March/April, 2001: Profiles in Collecting: Starwars in Fiber Space A chance remark by a quilter resulted in this column. She had been talking about a lovely vintage cotton to be used in her quilt. When asked what type of cotton, she replied it was just plain old cotton, did it make a difference? Being what is called a fabric prune (textilist), that got me to thinking about the differences between my kind and quilters; prunes have to know everything from variable finishes to who planted the cotton in the first place.
And that thought led me to wonder about all the other types between these two extreme poles who collect old fabric — costumers, clothiers [garments], dealers and savers. I omit the feedsack people who had their day in the sun in last month’s column. We are all lovers of fabric but obviously we have different approaches, needs and, most importantly, opinions about collecting. In surveying collectors from each of the above categories, those differences proved to be at times at the opposite end of the pole and at other times in complete agreement.
Whatever the viewpoint, here are seven persons, including myself, who share their thoughts on collecting vintage fabric. After reading this, try to decide where you fit. The Players Clothier/Garments — Julienne Stewart*, Point Pleasant Beach [mid-state on Atlantic Ocean] NJ; sewer since 9, seamstress, custom dressmaking and alterations business, sewing teacher, costumer in period clothing, miniature porcelain doll costumer.
Costumer — Linda Learn*, Tunhannock (Scranton) PA; inveterate teacher of everything from art to nuclear, biological and chemical warfare for ages 5 to 80, fabriholic, re-enactor consultant, costumer and fabric store owner.
Dealer – Nan Jaeger*, Gladstone (Portland) OR; sewer, fiber artist designer and sewer of purses, wine totes, pillow and bridal accessories, vintage fabric collector and researcher, owner of vintage fabric business.
Quilter – Laurette Carroll, Pico Rivera (Los Angeles) CA; quilter; quilt collector, historian, appraiser, designer and teacher; fabric collector.
Quilter – Pat Gallaway, Seattle area WA; fiber artist, quilter, seamstress, spinner, dyer of fabric and fiber, weaver, beader, knitter, crocheter, bobbin lacer, soapmaker, tatterer and collector of sewing machines, feedsacks and vintage fabrics, sewing tools and beads.
Saver – Dorothy Glantz, Sollentua (Stockholm), Sweden for the past 30 years (formerly of NJ); genealogist, saver and accumulator of old photographs, clothes, fabrics and household linens, in fact anything old that comes her way.
Textilist – myself, Mentor (Cleveland) OH; sewer since 12, seamstress and crocheter, collector of old fabric and mystery, history and textile books, antique doll collector and costumer, miniaturist.
* Business websites listed at end of column.
Let the Forum Begin 1. How did you become interested in and how long have you been collecting vintage fabrics? What were the influencing factors? Clothier Julienne Started collecting about 30 years ago. A friend who owned a thrift shop would bring in vintage clothes for alterations; costume details caught her eye. Began buying old clothing and wearing it. Loved the quality compared to 1960s-70s counterparts. Ultimately led to selling vintage clothing and textiles and recreating costumes.
Costumer Linda Has always been a collector. Began gathering vintage fabric as a teenager, collecting since turning 30. Parents taught how to appreciate “things that belonged to.” Hung onto inherited grandmother’s scraps and as time went on, they became doubly precious along with any other fabric with a history. Dealer Nan Been around fabric forever. Grandmother sewed; mother a professional seamstress for 35 years. Didn’t sew when young but did in later life as a fiber artist and starting up business making one-of-a-kind items out of vintage fabrics.
This resulted in collecting, finding and researching vintage fabrics and was so rewarding that it became a career. Now buys and sells full time. Only collecting for four years but finds there is something to learn every day. When buying for resale, purchases must be made wisely. Broadening knowledge base in arts, history and past lifestyles are essential to making wise choices. For example, has found a terrific grouping of vintage fabrics from artists who belonged or still belong to American Artists Association.
Researching association yields information about artists and date the fabric. This information is then shared with others on web site. Quilter Laurette Began collecting eight years ago. Collected antique quilts and while looking for old quilts would run across old fabric and buy it to have on hand for quilt repairs; some rare pieces are just for looking and petting. Also collects quilt blocks and tops and having a supply of vintage fabric makes it possible to assemble these pieces into quilts. Biggest influence was quilts themselves – collecting quilts IS collecting fabrics.
