Bias Tape– The Great Sewing Room Labor Saver

It’s difficult to say when commercial bias tape as we know it today arrived on the market.  Both wide bias and circular skirt facings seem to have made the earliest appearance in the early 1880s when there was a competitive market for skirt facings which were an essential protection in an era when skirts were floor length and most streets were not paved.

Warren Featherbone Co. of Three Oaks, Michigan began operations in 1883 producing featherboning made from turkey quills and whips. It entered the notions market in the early 1920s and in 1925 expanded its fine line of bias tapes. SH&M, velveteen bias bindings appeared in the Ladies Home Journal and other magazine ads in the early 1890s and by 1898 was offering Duxbac waterproof tape. These tapes were 1-7/8″ wide and available in 124 dress shades! Castle Novelties, NVB [New Velvet Binding] and OMO were other advertisers in 1894 or earlier. Collector Shirley McElderry notes OMO was still advertising in 1918. OMO of Middlefield CN was still advertising as late as 1926.

Warrens Promo card

“When you see a Turkey think of Warren’s Featherbone”
– early 1900s promotional card

William Wright first peddled his bias tape from a wagon, then opened a store in 1897in New York City after conceiving and making a practical method of card winding unit packaging of bias tape for retail sales, according to company records. Another early company was Barton’s established in 1900, a maker of fancy bias tapes which equipped its sales force with appealing sampler folders to hand out to prospective retailers and customers as shown in photo gallery.

Regardless who was first, a universal description of bias tape was proclaimed in the Ladies Home Journal, April 1898 issue in its Home Dressmaker column in answer to a query: “Cloth trimming consists principally of bias bands stitched on or near the turned edge of vests, yokes, belts, sleeves, pocket fronts, etc., using it as you would any band trimming and contrasting material as well.”

However, these dates by no means preclude earlier availability of bias tape. Because of lack of dating information, I have not been able to determine yet the first manufacturer, American or foreign; sometimes we forget that Americans are not always the first to invent.

In 1917 Wm. E. Wright & Sons advertised in magazines that bias tape was “great for children’s dresses, summer dresses, aprons, negligees and finishing lingerie.” Probably there wasn’t and isn’t a sewer who wouldn’t agree to that claim. Apparently consumer acceptance of its prepackaged tape was so good that in 1922, because of a need for expanded production facilities, the company moved to Orange, New Jersey.

As great fashion changes from the elegant and sophisticated Edwardian to simpler and more casual styles evolved at the beginning of the World War I years, bias tape’s versatility increased. Witness the large selection of bias tape listed on Wright’s early cards which deemed its product the “great sewing room labor saver with the most ELASTICITY– It’s in the Making” — .

Materials – nine fabrics including taffeta and washable silk [these and later additions are listed on chart accompanying this article]; 28 cotton colors including reseda [greenish white color of mignonette flower, probably what we call celery] and 32 silk colors. Color guarantee did not include taffeta and soft-finish silks as they were not intended for laundering.

Widths –13 different widths from ¼” to 1″ width; 1/16th of an inch difference between successive widths.

Yardage – black and white came in 6 and 12-yard lengths for cotton and 3 and 6-yard lengths for silk; colored cotton, 3 and 6 yards; colored silks, 3 yards.

Reverse side of card promoted Wright’s tapes as the only ones to use with a sewing machine binder attachment. In 1917 Wright’s education staff began publishing bias tape sewing booklets twice a year. The first ones were black and white or two-color. But by the early 1920s these booklets were beautifully illustrated on enamel stock in a striking four-color lithography process which has for the most part disappeared from the modern printing scene.

Each booklet shows new suggestions and directions for the decorative use of bias tape. An extensive price list and color-coded printed tissue pattern sheet for each project were included – all for 10 cents. However Wrights was second to Nufashond which published its rickrack booklet in 1916 with exquisite projects combining embroidery or crochet with rickrack to form intricate designs and an additional pull-out pattern sheet.

Actually the 1916 booklet was #2; whether #1 was in the same year or earlier is not known as of this writing. These booklets, some shown in the photo gallery, are fast becoming collectors items and are well worth pursuing. And the bonus is these projects are still fashionable to make and require no special vintage tools to create. All you need is cotton bias tape or rickrack and patience. And if you are a saver who cannot throw out odds and ends of tape, consider making a braid trim. The exact date of the first numbered Wright’s bias tape booklet is uncertain.

Backtracking from booklet #26 with the first printed date issued in spring 1932 and based on company’s statement that booklets were published twice a year in the spring and fall, it would appear that #1 was issued fall 1919. This does not coincide with Wright’s 1917 ad to send for its booklet. Whether numbering system was changed or some years or seasons were skipped or earlier booklets were not part of the series remains unknown at this time.

