Historical costumers, quilters, collectors and others who use vintage and older fabrics consider themselves fortunate if their fabrics have a provenance — a year to determine age or name of fabric type to determine identity.
Carrying provenance one step further, it would be an asset to know when these fabrics became obsolete or if the fabric name is just that and not a tradename.
While there are many current excellent reference books available which describe and list obsolete fabrics, dating is not available. In going through the eight editions of Grace Denny’s Fabrics, 1923-62, I noticed that she compiled from edition to edition the obsolescence of fabrics, tradenames and textile processes. And, if one took time to compare her section in each edition on current fabrics and tradenames, you could also attain dates when new fabrics hit the market.
Perhaps the following information will add to your knowledge for whatever purpose you need. This is not an historical list and is limited in scope to cover American staple or common fabrics which fall into the vintage – oldie range, roughly 1900 to 1962. It is by no means complete. At this time my chief resources for household fabrics existing prior to 1923 were Sears catalogs of 1890, 1902 and 1908. Fabrics then were still available in 1923 except where noted in the list below.
Because of limited newsletter space this is a two-part series. Part I deals with fabrics which have died and those which keep coming back to life. Part II covers the discontinuance of tradenames and textile process and a distant future Part III would list when fabrics appeared on the market, all within the same Part I timeframe.
- Beige wool fabric used for dresses
- Butcher’s linen replaced by Indianhead
- Gloria umbrella fabric replaced by silk/cotton blend. A cotton version remained.
- Crepe meteor or kitten’s ear crepe now called any satin-back crepe
- Domet or Domett now called outing flannel or shaker flannel
- Grenadine now refers to marquisette or a variety of leno weaves
- Satin Duchesse a silk satin, now covers all grades of dress satin
- Kimono flannel now called flannelette
- Mousseline de Soie silk muslin now called organdie [pref. sp.] or organdy. There seems to be no distinction between cotton and silk organdy; organzine, a double thickness, appeared only in 1936. Mousseline name back in fashion in 1947 and defined as silk muslin while a tradename L’organza appeared in 1953, was changed to organza and by 1962 defined as silk organdy.
- Heatherbloom tradename stamped on selvage; similar to percaline, a lining fabric.
- Landsdowne tradename for silk and wool dress fabric.
- Marseilles heavy cotton used in men’s vests; relegated to bedspread fabric only.
- Mull fine to course cotton, similar to lawn or nainsnook or a course batiste; sometimes mixed with silk; used for petticoats. Finally disappeared in the 40s.
- Delaine [French for “of wool”] now called challis
- Kobe flannel replaced by challis
- Gauze replaced by leno
- Duvetyn soft wool with nap for coats. Made a big comeback in the 50s, in and out of fashion.
- Louisine lightweight silk fabric resembling taffeta but with a fancier weave
- Balbriggan fine jersey knit cotton for men’s underwear and in wool for dresses; revived by 1947.
- Bolivia velvet-like woolen or worsted pile fabric for dresses; revived by 1962.
- Charmeen fine worsted dress fabric with steep twill; also made in cotton.
- Etamine cotton or wool dress fabric similar to voile but more open and wiry; snagged easily.
- Gros de France and Gros de Londre cross-ribbed dress silk with alternating fine and heavy ribs of different colors; texture resembled taffeta.
- Henrietta lightweight dress fabric similar to cashmere; twill weave; lustrous; usually in black.
- Khaki Kool tradename for sports silk of rough crepe texture.
- Kimono silk lightweight spun silk for kimonos, linings, curtains; replaced by other fabrics.
- Ladies cloth lightweight flannel with broadcloth finish for suits
- Messaline lightweight satin used for dresses, blouses, trimmings
- Metalline imitation metal cloth of silk and rayon
- Panama smooth worsted similar to nuns veiling [like a heavy voile]; used for dresses, suits, skirts
- Poiret twill fine worsted twill dress fabric similar to gabardine but a more beautiful texture; prone to early shine. By in fashion by 1962. Used for dresses, suits.
- Prunella strong smooth finished worsted cloth for dress goods, scholastic and religious gowns; a heavier grade for shoe tops.
- Tricotine fine worsted double twill dress goods resembling gabardine; prone to early shine. For dresses and suits
- Venetian cloth fine soft wood dress goods, similar but softer than prunella. Twill or satin weave. for dresses, suits. Back in fashion by 1942. Note: in mercerized cotton, same as sateen and used for linings, aprons, pillows.
- Zibeline heavy wool fabric with hairy nap; used for coats and suits; revived by 1947.
- Alpaca cloth cotton & alpaca blend used for coats.
- Brillantine smooth, wiry fabric; same as alpaca cloth. Used for office coats, linings and vests.