A favorite type quilt is a charm quilt which uses a different fabric in each piece. Has some quilts containing more than 1,500 different fabrics! Quilter Pat Started collecting vintage fabrics in general 10 years ago; more seriously in the past seven years. Most influencing factor stemmed from a gradual and subtle change in preferences as modifications to lifestyle evolved. During that period, attended a vintage fabric, clothing and linen sale in Seattle and was completely gobbled up by the experience. Saver Dorothy Defines herself as a saver as collector implies a focused goal.
Has been surrounded by hand-sewn and hand-woven items all her life and developed a natural attraction for linens and domestics in particular. Liked having it around so saved many items. Paid attention at estate and similar sales and interest grew.
1945 Hudson county Park NJ — Little Dorothy in her velvet coat made by grandmother on a treadle machine. It survives though hat and pocket handkerchief are long gone. Coat is maroon velvet with peter pan collar, gored back and rose-shaped metal buttons. Closeup shows colorful cotton lining and button detail. Dorothy calls this her waist not, want not coat.
Some items vintage by definition; most fall into the old category. Heartbreaking to see all the wonderfully handmade vintage textiles at second-hand stores, estate sales and fair as many sellers are men and don’t have knowledge of the unrequited value of women’s contributions to society –so many persons consider these textiles as just a way for women to pass away time. Textile Joan Became fascinated with fabric during WWII when given scraps to wrap around a 12″ mannequin doll.
Learned to sew just to be able to feel and work with fabric. Bought every new fabric as it appeared on market but never saved leftovers. After a 10-year absence, started sewing again in 1980 but mostly for antique dolls. This required acquiring vintage fabrics and trims, learning an entirely different way to sew and use fabric and crying every day about all the old stuff never kept.
One of the Simplicity patterns c1943-44 for its 12-1/2″ mannequin lastex doll was far too complicated for my 12-year-old fingers to manipulate. Draping scraps was much more fun and gave me a sense of fabric types and textures. What types of vintage fabric do you collect? What are your fabric preferences – those you would move high heaven to get your hands on ? Clothier Julienne Drawn to wonderful cotton shirtings 1905-16 and rayons, especially the styles from the 40s. There’s a magnetic attraction –feels they belong on her. Preference is old shirtings from the 20s which have raised woven designs.
Costumer Linda For re-enactment/historical reference collection, tries to acquire those that can be fairly accurately dated and are priced reasonably. Although if desperately wanted, would scrape money somehow to buy it. Has many whites, laces and fabric pieces from the late 1800s and turn of the century, some clothing pieces c1880 and several Gibson Girl blouses. Prized possession is grandmother’s homespun and woven linen made when she was a girl around 1900; nice to show customers that one CAN spin and weave fine linen by hand.
Dreams of examining textiles from the 1400s-1600s. Covets museums that have these fabrics. Dealer Nan Collects cottons, particularly percale, silk, barkcloth, rayon, retro 60s-70s and other fine fabrics. Aside from barkcloth, doesn’t purchase heavier home decorating fabrics as they are too bulky to store and doesn’t care for their muted designs in dark peagreen and brown. Would love to find a sealed fabric warehouse with two personal favorites — conversational/whimsical 1930s-40s prints and geometrics of the 50s.
Quilter Laurette Prefers cottons, fabrics prior to 1950, preferably 19th century, and especially anything pre-1850; 19th century turkey red prints, early 1800s French and English florals and above all, early 1800s floral chintz pieces. They are some of the most beautiful fabrics ever made and always has an eye out for them in affordable pieces. Quilter Pat Collects only quilting and garment-weight cottons; no blends allowed.
Prefers fabric from the 20s and 30s or earlier. Drawn to fabrics which spawned today’s retro quilting fabrics with their softer tones and feminine and whimsical designs. Particularly likes small prints with geometric emphasis and combining them with florals. Saver Dorothy Looks mostly for household linens and fabric pieces which are reminders of a prior life. Old quilt tops are marvelous.