A Wright’s ad in Needlework October 1927 advertises booklet #17 which would be the fall release [see photo gallery].

So this is yet another date which corresponds with booklet dating and would establish the following timetable: #1 F 1919 #16 S 1927 #2 S 1920 #17 F 1927 #3 F 1920 #18 S 1928 #4 S 1921 #19 F 1928 #5 F 1921 #20 S 1929 #6 S 1922 #21 F 1929 #7 F 1922 #22 S 1930 #8 S 1923 #23 F 1930 #9 F 1923 #24 S 1931 #10 S 1924 #25 F 1931 #11 F 1924 #26 S 1932 #12 S 1925 #27 F 1932 #13 F 1925 #28 S 1933 #14 S 1926 #29 F 1933 #15 F 1926

Bias tape and notions cards were a popular advertising means to promote buying a manufacturer’s other products. For example, to spur its thread sales, J&P Coats offered the John Martin Pet Spool Series in 1930 under the copyright of Cotton Spool Co.

The set was comprised of six animals – Kitty Cat, Hal Horse, Pete Pig, Clara Cow, Puppy Dog and Bob Bunny [see photo gallery]. One side of the card contained face and rear of an animal to be cut out and pasted on each end of Coats Best Six Cord thread. In 1931 Spool Zoo was advertised in Good Stories. This set offered a fox, bear, zebra, lion, elephant and hippo. Dexter Threads/Virginia Snow also used animals on some of its carboard holders; they were to be cut out and pasted at either end of spool.

Several examples are shown in the photo gallery. According to Shirley McElderry, the Spool Cotton Co. was distributor for Coats & Clarks products including thread and Crown zippers. Spool Cotton began in 1898, two years after Coats & Clarks interests were consolidated. At first it advertised either Coats or Clarks threads separately in magazines of the day [the earliest in Shirley’s collection is 1919] and around 1928 began advertising both threads in the same advertisements. Spool Cotton published an estimated 530 needlework booklets.

spool pet

One of  the animals in J&P Coats spool pet series, 1935.  Cards were printed in full color as well as in red and black. John Martin’s name appeared only on the color cards. Wrappers did not advertise the spool sets; one would only discover them as they unfolded bias tape or peeked underneath.

In 1930 J.C. Penny featured on its Penimaid wrappers a copyrighted color chart which recommended colors that would harmonize with the enclosed tape. This service was provided by the Taylor system of Color Harmony Inc. NYC. Other companies such as Dexter Threads/Virginia Snow, Kresge’s, J & P Coats, Prudence ,Warrens and Wrights offered a combination packages containing matching thread with bias tape. These are shown in the photo gallery.

Sharon Stark notes that a pattern appears to emerge regarding the beautiful four-color lithography on certain wrappers. While each illustration differs, it is evident they are designed by the same source. To date, this group includes Bird of Paradise, Coquette, 5th Avenue, Priscilla [Canada], Rose of Araby, Showboat and Tailor Bird, all shown in the photo gallery. Some of these wrappers list Assembled Products or A.P. as manufacturer; others contain no information.

Nufashond, a major bias tape name, was manufactured by Assembled Products of Williamsport PA . This company, which produced Trimtex at one time, might possibly be the parent company for these off-brands.

Whether the variety of wrapper designs and their respective brand names denoted bias tape made for specifically for chain, specialty and department store house brands and for foreign markets is not known. Another mystery to solve. Many of the stores in the McCrory chain [in some regions McCrory is called Dollar Zone] – G.C. Murphy, J.J. Newberry, TG&Y, McLellan, Kress, H.L.

Green, Silver, Elmore, Pitts and Kittinger – sold bias tape ad rickrick under their store name on the wrapper. These are listed on the bias tape chart and shown in photo gallery. The Federated Stores of America may have used the Majesty label for stores in its chain such as S.B. McCain & Sons in Northeast Pennsylvania.

It is also interesting to note the variety of brand name wrappers produced by other companies such as Sears with its Ace, Fairloom and Hearthside brands and Kresges under its own name, Green Oak and possibly sKs brands. Again, these brands might have been marketed regionally or for other stores. Bland and complacent as the bias tape industry would have you believe, the companies were anything but.

Along with other industries they came under scrutiny in the late 1920s- early 30s when many labor and productions standards were circumspect so that when the National Recovery Act became law in 1933, a Code of Fair Competition for the Bias Tape Industry was enacted in May 1934 after public hearings were conducted.

For bias tape workers, it meant guaranteed minimum wage and uniform fair wage, work week and employment standards. The industry at that time employed 610 workers with a total investment of $1,363,000. For employers it meant industry-wide rehabilitation – creating an open-price association or fair-trade practices, elimination of monopolies or monopolistic practices and of discrimination against small enterprises, and promoting cooperation between labor and management to set fair employment standards and policies. Shows you what 610 angry voices in unison can bring about.

