Building A Textile Reference Library

Murphy’s Law sez “The very moment you realize you have become a collector, an overwhelming number of gadgets and accessories are required which will become larger and more costly than the collection.” Depending on what you collect, those can be sometimes useless, frivolous and downright expensive. Luckily for the fabric collector, about the only need is good reference books — well, you might have to throw in several bookcases.

Where to begin and what to buy might seem insurmountable decisions. Taken one step at time, you can have the luxury of a textile reference library without taking out a second home mortgage to finance it. Regardless of your reason for collecting vintage fabrics, the overriding factor is vintage fabric itself and what you need to know so that this knowledge will enhance your specific textile interest[s]. A good building-block approach to planning your library can be achieved in three steps and over a period of time.

The first step begins with books and periodicals which provide basic but critical textile information; this is followed by adding books which expand upon those various basic elements and finally books which speak directly to your special textile interest. And don’t overlook the option of acquiring a few books in each level for starters and then going back to fill in. Once you begin, don’t fall prey to the notion that because different books will contain the same information that you should bypass any duplication. Authors express themselves as individuals so that on any given topic there will be diverse interpretations which help to broaden and give a complete picture of the subject.

Level I Basic Books Basic books are those which contain vintage and current glossaries of textile terminology and fabric descriptions, overview of textile production from field to loom, fiber definitions and a good selection of photos showing various fabric weaves. Complementing books are vintage supplemental references which include, for example, fabric pages from catalogs such as Sears or Wards, magazine advertisements and salesmen’s swatch booklets. These are most helpful in making your learning three dimensional but as they are not as readily available as books are, they can be added at any time.

Grab them when you see them. Because vintage fabric is the focal subject, most basic references should have been published prior to 1960. It is important that you understand each fabric’s name, usage, importance and place in fashion history as written during its marketing lifetime. And it is equally important that you know the changing production standards and technology and their effects upon the textile industry. A familiarity with the past helps you to date and identify your fabric; knowing the current textile market helps you to eliminate contemporary fabrics.

Ideally, a reference from every decade should be represented on your reference shelf. Where to begin? A good starting point is a glossary from the early 20s. Many fabrics listed during that time were on the market at least several decades earlier as well as several decades later; some are still available today. Thus in one book you have access to a great range of fabrics and good historical perspective. From there, you can move backwards and forwards in time as other old books are located. Some recommended basics: Glossaries & Dictionaries: Vintage: Fabrics and How to Know Them [later editions changed to Fabrics], Grace Denny, 1923, 26, 28, 36, 42, 46, 54, 62.

One of the best glossaries and overall textile information references published. Each edition lists current fabrics, manufacturers, brands and trademarks and legislation and a list of fabrics which have become obsolete since the previous edition. Nice selection of photos. All editions should be collected. Price range $10-$ 20.


Fabrics, the first [1923] and last [1962] editions of Grace Denny’s remarkable glossary series.


Handy pocket guides such as this Dan River’s 1947 Dictionary of Textile Terminology help to reduce hunting time. Textile Fabrics, Elizabeth Dyer, 1923, 27. Another excellent glossary and overview on selection and care of cloth and clothing. Books dovetail nicely with Denny books. Priced under $20.

Any glossary published by textile manufacturers or associations; for example, Dan Rivers Dictionary of Textile Terms, 1944-47 or Rayon Glossary by American Viscose Corp., 1944-50. [There might be later editions for both.] These small pamphlets provide fingertip specifics and save time burrowing through larger books.

Contemporary: The Butterick Fabric Handbook, Irene Kleeburg, 1975. Great glossary and general textile information to bridge the gap from 1950s to mid-70s. Price range $7 to $12.

Fairchild’s Dictionary of Textiles, Tortora and Merkel, 7th edition 1996 [also see 1915, 20, 24, 59, 67, 79 editions]. Remarkable for its scope and depth of textile terms and fabric definitions from ancient to present. Numerous Illustrations and photos. This will be a much-used reference. About $75.

Fabric Glossary, Mary Humphries, 1999. A must-have which blends past and present, innovative for its “lumping” of fabrics by family and place for swatches. Swatch kit available separately. Under $40. Fabric Production, Textile Science and Technology.