Buys them when sees one of the blocks containing a recognizable fabric pattern – as seen in curtains, aprons and blouses for example. Covets and despairs about all the fabric missed out on; those times when something slipped by unnoticed. Textile Joan Fabrics suitable for dolls from about 1850 to mid-1950s. Unless provenance is known, silks and wools are avoided as most of those have a low survival rate – hidden splits and moth damage.
Preferred are lightweight to mediumweight cottons — fine gauze, pima percale, lawn, lawn organdy, early cambric, Viyella and plush are weaknesses.
And could easily be bribed and reduced to tears by sight of plisse and pillowcase border prints c1940s-50s. To die for — Laurette’s petting-only historical fabrics. Most of these are from yardage!
- Peacock and flora c1850.
- Lightweight wool.
- Previously used yardage.
- Peacock about 8″ long.
- Pillar chintz with baskets c1825, highly glazed cotton.
- Yardage, 24″ wide.
- Pillar foliage about 14″ across.
- Centennial commemorative print yardage dated 1876.
- Stripes about 3-1/2″ wide.
- Highly glazed floral chintz c1825-50, multi-colored flowers on picotage background.
- Yardage, 24″ wide.
- Largest flower measures about 4″ across.
- Highly glazed floral chintz c1830.
- Yardage 23″ wide.
- Peacock about 13″ long.
- Floral chintz yardage c1830.
- Bird measures 12″ long.
Based on your collecting category, what are your most important considerations when you are looking for or buying fabrics? least important? What criteria are essential in selecting fabric appropriate to your projects? Clothier Julienne Everything is important. When checking garments, makes sure there are no perspiration stains as they are nearly impossible to remove, holds up to light to check for pinholes and thin areas. Then considers if stains and bad spots are in an area that can be redesigned; if garment is appealing sometimes will buy it to copy. For resale, great prints and colors are good sellers; avoids small sizes as people are larger today.
Julienne’s nostalgic1930s yellow eyelet dress for a young girl. Closeup shows frilly details. Costumer Linda Most important is if fabric can be used as a reference; can it be reliably dated. Tries to obtain fabric that could be used to recreate, if possible, fabrics from history: thread count, weave structure, the basic physical aspect. Least important is whether it’s a whole garment. For projects, fiber content is important as well as the weave, surface design and color.
For example, used cotton brocade curtains c1950s for a 1600s-era gown as the physical characteristics were right. Plastic fiber wouldn’t have draped properly. Has another cotton brocade in pea green that is just waiting for the dye pot to become a fabulous gown.
A costumer’s nightmare is a clothier’s delight.
Each year Linda particpates in the much anticipated Pennsic Wars Faire. Shown is an Elizabethian gown she made for a friend who has mendicants groveling at her feet. At left is Linda’s pavilion from which the awning proclaims Glorious and Uncommon Cloth and Corset Stays and the table covering beckons with Dragon Magic.
Oooooh! Merlin may appear any moment, although 7 centuries late. Dealer Nan Looks for fabrics which have an artistic or unique flair; those that look artist rendered top the list as they are well designed and unique. Also looks for a variety of time periods from 1920s-70s which her business specializes in. Prefers fabric to be at least one yard; those five yards or more are an ideal find.
Quilter Laurette Most important are unusual pieces, perhaps color or printing technique; attractive pattern/prints; fabric in fairly good condition as that makes it possible to visually enjoy fabric as well as expanding its possible uses; full repeats, especially if repeat if large; possible uses for fabric – to use for repair, setting blocks together or just to keep. Least important are large amounts of yardage; sometimes an 8″ scrap is a welcome sight. Dream is to find a store with bolts of pristine fabric….dream on. Criteria includes fabric suitable for repairs and block assembly, small pieces, prints which blend in with other fabrics in quilt[s] and of same era — bright or odd colors could be passed up if they are not complementary even though they might be in the same age range.
