Another in a series of recycling vintage fabric, Leigh Fellner takes us on a humorous journey which led her into a cloth-lined world from which she has never returned. A quilter with a large following and author of many articles on fabric and quilting, Leigh recounts this entrapment and how she managed to put her addiction to work.
I can’t speak for other “fabricpigs” out there, but as far as I’m concerned, this is a sickness. I certainly didn’t intend to end up here. I did not wake up one day and say “Hey, I think I’d like my life to be overtaken by textiles. I’d really enjoy people looking at me funny when I start fondling piles of old scraps and gushing about quercitron and Perkin purple.”
Hart Cottage for all its idyllic setting is really the nortorious Den of Fabriquity, aka Leigh’s home and workshop. No. Like those extra 20 pounds, it creeps up on you, inch by inch. It’s just one little bitty piece of calico, after all – where’s the harm? And then one day you find yourself trying to stuff your latest acquisition into your already bulging cabinets and wondering how you’re going to explain this latest binge to your family.
For me it started back in 1998 when I realized I was getting a little squirrelly. Fibromyalgia had already sidelined me from regular work. It feels like an endless, unmerited hangover, and the accompanying “brain fog” was causing trouble. Math Whiz Woman couldn’t even remember her zip code anymore, and Spelling Bee Queen was transposing letters at an alarming rate.
I recalled those IQ tests they gave me back in kindergarten when they thought I might be smart: little colored cubes you had to arrange in various designs. Kind of like quilt blocks. Well, I can sew; why not quilt? Maybe it’ll plug whatever hole is making me leak brain cells. Now if you have trouble telling left from right, you’re going to spend most of your time ripping out seams. But I stuck with it, and kept on making quilts until the house started to feel like a padded cell.
So I listed one on ebay. This was back in the days when people would bid on a used paper plate, but I was still surprised (and relieved) that it sold. Quilt fabric is not cheap, and I was broke. So I started poking around for scraps at our local flea market. One woman sold me a huge boxful and said she had more at home – would I be interested? Duh. I’d collected antiques since I was a kid, so I realized all of this fabric dated from before WWII.
I also discovered that even if I hadn’t been getting it for a dollar a box, I liked it a whole lot better than the new fabric I’d been buying. The colors were more interesting. The patterns were nicer, and it was easier to sew with. I’m a compulsive researcher and had time on my hands. So I took the next fateful step and decided to start learning about what I was using. Then I went over to the Dark Side for good. I bought a 20-pound box of “old quilt fabric” for $50. Much of it was Depression-era; most of it was from the 1880s. All of it was brand new. When my girlfriend caught me sniffing the old indigos, I didn’t care.
Antebellum chintzes and indigoes in a simple 4-patch with sawtooth border, 16″x20″.
Antbellum prints in a little 1″=1.5′ scale four-poster Bricks quilt.
Civil War era prints in tiny triangles and closeup of prints, 8″x10″.
Lots of 1880-1910 prints in a Chimney Sweep pattern with dogtooth border, about 16″ square.
Late 19th century prints in a pattern inspired by “cheater cloth” in the Smithsonian Institution, about 18″ square.
Puss-in-the-Corner in late 19th century indigos, double pinks and madders, 18″x22″.
Sampler in an assortment of 1880-1900 prints, 18″x24″.
Turn-of-the-century calicos in a tiny Sunshine and Shadow, 10″ square.
Turn-of-the-century shirtings and double pinks in an original block pattern, with sawtooth border, about 24″ square.
Jacob’s Ladder in c1900 indigo and chrome yellow, about 18″x24″. By this time it was getting hard for me to lift a quart of milk, let alone a quilt. So I scaled down to doll-sized. People seemed to like them better, and so did I; they suited my impatient nature. Along the way, whenever I was feeling disciplined I saved at least a swatch of each fabric.
(Those little pocket pages coin collectors use are just right for 1.75″ squares; sports-card pockets are nice for larger prints.) By cataloging and saving swatches for posterity, I let myself off the guilt hook for using the rest of the fabric, and I got to have my cake and eat it too. (I even got a prize for my collection at the county fair.) At last count, I’d saved close to a thousand swatches and made more than 450 little quilts. The big advantage to making and selling these little quilts is that I have a plausible excuse for buying fabric. Hey, it’s a business. I have to have it. It’s an investment.
This also means that I have to part with what I make, but I comfort myself with the knowledge that the more that goes out the door, the more room I have for new. Over the past couple years, prices for old fabrics have at least doubled, so I can’t buy everything I see anymore, which is probably a good thing. But kind folks have helped feed my habit.
