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Archive for the ‘Vintage Fabrics’ Category

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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Some Very Special Vintage Trims

Vintage collectors will not mince words – nothing exceeds the quality and diversity of old trims and laces, whether expensive or dime store stock. This was due in part to the use of fine fabrics such as batiste, cambric, lawn, organdy, silk and rayon and the exquisitely fine, clean-cut embroidery on eyelets, cutwork and other designs. As up through the 1950s trims were an integral part of garment and home décor, the variety of fabric combinations, designs, colors, widths and coordinates available were staggering. Ask those who remember that whether shopping at a department or dime store, Wrights or Benjamin Franklin or any fabric shop, one could find an abundance – almost too much — to choose from to suit their budgets. Featured this month are two persons who keep the heritage of vintage trim alive, each from a different perspective. Meet Shirley McElderry, preserver of the little-known coronation cord, and Billy Strobel, carrying on the legacy of his family’s antique embroidery and lace-making business. Coronation Cord You’ve seen it but overlooked it, dismissed it or mistaken it for battenberg something or other. There are many like you. It’s unlikely that more than a handful of persons today recognize this trim which hasn’t been made since the mid-1920s. Enter Shirley McElderry, Iowa quiltmaker, restorer and repairer, vintage fabric collector, conservator, historian lecturer and owner of more than 2,000 antique craft and needlework magazines. In sorting through several boxes of textiles she got at a farmhouse auction in the mid-1970s, her keen eye caught a linen doily embellished with a couching of white cord in a flower design. The cord alternately became larger and smaller in diameter, making it easy to shape into petals and other curved designs. Puzzled by this unknown trim, she asked her grandmother, mother and aunts who were all expert needle women but they didn’t recognize it. Nor could any of the antique dealers she asked. All had seen the cord, but couldn’t identify it. As the auction boxes dated from the turn of the century, Shirley began researching periodicals of that time and struck gold. She learned that this trimming was called coronation cord or braid. Sold by the yard, this machine-made trim was used in conjunction with embroidery, crochet and tatting, and possibly knitting though Shirley can find no mention of knitting in her books. Her research has only unearthed two brands: Bear, a registered trademark of Bernhard Ulmann Company of New York [maker of Bucilla], and Columbia, listed in the Columbia Manual…
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A Stroll Through Yesteryear’s Fabric Shops Late 1880’s – 1919

Late 1880s to 1919 Part I The First Sewing Machine -Arthur’s Illustrated Home Magazine, No. 6, 1873 A correspondent sent us the following account of the first sewing-machine invented and constructed in this country. The “ingenious machanic” was, we believe Elias Howe, afterward so famous. The account, she tells us, is cut from a newspaper printed about twenty-five years ago (ed. note — c1848). It is certainly wonderful to think what a revolution has been accomplished by the aid of this machine, improved and perfected since that day. The article is headed Tailoring Machine and is an extract from the Boston correspondent of the Worcester Spy, Vol. XLL.-80: “I have been examining a new machine for sewing which has recently been invented and constructed by an ingenious mechanic of Cambridge. So far as I am informed on the subject, this is the first attempt to construct a machine of this kind, and it appears to me to be an eminently successful one. The machine is very correct and does not occupy a space of more than about six inches each way. It runs with such ease that I should suppose one might easily operate twenty or thirty of them and the work is done in a most thorough and perfect manner. Both sides of a seam look alike appearing to be beautifully stitched and the seam is closer and more uniform than when sewn by the hand. It will sew straight or curved seams with equal facility and so rapidly that it takes but two minutes to sew the whole length of the outside seam of a pair of men’s pantaloons. It sets four hundred stitches a minute. The thread is less worn by this process than by hand-sewing , and consequently, retains more of its strength. The simplicity of this machine and the accuracy, rapidity, and perfection of its operation, will place it in the same rank with the card-machine, the straw-braider, the pin-machine, and the coach-lace loom, machines which never fail to command the admiration of every intelligent beholder.” And we all know the impact of that machine on our lives! Without it we would likely not have that secret addiction known as stash building. Now go back into time — Imagine what it would be like to see the bountiful array of fabrics on display, sold only long before our time; to touch and feel them, to maybe put a name or an identity to the no-name cloths in our mystery pile, to know what…
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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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Updating Vintage Fabric Information?

Image via Flickr   As we were updating the information in our Vintage Fabric section here at Fabrics.net we discovered web sites that we had forgotten.  Many of these web sites have been updated too so we found new information.  If you enjoy learning more about Vintage Fabrics or enjoy looking at the styles of yesterday we are happy to share these new/old web sites. Kent State University Museum where you can view online collections or view current or past exhibits. American Textile History Museum has ongoing exhibits as well as featured exhibits. American Institute for Conservation has interesting posts and blogs about conserving textiles. The Costume Gallery has an extensive data base covering history of fashion, costume, textile history and more.  An amazing collection!