Assembling tops takes more yardage so there must be at least a yard and in good condition. Color and print is most important in this situation. Fabrics meeting those requirements are the hardest to find. Then there are coveted pieces not intended for use so no criteria is needed. Quilter Pat Requires properly stored, stable fabric, not brittle like some historical pieces which feel like shredded wheat cereal and cannot be used for anything. Fabrics must also be the appropriate weight for quilting. Also fabrics which are sturdy and attractive for other projects. Saver Dorothy First consideration is utility. As any purchased household linens will be used, they have to be usable for their intended purpose. If it’s a sheet and full of holes, it has to be beautifully woven with perfect embroidery so it can be cut up for something else — not talking vintage items here; is not one who cuts up vintage quilts to make patchwork toys.
As for other fabric items such as quilt tops or single fabric pieces, condition doesn’t matter. If parts fabric can be used, it’s purchased. Actually purchases don’t have to have a purpose if it’s something that simply has to be had. Years later it will to pass that there was a reason for buying it. Textile Joan Provenance, where and how fabric stored, fabric must be prior to 1960, preferably a yard or less, design printed on-grain and scale suitable for dolls, preferably not washed but washable if odor or grime has to be removed, good condition, no pinholes, no color runs or misprints, high thread count; depends on experience to determine age range and if natural fiber. Least important is fabric with contained damaged areas or flaws; those can be easily worked around.
4. What is your system for testing and inspecting vintage fabric prior to purchase?
Clothier Julienne The same as #6. Costumer Linda When using fabric for reference, it must hold together and not be too disgusting to hold in hands or near eyes. If a garment, it is checked for handwork, materials used and finishing techniques to verify dating. Whatever it is, it must not tear when being handled or need cleaning to be utilized for reference. Dealer Nan Inspects for holes or other damage such as spots and discoloration. If fabric has an overwhelming musty smell, it’s passed over as it may have been stored in a dark and dank basement for many years causing mildew problems.
Quilter Laurette From experience can tell if fabric is cotton. Checks for condition to determine its value, holds up to light to detect pinholes and any signs of deterioration. Tugs at edges; if it tears easily then condition is poor and not usable although it could be used for a study piece. Quilter Pat Buys most fabric through mail from vendors who are known and trusted. Relies on their description and ability to satisfy her specifications. Very rarely is anything returned. Saver Dorothy Has no system.
Textile Joan Holds up to direct light to inspect for pinpoint holes and minute overall flawing; rubs to check for crocking; gentle tugging to test for worn areas or splits; lays out to check for signs of insect infestation or damage. If buying by mail, assurance from seller that fabric is as described; if not, then it must be returnable.
5. What are your favorite places to buy fabric? Do you set spending limits? Are there any exceptions?
Clothier Julienne Buys from flea markets, antique shops, online auctions, private sellers. Sets limits; if for self, has to be within budget. If for resale, must be room for profit. Exceptions would be garment in wonderful condition; has soft spot for coats.
Everyone laughed when Julienne wore this magnificent 1930s crepe dress which a customer gave her on a 70s cruise. It was the hit of trip with its beaded neckline and flattering drapery. 80-year-old shoes were made for dancing which Julienne did. They are decoratively fine-stitched gold leather with silk satin lining. Who wouldn’t want to kick up their heels with this great auction buy. Costumer Linda Solomon’s Warehouse but location is a secret! For reference fabrics, shops at neighborhood antique dealer who is a saver, yard sales and from locals who know about fabriholic urges.
Spending limit equals a week’s groceries. Lives alone and has no exotic tastes so limit is quite effective. Exceptions – rules are made to be broken. Dealer Nan Prefers to buy from persons sewing for more than 45 years. From chatting with them, so much is learned about fabrics and sewing and what was popular back in the 40s and 50s and what it was like to sew when they were teenagers.
Persons met range from a Finnish woman whose mother survived the Titanic to a lumber baron’s daughter. Considers this the best job in the world because of getting to meet fascinating personalities and hearing about their experiences. Has a monthly budget and tries not to exceed that. However it has been known to stretch wherever there’s a goldmine of boxes and boxes of one-of-a-kind vintage fabrics to be found. Quilter Laurette Looks for fabric at antique shows, flea markets, quilt and fabric dealers and sometimes Ebay.
