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Unwashed old cottons seem to impart a certain glow or patina, mostly due to mellowing and special finishes now outdated.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 reaches 160. Of all the older fabrics, vintage percales are probably the most recognizable by their colorful floral and print designs and hard, smooth finish. Although they have been replaced by the Italian super pimas of today, old percale is highly coveted and a quilter’s dream find.
Organdy, lawn organdy and Swiss muslin are often mistaken for each other. Rule of the thumb: organdy, still manufactured, has the stiffest finish and is ungainly to gather; organdy with a Herberlein finish is extremely smooth and sheer with a silky finish to reduce stiffness. Swiss muslin is a very fine muslin or lawn with a smooth medium crisp finish, and lawn organdy, sometimes called poorman’s Swiss muslin, is so named because of its soft to soft-medium crisp finish. In most cases, all three fabrics will retain their original degree of crispness after laundering.
Swiss muslin and lawn organdy are no longer available. Form descriptions in old textile books, lawn organdy better fits the description of India linon [Fr for lawn] which went off the market between 1953-61. Both fabrics gather nicely, retain their crispness and resemble dimity but without the fine cording. They were used for tea-room, hostess and maid’s aprons; pinafores, children’s dresses, collars and other accessories. A cheaper grade of lawn organdy was the staple of commercial mama doll dresses from the 1920s through the 40s and advertised as organdy for obvious merchandising reasons. This particular fabric may ring a bell or evoke childhood memories for those of you who are familiar with these dolls. Regardless of its quality, lawn organdy is a great fabric to work with; grab it you find it.
Another favorite, dotted Swiss, is relatively easy to identify. Prior to the 1940s, dots were larger, fluffier and wider-spaced on sheer or gauzy muslin or lawn. Dots became smaller and closer together, small pox effect, on crisper fabrics in the 1940s and 50s; around the mid-50s to present flocking replaced dots on nylon, some blends and polyesters. A high-quality, turn-of-the-century version has reappeared in the past year again making available the true beauty of this fabric.
Time really hasn’t changed wools and silks and as they were produced in a variety of widths and distinctive weave patterns from the late1800s. Your investigative instincts have to be acute. Generally older wool acquires a musty smell which many times even a good airing can’t dispel. Identification of these two fabrics requires knowing what’s been on the market in the last several decades and using good textile-dating reference books with high-quality colored and black-and-white photos.
It is disheartening that even though we may be able to identify, date and feel a fabric, in all likelihood its trademark or special finish will never come to light, a part of its vital history forever lost. Despite these problems involved in vintage fabric identification, this column is to make you aware of and recognize bygone textile names even though you may never see or touch those fabrics. Perhaps many names will be familiar to you and bring on a spasm of nostalgia. Part II continues with the obsolescence of trademarks and finishing process up to the early 1960s.
It is important to note here that no known universal definition exits for vintage fabric, according to one textile authority. My personal guess would be: historical – manual-loomed fabrics prior to 1820; vintage – fabrics 1820 to 1930 and the advent of textile machines ; old – from 1930 to 1959, the advent of early synthetics like rayon and nylon; contemporary – 1960 to present, the explosion of synthetics. Let’s hear your definition.
I am indebted to the eight editions of Grace Denny’s Fabric books, 1923-62, and Miracle Fibers, Newcomb & Kenny, 1957, for the following information. I am also grateful to Mary Humphries*, author of the contemporary Fabric Glossary and Fabric Reference books. She makes a valid observation that because a trademark or finish is discontinued, does not necessarily mean the fabric itself disappears. A case in point is Indian Head, a muslin which was mentioned in December’s column as having expired. This might have implied that muslin also expired which we know isn’t so. Please keep this in mind as you read on about obsoletes.
The following list is by no means complete. Because of space restrictions the words trademark and tradename have been eliminated and will be understood. Obsolete has been shortened to ob.
Main headings in boldface denote years in which the Denny editions were published. To give the closest obsolete date, the year or range of years between editions are given in which the tradename or finish last appeared. For example, if a process or tradename is show obsolete between 1954-62, it means it appeared in the 1953 edition but not in the next edition which was 1962. If a single year is given, obsolescence occurred between its listing under a main heading and the next main heading. If no ob date given, name or process was still in effect in my timeframe for listings.