- Calico very coarse cotton. Replaced by percale; muslin today.
- Charmeuse lightweight silk with satin weave and dull back; used for gowns, evening wraps. In cotton, for pajamas.
- China silk plain handwoven; soft, lightweight and thin.
- Silkaline and Silkolene thin, soft glazed cotton, plain or printed. Luster lost in washing. Used for linings, curtains, comforters.
- Argentine cloth glazed tarlatan
- Bagheera silk or rayon supple looped pile fabric with knit back; practically uncrushable. Evening gowns & wraps. Revived in early 60s and still available in 1975.
- Cambric–white cotton closely woven, fine, soft with slight gloss on right side. used for aprons, underwear, shirts, handkerchiefs.
- Cassimere twill smooth surface; woolen or mixed with cotton, ray, silk; used for men’s wear.
- India linon [lawn] fine, closely woven white cotton with fairly crisp finish; not as superior as persian lawn; used for dresses, blouses, lingerie, linings.
- Kimono crepe cotton; also called serpentine crepe. Resembles crepe paper; no iron. Used for gowns, pajamas, kimonos.
- Linen mesh open mesh knit fabric of cotton and linen; used for infant’s shirts and men’s underwear.
- Linsey woolsey handwoven fabric of linen and wool; used since Civil War; nightwear and bedding
- Peau de Soie strong, firm leather-like twill silk fabric with dull, satiny surface; grosgrain weave but finer rib. Used for dresses, coats, trimmings. Reappeared in 1962, lighter weight and in many variations.
- Persian lawn finest and sheerest lawn available; similar to organdy without the stiffness; for infants wear and dresses.
- Roshanara trade name for silk/wool fabric of heavy, crepe rib texture; also copied in rayon/wool and rayon/cotton. Used for dresses, coats.
- Russian cord shirting of madras type with heavy corded stripes. Used for shirt fronts and cuffs.
- Soisette tradename for fine combed mercerized cotton in white, plain or prints. Name stamped on selvage. Used for dresses, linings, curtains, pajamas, shirts, children’s clothes.
- Wash silk silks finished for washing, especially silk broadcloth. Made in plain and novelty weaves.
1960s and on
This decade is the beginning of the explosion of many new fabrics, mostly synthetics. Their names and uses are familiar to most of us and can be found in current textile books.
There are two cotton fabrics recently introduced which may be versions of vintage fabrics: Swiss flannel and Austrian cashmere. These fabrics should be of interest to quilters, heirloom sewers and costumers. The names are misleading. Swiss flannel at first glance resembles cotton challis. It is a springy super fine twill with a hint of a nap and is used, for example, for backing baby blankets or quilts, infant or toddler wear, doll or adult clothing. Despite it’s fine quality, it has one drawback: easily frays. I used it for an antique doll’s middy and the scale was perfect. Austrian cashmere is a lesser quality and thinner than Swiss flannel but can be used for the same purposes.
Important to remember old fabrics were not always colorfast. This was more the case up to the ’50s when modern textile technology came to the rescue. For those who preserve vintage material using conservation or other type washing products and are in doubt about color bleeding, observe the laundering advice given to the missus in 1923:
to test and set colors, soak goods for at least an hour in one cup of salt dissolved in a gallon or basinful of water. Wash in lukewarm soapsuds; rinse carefully; dry away from sun or heat. Repeat this process with each washing.
From Elizabeth Dyer’s Textile Fabrics, 1923.
Other vintage must-haves Don’t overlook old bias tape and wood-spool thread. There is as much enjoyment in tracking down these irreplaceable notions as in hunting for vintage fabric.
One of the pleasures in acquiring bias tape is having on hand a variety of fabrics to work with — fine to coarse lawn, cambric and percale in plain, crisp or silk finish, solid color, floral, plaid; embroidered or scalloped edging; some tapes so gauzy fine and flexible they do not have to be steam shaped. The array of colors is staggering and are complementary when used with matching vintage thread.
There are two schools of thought about the use of thread. Many experts advocate throwing new thread away after 3 months because it loses its elasticity. Others, like me, use old cotton thread which has been properly cared for whenever feasible and find it holds its strength for the life of a garment, adult or child. And some of this thread is 70 to 80 years old. It’s a matter of choice so don’t be intimidated about collecting and using it if that’s the direction you choose. You won’t find the silk finish of old thread on today’s threads and it does make a smoother difference in stitching by hand or machine.
An added bonus is that empty wood spools are becoming a recognized collectors item . If you do save yours, here’s a tip: check your empties carefully. Many of the older, smaller spools are made of nicely milled and polished hard-rock maple; some even have a scrollwork design on one end. Finding one of these makes vintage textile collecting all the more worthwhile.
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.