scientist. It lay dormant until 1754 when a French scientist reported it was possible to make varnishes into threads which imitated silk. More than 100 years later another Frenchman, Count Chardonnet, produced the first fiber having commercial success as a textile. In 1884 rayonne was born from his nitrocellulose process. Right on its heels the cuprammonium process was developed, a third in 1982 by two Englishmen called viscose , followed by acetate. The Chardonnet process is no longer in production. Rayonne was more widely known as artificial silk. The name was outlawed in 1924 and the name rayon was given…
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Fruits of the Loom: Fabrics with Multiple Personalities

Just when you think you have it down pat and can confidently state that this is lawn and this is muslin and this is percale and feel smug about your expertise, along comes a clunker. My first clunker was reading a 1933 Sears catalog which listed cambric in its percale section and which I thought somewhat strange.  The description then went on to say that its finest percales had a cambric finish and collectively called its finest percales cambrics.  That was probably wonderful news for the seamstress of the day, but for untrained collectors like me it proved to be a bit of a snag in putting a tag on my vintage percales.  It’s just once more stress we lay people have to cope with, feeling our smugness evaporate and making us truly sub-lay. My second clunk arrived when reading an excellent reference book Staple Cotton Fabrics by John Hoye, 1942, which describes the converting of cotton into its various weaves and textures. His comments are the basis for this column. His eye-opening statement was that there are more finished cloth names than there are basic fabrics owing to the fact that different finishes are often used on the same gray cloth [unbleached cotton goods as they come from the loom] and that the finished cloth often takes on the name of the finish. Are you with me so far? Just remember the color gray bears no resemblance to what we visualize as unbleached. In staple cloths having a large variety of uses, there is one name for the gray goods and a different name for each finish the cloth is converted into. A standard print cloth can be converted into as many as 30 different finishes, each of these having a different name and a separate use. Many fabrics after finishing bear little resemblance to the original gray cloth. Still with me?     Gray cloth is converted by bleaching, dying, printing and finishing. Most cotton fabrics have to be converted before they can be used and are then known as converted cloths. The coarsest gray cloth is cheesecloth and tobacco cloth. It is the following two gray cloth categories which are of prime interest to collectors: Print cloth — carded cloths made with the same yarns as cheesecloth but more threads per inch.  Just remember that print means carded and not a printed design or pattern. Fine plain cloth — called gray longcloth and is generally combed and has higher thread count than print cloth. To help put this…
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The Elusive Obsoletes – The Dating Game Continues

In the British world of antiques, a divy is a diviner, one who can tell it’s the genuine article upon sight. Perhaps you’ve experienced a shiver down your spine when you find a vintage fabric; you just know it’s old and the real thing at first glance. So, your divy instincts having performed admirably, you know you have something old, but exactly how old and and exactly what is it? Fabric identification without the aid of selvage markings, provenance or an expert can be tricky. Most of the time there is no positive answer. But there are clues to put you somewhere in the ballpark. Often width, color, design, weave and appearance can be good indicators. Widths, while iffy and weak signals, nevertheless can generate a time frame. Generally, by the early 1930s narrow widths were replaced by 36″ to 39″ for most all American dressmaking cottons and by the early 60s the standard was 42″ to 44″ though some  36″ widths cottons lingered on for another decade. One notable holdout is Liberty of London lawn still being manufactured in 36″. This can be a deterrent in pinpointing fine old lawn, particularly with retro designs now in vogue. Regardless, finding natural and early synthetic fabrics in 36″ to 39″ or narrower widths should trigger your inner alarm system into action. Color, designs, patina and fancy weaves are stronger giveaways. Old catalogs, ads, pattern and fashion magazines like the Delineator, reference books such as Dating Fabrics by Eileen Trestain, 1998, plus your personal knowledge are useful tools for a decade-by-decade comparison of fabrics. Unwashed old cottons seem to impart a certain glow or patina, mostly due to mellowing and special finishes now outdated. Novelty and variations on basic weaves can help define fashion trends of the day. For instance, iridescent chambray and basket-weave cottons were the absolute rage in the late 1940s-early 50s; finding those fabrics in 36″ is a good clue to their age. Fabric typing can be downright frustrating. Some plain-weave cottons such as batiste, lawn and nainsnook are still with us but whether old or vintage, their similarities after washing make them virtually indistinguishable from each other. Two other long-gone family members, mull and longcloth, are nearly indistinguishable from nainsnook and lawn whether new or washed. Voile with its raspy-tongue feel and frosty soap scum appearance is easily identifiable; however it is still being manufactured. Old voile had wide satiny selvages; most today are narrow. The separating line for muslin and percale is when thread count…
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Ravaged Threads: Acts of Terror by Fiber Fiends