By 1928 the seamstress could find in any well-stocked drygoods or department store a staggering selection of fabrics; These were some of the tradenames, trademarks and finishes available then:
- ABC ob 1954-62; Aledo ob 1937-42; Seco & Sello ob by 1936 — types of silk and cotton fabric
- Basco — cotton damask with linen-like finish; ob 1954-62
- Baronette & Lustron — types of rayon, both ob by 1936
- Celanese — acetate rayon
- Charmeen — a type of worsted dress fabric
- Daisy Cloth — outing flannel ob by 1936
- Devonshire, Kiddie Cloth, Kindergarten Cloth, Romper
- Cloth, all ob by 1936 — heavy gingham for children’s clothes
- Duretta — middy twill or jean ob by 1936
- Everfast, Peter Pan; Diana, Pamico, Polly Prim, Sunfast ob1937-42 — colorfast cottons withstanding sun and laundry exposure
- Flaxon ob 1954-62; Sherette ob by 1936 — types of dimity, batiste, India lawn; names stamped in selvages
- Heatherbloom — a type of percaline [lining] ob by 1936
- Indian Head — quality muslin; name stamped in selvage
- Linno ob 194247; Linette ob 1937-42 — cotton suitings with linen-like finish
- Marvella — a type of wool called bolivia
Polo Cloth — camel’s wool coating
- Pussy Willow, Silcot,Tezzo ob 1937-42; Cinderella ob by 1936 — types of radium, a washable silk
- Ripplette — type of seersucker
- Soiesette ob between 1937-42; Stafford ob by 1936 — types of highly mercerized cottons
- Viyella, patented at 55% wool, 45% cotton; Clydella, less wool content ob 1937-42 — types of wool and cotton blends
By 1936 these were available; note the growth of rayon
- Acele — process for acetate rayon
- AntiCrease — chemical treatment for cotton, lenen and rayon with a synthetic resin to reduce slippage and wrinkling; ob 1954-62
- Bemberg — rayon made by cuprammonium process
- Crepe Egyptia — type of albatross, a lightweight wool crepe; ob by 1942
- Durene — woven or knitted goods of superior quality mercerized yarns
- RamonaCloth — heavy linen-like finish cotton
- Ripplesheen — firm cotton with faint corded effect for dresses; ob by 1942
- Sanforized Shrunk — process to completely pre-shrink cotton and linen; changed to Sanforized by 1942
- Seraceta — rayon made by cellulose process; ob 1948-53
Available by 1942; notice the predominance of rayon processes
- There were at least 23 rayon processes for viscose, acetate and cellulose including Cordura, Fortisan, Enka, Spunlo; Chardonize ob by 1947; Crown Tested ob 1948-53; Eastmahn Acetate ob 1954-62
- Bellmanized, Sheercroft, Stayz-rite, Vita-last — permanent, starchless finishes which retain crispness after washing; all ob 1954-62
- Everglaze — durable starchless and washable glaze finish
- Fiberglas — glass filament woven as textile fiber
- Fibredown — a flock dot application process; ob 1954-62
- Fruit of Loom — a group of cottons and brand name of sheets
- Glosheen — sateen with a super finish
- Harris Tweed — wool made in Scotland
- Liberty Prints — Liberty of London & Paris exclusive designs on fine cotton, soil and wool
- Lustercale — a fine textured, highly mercerized cotton
- Nylon — generic name for synthetic polyamide
- Powder Puff muslin — a fine, crisp, smooth firm cotton with Bellmanized finish [ed note: could be similar to Flaxon and Sherette, see 1928]
- Sudanette — highly mercerized fine textured cotton of long-staple Pima, sanforized ob 1954-62
- Tebalizing — trade name for an anti-crease resistant process
- Wat-a-set — chemical process for washable finish on cotton and rayon to decrease shrinkage ob 1954-62
Available by 1947; note improved technology for shrinkage, wrinkle control and permanent finishes.
- Anti-Slip, Celfon both ob 1954-62 — yarns treated to resist slippage
- Avisco, Super Hi Naraco; Textron ob 1954-62 — tradenames for rayons
- Heberlein, Saylerize; Apponize, Sabel both ob 1954-62 — finishing treatments to retain crispness after washing
- Lanaset, Resloom and Resloom 50, Rigamel Shrunk — treatments to reduce shrinkage in cotton, wool and rayon
- Sheerset — finish for crispness and control for slippage stretch ob by 1953
- Shirley Cloth — British trademark for cotton of extremely close weave, similar to oxford cloth, used by armed services
Available by 1953; note influx of man-made fibers. It is estimated the first pound of nylon cost $27 million to produce .