One customer sent me a surprise package of Depression novelties just when I was running low; I opened her package and promptly burst into tears. Another asked if I could possibly accept some 1830s fabrics as payment for a little quilt. (I was glad to oblige.) Besides being easier to handle (particularly in tiny pieces), old fabrics provide a kind of creative framework – the structure my dithery brain needs. I try to be reasonably consistent with the era the fabrics come from — no Sunbonnet Sues from 1880s prints, machine work is limited to post-1870s fabrics.
(My research of late 19th century patents for home quilting machines reassured me that machine quilting is indeed okay.) Fortunately color schemes and patterns vary so much from period to period that it’s hard to get bored. If I could, I’d work with 1830s fabrics all the time; the prints just grab me and they’re sooo nice to touch. But I hate the hand-piecing they demand, so when I’ve had enough I’ll switch to pre-WWII prints, or even modern batiks (which are a nice break when I’m feeling completely stymied).
Old quilts are a great inspiration not only for designs, but for logical color schemes and construction tips. But at least for little quilts, “scrappy” seems to work best. It’s also the most fun, and if you stick to fabrics from one era, it’s almost impossible to go wrong. I like smallish prints with lots of background color, but you can do fun things with big patterns if you work at it. Running out of a particular fabric is not much of an issue.
Great-Grandma changed fabrics midstream often enough that when we do it today, it just adds to the authenticity. (Thank goodness.) No worry: there are plenty of other ways to make yourself crazy. If like me you work with hard-to-prewash scraps, like the feel of the old sizing, or just like to live dangerously, there are other pitfalls. Soaking in Oxiclean, for example, which can make ’30s blues pinkish and 1880s double pinks blueish. Piecing chrome yellows near anything white; they never, ever stop bleeding.
Being optimistic about fabric strength, only to have it split during quilting. (You do that about twice in life, then you learn your lesson.) Forgetting to prewash indigos. (It took six frantic washings in Synthrapol to turn one quilt’s muslins back to white.) The hardest part, even for a neatnik like me, is organization. I hate sorting scraps, but scraps inspire me more than yardage. Every couple months I’ll sort, press and bin every bit by era, color and size.
I also fish out the stuff I realize I’ll never use and pass it on to somebody who can. It is the task I least enjoy, but handling those fabrics again often gives me some good ideas. I’ve read a few articles telling quilters to finish a vintage quilt top with some new repros, but the idea gives me the willies. Don’t get me wrong; I have no Issues with repros. They are great. You can buy them a bolt at a time, they are usually cheaper than the originals, and they stand up to horrible abuse.
But even in the most careful repros, the grey goods aren’t the same as the old stuff, and neither are the dyes. So while they look just great with each other, mix them with the real thing and they look about as authentic as pleather. For me (and maybe it’s just because I’m hooked), repros are like decaf: Why bother? There are miles of old fabrics out there; it just takes some patience to find them. And that’s half the fun.
Fans in 1880-1920 calicos, 14″x17″.
Double Irish Chain in turn-of-the-century reds, green, chrome yellow, and shirting prints. About 8″x10″.
Wheels of Fortune in 1930s prints with a serpentine border.
Careful sashing of Crossroads blocks in 1930s prints forms a secondary lattice pattern.
Jacob’s Ladder blocks with everybody’s favorite nile greeen and classic Depression prints, and closeup of pattern, 18″x24″.
Dresden Plates in patriotic late 1930s-early ’40s prints., with pattern closeup, about 22″ sq. square.
Closeup Since drifting into quilting in 1998, Leigh Fellner has made more than 450 little quilts using antique and vintage fabrics. Sold on ebay under the ID hcquilts and on her website — www.hartcottagequilts.com – they are enjoyed by collectors nationwide; several are in the Neutrogena Collection of American folk art. Leigh’s work has appeared in several national quilt magazines, and her research on the Underground Railroad quilt “code” myth was published in Traditional Quiltworks magazine in 2003.
She is currently researching the history of modern machine quilting, and enjoys a lively email correspondence with fellow ‘”fabricpigs” all over the planet. The arbitrary cut-off date for this Vintage Fabric column is 1960.
To stay within the scope of this timeframe, reference materials published up to that date are the prime source of information to more accurately capture actual thoughts of the time.
Joan Kiplinger is an antique doll costumer and vintage fabric addict who learned to sew on her grandmother’s treadle and has been peddling fabrications ever since.