Note: this column was to have been about fabrics with dual personalities. However, a reference book I need for this subject hasn’t arrived so that topic will be  postponed until April. Meanwhile, spend some quality assurance time with your vintage stash. Are you guilty of fabric abuse? Is the Fabric Rights Protective League breathing down your back? Are you ready to take the pledge? Then this column is for you.percale with muslin and organdy with dimity which has a crisp finish. Establish agreed-upon definitions of vintage or old — to some sellers, 1980 is vintage — and how seller determined estimated age. Fortunately there are many knowledgeable sellers who will be glad to help you. Be leery of sellers who do not answer your email  or who have no idea what they are selling. For some unbelievable examples, see my favorite auction goofies at the end of this column. If you have old plush, it is washable as long as it is cotton backed. Test if you’re not sure. Plush and fleeces other than cotton could be washed successfully but test to be sure. Remove lining before washing. Usually linings will be heavy sateen or twill and washable. Expect to lose some color. Reams have been written about proper care and storage of fabrics. Tiptoeing around all the expert’s verbiage so as not to duplicate their advice, here are a few more pearls of wisdom learned the hard way. May my personal mishaps help you avoid some painful pitfalls. Where to find vintage fabrics The most prevalent sources today seem to be on the Internet, both auction and individual web sites. The selections are staggering and a windfall for fabric lovers. Besides poking around  estate sales and antique stores, don’t overlook second-hand and thrift stores; flea markets; church bazaars; doll shows; and classifieds in fabric, vintage clothes and doll magazines. Purchasing  Collectors of anything tend tend to make three mistakes when buying– impulse, gotta have and the worst offender, nostalgia. I plead guilty to all three. Actually there is a fourth: disregarding common sense. It’s never around when we need it most. To avoid post-purchase suicidal hysteria scenes in front of family and friends, your first step in buying is to inspect, inspect, inspect. Hold fabric or garment up to light to check for pinholes and thin or worn spots; lay out to check for rust spots [foxing], browning at fold lines, fading or uneven color, severe creases and tears. The sheerer the fabric or denser the pile,…
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The Hunt for Vintage Cotton: In Search of Warp Ends

This hunt for and knowledge of vintage cottons column was inspired by several queries to fabric.net about Indian Head and a nudge from Judith. First, the revival of cotton, saving us all from the polyester blahs, is due in large part to quilters demanding premium muslin and the southern heirloom ladies for insisting on fine swiss. However, between those two extremes is the loss of wonderful now-obsolete yard goods. Older sewers know the joy of sewing with such cottons and miss their existence; younger ones will never know the infinite variety no longer within their reach except through second-hand purchase. Two and possibly three of these lost fabrics deserve special attention. Their disappearance has us puzzled because there are still practical uses for them and they would be a welcome sight if they were to reappear. Indian Head — in answer to questions for Andy about this fabric, the communications staff at Textron Inc. provided this information: the Indian Head brand label has been known since the 1820s, the cloth manufactured by Nashua Mfg. Co. in New Hampshire. Textron, having just changed its name from Atlantic Rayon Corp and seeking diversification, bought the firm in 1945 to meet the growing demand for postwar fabrics. In the early 50s, Textron sold the Indian Head operations and a new company, Indian Head Inc., was formed. The fabric was highly regarded and a popular seller. Elizabeth Dyer, Textile Fabrics, 1923, described the fabric as a heavy cotton muslin with more yarns and a smoother finish than many muslins; sturdy, substantial, warm, inexpensive. Used for white skirts, petticoats, girls dresses and middies, boys’ suits, men’s nightshirts, aprons, luncheon sets and table covers. Grace Denny, Fabrics, 1953, reports fabric was available in 36″ and 44″ widths for white; 36″, colored. Fairchild’s Dictionary of Textiles, 1996, lists fabric as a well-known cotton crash first woven by Nashua in 1831. My memories of this serviceable fabric are from the mid-40s to 1960. I used it for summer casual dress and sportswear, including countless maternity shorts. I do not recall seeing it after that time nor have I yet found any source stating its demise. It may be in a later Denny book which always features a glossary on the latest obsolete fabrics. If any of you know when it was discontinued, let Judith know. Cambric — I wish I had the pleasure of sewing more with this fabric when I started to sew in 1946. However, white cotton cambric went out of fashion in that…
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Thread Spool Sizes and Shapes