Bias Cover

Code of Fair Competition for the Bias Tape Industry enacted during the Depression by the National Recovery Administration  May 23, 1934. Bias tape was an indispensable sewing need during the 1920s-40s, then tapering off as fashions changed and as built-in sewing machine technology provided more sophisticated alternatives to garment and home decor finishing.

Sometime during the latter part of the 1970s the wide assortment of fabrics available in bias tape disappeared. What remains on the shelf today is a sad remnant; however, thanks to quilters and heirloom sewers, a greater variety of cotton colors and prints are emerging. A Wright’s Ideas book, selling for $1 in 1974, shows some decorative uses for tape, but lacks the enthusiasm of earlier publications. As the list continues to grow on the bias tape chart, one wonders why the need for so many brands.

It would appear that the highest count was during the 1930s–40s when bias tape was still at the peak of popularity. It is this very fact that makes collecting old bias tape important to vintage fabric collectors for construction and repair.

  • First, you can’t run to the store to buy it.
  • Second, were it possible to do so, color and fabric selection you might need at that moment wouldn’t necessarily be the current fashion statement and therefore not in stock.

Fortunately, old bias tape is available in an amazing array of colors and fabrics, thanks to online auctions, flea markets, antique stores and estate/yard sales. It is beneficial to never stop searching; you will be amazed at what you amass in a short time. In fact collecting becomes downright greed. The addiction or seduction begins innocently enough by buying old bias tape just to have cotton.

As the pile grows, you become aware there are various grades and types of cotton ranging from sheer to opaque, from fine to coarse. Thus begins a subcollection of acquiring as many different fabrics as possible; of course you will want all the colors, prints and novelties so now a sub-subcollection emerges. And of course the Spool and Zoo Pet series and variations are must-haves, too.

You then begin to notice a proliferation of brand names; this starts a serious quest for a wrapper collection which leads to another subcollection of wrappers for the same company in chronological order. Then rickrack and seam bindings make an appearance and then you want matching thread on wood spools…..they are lurking out there, waiting to grab you.

At some point you will require extra storage space; after all you will need duplicates because who in their right mind wants to destroy a beautifully preserved package and ruin a collection. What can you do with bias tape besides collect it? The brave will actually use it for quilting, home décor, children’s clothes and various accessories.

If you are a saver who cannot throw out odds and ends of tape, consider making a braid trim from those scraps as shown in the photo gallery As a project to help vintage collectors on the path to bias tape dementia, a bias tape chart has been compiled to show the many companies manufacturing bias tape and other notions. You will be surprised at the number of brands, and there are probably more unknowns waiting to be discovered.

Coordinating with this column and chart is a photo gallery showing the many brands and packaging of bias tapes, rickrack and seam binding. This chart is by no means complete and is meant to be an ongoing project. As you will see by the empty spaces, there are a lot holes to plug , especially company history which is intended to capture beginning and ending dates and other trivia.

  • We encourage you to join in this project.
  • Make a printout for a handy reference.
  • Notice content in each column.
  • Check your wrappers to see if they contain any information not listed on the chart.

Don’t be fooled because you may have the same wrapper brand[s]; wrapper design and information changed sometimes at will. Record any new information as you continue to find it. As this chart will always be available, your participation will help to keep it current. Many helped in supplying text for the column and in the compilation of the chart including members of the Quiltropolis vintage fabrics list.

My profound thanks to Pat DeSantis of Wrights for company chronology; Thelma Bernard who provided information from the Ladies Home Journal issues; Shirley McElderry for Wright booklets, Spool and Zoo Pet photos, chart information and Dexter Thread Co.

chronology; Sheila Ramsey for photos and scouting all possible sources for tapes; and Ellen Ambron, Diane Cucci, Anne Papworth, Mary Jane Poley, Katherine Smith, Trisha Smith, Sharon & Bill Stark, Julienne Stewart, Pat Roth, Dolores Lambert, Peggy Dearman and Leona Stormoen for photos and chart additions; Robin VanLoon for chart additions; and Elaine Good, Nan Jaeger, Linda Learn and Jill Elizabeth Willett for Wright’s information and chart additions.

At fabrics.net to Judith for hosting and enabling this project and to Jessie who maintains chart and photo updates.

MAKE YOUR OWN ORGANDY APRON From a Wrights 1940s rickrack wrapper are these reproduced directions to make an organdie overskirt or apron if skirt front opening is reversed. Notice spelling of organdy; this was the preferred spelling in most glossaries through 1940s and appeared infreqently in early 1950s. Wrapper courtesy of Dolores Lambert and used with permission of Wrights.

Wrights Rickrack Label Apron Overall

Materials needed and directions: (Click on picture for larger view)

Apron Materials Needed Apron Directions Organ die Apron

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.

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