Doesn’t set spending limits as antique fabric can be costly. Price will depend on age, condition and print as well as dealer and other things relative to sale. Decision to buy is based on if it’s affordable and really needed; finds there is no way to compare prices of antique textiles. Quilter Pat Prefers Ebay, hands down, because it represents a true cross section of what’s available. Also likes estate sales and second-hand shops but finds selections limited. Doesn’t set spending limits as it’s not like finding suitable vintage fabrics to buy every day.
If something steals the heart, price is not so important. Believes concept of paying too much is debatable; each has individual definitions of worth. Would rather spend a tidy sum on a spectacular piece of fabric than to play a round of golf. In the end there is something tangible to view from time to time as opposed to a fleeting memory. Saver Dorothy Because is prone to household linens, buys at estate sales directly from dealers who specialize in buying up entire estates. Fairs are good places to browse as are second-hand shops.
Nowadays with the throw-away attitude among the younger set, second-hand stores are goldmines. As is not into collecting vintage which costs, buys it if likes it providing money is available at the time.
Section of heavy cotton pillowcases c1930s-40s that are one of Dorothy’s many household linen finds. Cases were hemmed, mitered, inserted with crocheted borders and monogrammed before sides were sewn together. Closeup shows frilled ties that are attached to cases and a friller.
The pride and showpieces of Swedish linen closets are neatly folded pillowcases with ties folded into bows to hold cases in place. Textile Joan Anywhere vintage fabric is to be found from thrift stores to Ebay to antique and doll shows to flea markets to private dealers. Will not pay over a pre-determined amount unless fabric is difficult to find, unusual or has seldom-seen brand name/trademark in selvage.
6. Is fabric identification by type of fabric important to you? Is it important to know or want to know everything about a fabric’s properties – thread count, ply, thread formation, weave type, fabric family, for example.
Do you have a linen tester or microscope and use it regularly? Do you perform burn tests? Clothier Julienne All of the above are important and part of an identification system. Costumer Linda Not as much as everything else about the physical aspect of it: thread count, ply, thread twist [tightness and direction], weave, dye color, all of that. Uses linen tester and microscope which someday will learn how to use properly.
Performs burn tests and teaches burn testing and fabric identification at yearly sales event to get people used to fabric and not to be afraid of it. Dealer Nan Fabric ID is essential to provide customers with the specific vintage fabric they have in mind. Goal is to satisfy them and to have no one walk away disappointed with the wrong purchase. Performs burn tests on fabrics which look and feel like silk. Knows it is silk when the smell is recognizable burnt hair and fiber turns to ash.
Nan’s great finds for resale. Two reasons to be envious are these 1942 blue-bonneted checks on a 35″ width cotton from a quilter’s collection and an unusual 1940s barkcloth with black background and Asian motifs. Selvage is marked Markwood Fabrics VAT Printed-Chippendale, 48″ wide. Quilter Laurette Content is important; should be cotton. Needs to know age, place of origin – American, English, French, etc, manufacturer if possible.
Likes to determine what dyes are used – vegetable, mineral, etc., and printing method – block, copperplate, mill engraved, roller printed. May do a burn test on newer fabrics to determine type of synthetic. Uses linen tester to examine thread and dyes and microscope for types of fabrics and thread in quilts. Quilter Pat Needs to know about cotton’s fiber structure, weave and thread count. Identifying inherent properties is crucial as a large number of fabrics are used in one quilt.
Ensuring all chosen fabrics have similar properties will result in them behaving in the same manner. Such assurance means an excellent outcome for a completed quilt and how that consistency will enable it to store and wash well.
There are many fabrics which can fool the educated eye so testing is essential. Uses linen tester to determine thread count, marking off 1/4″ to count warp and woof [filler] threads, then multiplying by four to get total count per square inch. Performs burn tests to determine fabric content and distinguish types of fabrics. Saver Dorothy Weave and fabric family are very important to know. Conducts burn tests when really curious and not at all sure. Textile Joan Wants to know everything about fabric from time it was picked to mill weaving to store delivery and everything inbetween.
Fabric identification can be compared to family genealogy; nice to know about its ancestry, history and structural relationship to other fabrics. Uses linen tester extensively; microscope broken. Does burn tests even though fiber is known; has to be sure. Nothing like a spiral of black, oily smoke from cotton to deflate the ego and which tells you that you’ve been had.