Vintage Thread Chart & Photo Gallery Spool Sizes & Shapes Large bow ties — American Thread’s Twist DeLuxe 1930s, American Thread’s Star DeLuxe 1930s, Coats 1950s-60s, unknown. Assorted bow ties medium — Belding Corticelli 1950s-60s, Max Pollack’s Knight Brand 1940s, Belding Corticeli 1950s-60s, Coats 1930s, unknown. Assorted bow ties small with 1 large guest: Cortecelli 1950s,  John Clark’s Mile End, 1940s, unknown, Clarks ONT marking cotton 1940s. Assorted bow ties smallest — Clarks ONT 1930s, Clarks ONT early 1900s, John Clark’s Mile End, notice hard rock maple. Standard size spools, larger size Standard type spools smaller sizes. While standard spools may look to be same size and style, there are slight variations by manufacturers. This is most noticeable in rim shape and thickness. Sometimes bobbins are overlooked as spools. Here is an assortment of sizes and substances ranging from wood to plastic to foam to waxed cardboard. Side view shows difference in bobbin thickness. By early 1970s other substances began to replace wood  for spools — Talon American‘s black plastic that defies black-painted wood,  Max Pollack‘s cardboard cylinder, Belding Lily’s foam and Clark’s ONT early plastic. All spools date late 1960s-early 1970s. Colored spools played an important part for recognizing thread categories other than dressmaking. Most companies dyed their spools brilliant colors to denote heavier and stronger threads such as carpet and heavy duty. Shown here are Erin’s Pride [linen] orange, Aunt Lydia’s red, Clark’s ONT green, Clark’s ONT navy and an unknown black which appears to be from a sewing kit. Many thread companies took pride in the appearance of their spools. They were and are valued as much as the thread wound on them — Belding Corticelli’s stained and waxed maple, Fleischer’s High Test maple, Belding’s waxed maple, an unknown British brand with milled and beveled rims, J & P Coats hard rock maple with scrollwork at both ends, and John Clark’s Mile End beautiful hard rock maple with scrollwork at one end as shown in inset.

Thread Memorabilia

Vintage Thread Chart & Photo Gallery Thread Memorabilia Clark’s thread box held 20 #50 spools. Appears to be a promotional item from 1920s- early 30s.   A Clark’s promotional for ONT thread. The clever and appealing sales line reads "Nothing stronger can there be than mother’s love and ONT." ONT was George Clark’s acronym for Our New Thread. Card probably dates from early 1900s to post-WWI judging from printing and reference to fast black which were very tempermental; fast black was a guarantee color would remain black after washing. – Courtesy Susan Axel Bedsaul   Charming trading cards from 1881 for Merrick, Corticelli and Willimantic thread companies.    – Courtesy Shirley McElderry Corticell Thread — Front and insider cover of a promotional folder featuring the Corticelli kitten, 1908.      – Courtesy Sharon Stark Every woman carried at least one in her purse. Matchbook kits were a popular advertising means by businesses, particularly banks and hosiery companies. Each kit contained silk or cotton thread for emergency repairs and matchsticks called arrestor rods or stop-run sticks which were moistened and applied to hosiery runs to prevent further action. Bank kit is 1960s. Real Silk Hosiery Mills dates around mid-1930s through WWII and would have been used on rayon hose as well as silk. Belding Corticelli [see closeup] dressmaker shears, est. 1970s, possibly earlier. No other information available at this time regarding manufacturer or length of time BC produced scissors under its name. – Courtesy Sharon Flatbush How a young girl in the 1890s occupied part of her time. This lovely belgian linen sewing back with its beautiful embroidery is missing its silk ribbon but is in perfect condition otherwise. It was to hold larger sewing supplies while a hussif [old eng. from housewife], a small roll-type bag, held smaller sewing tools as shown. – Courtesy of Pamela Keating back view of hussif showing silk ribbon ties and owner’s initials. side view of unrolled hussif, showing tiny stitching which holds wrapper to padded ends and silk ribbon ties.. inside view of hussif. which contains an ivory awl for making eyelet holes, silk thread from Germany and an attached needle cushion. Embroidery or small scissors would have been inserted in holder shown on the upper flap.