- Acrilan [formerly Chemstrand], Orlon, Vinyon, Dacron [formerly Amilar] — synthetic fabrics made from acrylic, polyester and vinyl chloride fibers
- Armo; Hymo ob by 1962 — canvas interlinings
- Byrd Cloth — dense, highly mercerized twill cotton use for parkas, skit suits, aviation garments
- Chromospun, Estron, Fiberset, Tempra; Sanforset, Elastic Q
- Strutter, Unisec ob by 1962 — tradenames for rayon processes and finishes for durability and shrinkage control
- Cloque — novelty and birdseye piques; a durable embossed cotton fabric ob by 1962
- Day Glo — fluorescent colors
- Evershrunk — shrinkage control not to exceed 2%
- L’organza [now organza] — a sheer silk organdy
- Lurex — aluminum foil yarn and metallic colors used in a variety of fabrics
- Milateen — a twill wool dress fabric ob by 1962
- Picolay — a birdseye pique ob by 1962
- Sanforlan — process insuring wool will not shrink out of fit ob by 1962
- Staznu, Superset, Wrinkleshed, Zeset, Zelan; Unifast ob by 1962 — crease and soil-resist finishes and shrinkage control for cotton
- Vicara — staple fiber zein [protein fiber from cornmeal] blended with natural and synthetic fibers ob by 1962
Available by 1962; note the continued expansion of synthetics
- Agilon nylon, Antron nylon, Arnel Triacetate, Cadon nylon, Corval, Creslan acrylic, Fortrel, Kodel, Taslan, Terylene, Verel modacrylic, Xefron acrylic, Zantel poly — trade names and trademarks for synthetics
- Avricon viscose, Avlin, Avril viscose, Avron viscose, Celaperm acetate, Chromfast, Coloray, Colorspun, Cotron, Cupioni, Super Siri, Suracel acetate, Topel — tradenames and processes for rayons
- Belfast — self-ironing finish for cotton
- Cordino — fine wale, wash & wear combed cotton similar to bedford cord
- Cyana, Discipline, Dri-don, Permel Plus — finishes on cotton for wrinkle free and stain control
- Formite, Interlon, Pellon, Pelomote— non-woven interfacings
- Gerona — tradename for a wool pile fabric similar to Marvella [see 1928]
- Lame — non-tranishable metallic yarns and fabric
- Shagbark — a combed, textured cotton with fine loops and crisp finish
- SuPima — a fine, silky cotton made from long-staple cotton
- Tackle Twill — a twill rayon and cotton fabric used for sportswear and uniforms
- Tarpoon — a closely woven, water-repellent cotton [poplin] used for jackets and playwear
End Note: Quadriga Cloth and Cloth of Gold should be listed in headings covering 1930s-40s. As there is little or no information in the many reference books i have, dating cannot be substantiated and they have been omitted.
Name That Textile — now that you are flush with knowledge, give your smarts a real test: if you watch the old black and whites from the 1920s-50s, guess the fabrics of the frocks those beguiling damsels wore. You will never look at movies the same way again.
– Kettlecloth Update — thanks to an email from Rene Hills, she remembers using this fabric in the mid-1960s-70s and that the manufacturer was Concord Fabrics. Concord has been contacted for information.
– Cloth of Gold Update — wrappers from vintage Warren’s bias tape reveal it was the manufacturer of Cloth of Cold. This name was used only for its fine nainsnook line of bias tapes. Wrappers also stated that all its fabrics and bias tapes [nainsnook, lawn or fine percale] were schreinerzized, a luster finish which washed out.
Advertising on these wrappers also answers two previously-asked questions: manufacturer was Warren Featherbone Co. of Three Oaks, Michigan, established 1883, and the company produced more that one type of fabric. Curiously while the CoG stamp was limited only to fine nainsnook for bias tape, name was stamped in selvages on all yard goods. One of the mysteries to date is the absence of Warrens or Cloth of Gold in the textile books I have consulted so far. The Three Oaks Chamber of Commerce has been contacted for information.
– Cotton Finishes and Burn Test Update — experts tell us that cotton burns fast and leaves ashes. However, I found that when burning cotton with its original finish [unwashed] that a prominent web-like residue remained. This puzzled me until after many testings, I realized that sizing and finishes burn differently than the actual fabric. If you have had this experience, it may be due to this reaction. Web residue turns to ashes upon touch.
* Book Review — see this month’s Wisdom column for review on Mary Humphries’ two revised textile books.
About Joan Kiplinger: Joan was an antique doll costumer and vintage fabric addict who learned to sew on her grandmother’s treadle and had since been peddling fabrications ever since.