Fabric handbook       humphrie       Frichild

This trio of modern glossaries – Butterick’s Fabric Handbook 1975, Fairchild’s Textile Dictionary 1996 and Humphries Fabric Glossary & Fabric Reference 1999 — are all you need to learn about today’s fabrics. Vintage: Textiles, Woolman & McGowan, 1913, 24, 26, 27, 31, 34, 36, 43, 47. College textbook series covering all aspects of the textile industry. If for no other reason, its comprehensive view of clothmaking from caveman to 1940s and aggressive stance on needed reforms within the clothing and textile industry make this a vital reference. Good illustrations and photos. About $10-$20.

woolman   potter

Two favorite textile textbook series which spanned three decades — Woolman and McGowan’s Textiles [1926 ed. shown] and Potter-Corbman’s Textiles: Fiber to Fabric [1967 ed. shown]. Staple Cotton Fabrics, John Hoye, 1942, indispensable for identifying fabric weaves. Magnificently detailed magnified photos for fabric identification; excellent concise information about finishes and applications that convert greige cloth into all those cotton names so familiar to us. About $15.

Textiles: Fiber to Fabric, Potter, Corbman, 1945, 48, 51, 54, 59, 67, Corbman only 75, 83. College textbook series. Excellent reference for its scope and clarity in covering entire textile field, includes glossary and good selection of photos. $10-$20 range Contemporary: Textile Reference, Mary Humphries, 1999, another must-have for an intensive view of modern textile technology. Under $40.

See book review under Wisdom. Optionals for any level Vintage Sears and Montgomery Ward and other store catalogs, needlework supply and pattern catalogs, vintage periodicals which feature fabric and related ads, salesmen’s sample booklets, notions and sewing machine literature.

Level II Expanding on the Basics Now that you have read the basics, you will want to know more about the history and various aspects of textile making and use of fabric – books on specific fibers, dying and printing, fabrics from or popular in specific time periods, fabric selection for sewing, professional textile dictionaries. This secondary acquisition of references will probably be the largest in your library.

There are many to choose from; all are not necessary to have as you can begin to look ahead and to be selective regarding your collecting interest. Here are some collectors choices and examples:

FibersVintage: Textile Fabrics, George Johnson, 1927. Explains how to spot imperfections when purchasing textiles. Covers history, construction and care of fibers with excellent photos of substandard textile construction. About $10-15. Miracle Fabrics, Newcomb & Kenny, 1957. Steps leading to discovery of rayon and nylon written in an easy style lay language. This is but one example many references on early synthetics. About $10.

Contemporary: Textile Science, Marjory Joseph, 1966, 72. Textbook series and one of many easy to understand technical references which bridge gap between vintage and current fiber technology and construction. Illustrations and photos. About $10. All About Cotton [Wool, Silk], Julie Parker, 1995, provides basic fiber descriptions with attached swatches. About $30.

miracle fiber

Miracle Fabrics 1957 is a concise and understandable history of the development of rayon and nylon.


Identifying cotton, silk and wool is made easier with Julie Parker’s All About swatch-buckling series, 1995.

Color Contemporary: Forties Fabrics [Fun fabrics of the 50s, Couture Fabrics of the 50s], Joy Shih, 1997, and Fabulous Fabrics of the 50s, Bosker, Mancini, Gramstand, 1992 — these books provide a stunning array of prints of the 1940s and 50s [Bosker book covers 20s to 50s] to help identify age of fabrics. $20 each.Dating Fabrics 1800-1960, Eileen Trestain, 1998. Prolific photo display of prints by decade to identify age of fabric by color and design. A quilter’s must-have but helpful for any fabric collector. $25.

Clues in the Calico, Barbara Brackman, 1989. Although a quilters guide to dating and identifying antique quilts, reference is more noted for its indepth information on block and roller printing, printing styles, fabric dyes and pattern identification and how these clues help to date fabric. Certainly essential subjects for all fabric enthusiasts. $30-$40. Textile Designs, Meller and Elffers, 1991. 200 years of European and American patterns for printed fabrics organized by motif, style, color, layout and period. 1,823 color illustrations. A quilter’s reference must-have but relevant for all fabric buffs. $55-$70.

Dating  Clue sincalico judy white Meffler and effler Judy

Three essential references for dating  fabric by color, dyes, printing technique and design — Dating Fabrics 1998, Clues in the Calico 1989 and Textile Designs 1991.

– Clues courtesy Judy White and Laurette Carroll; Textile Designs courtesy Judy White Topical Dictionaries The following are examples of specialized references which make researching easy: Vintage: Textile Brand Names Dictionary, Textile Book Publishers, 1947.

Shortcut to 4,000 brand names in existence from 1934-47. Listed alphabetically by brand name, by fiber classification and by manufacturer of brand names. About $10-15. Callaway Textile Dictionary, Callaway, Linton, Price, 1948, comprehensive listing of terms used in textile manufacturing and products, especially if you need to know blobby wool or cranky checks or lingoe in a hurry. Nice assortment of photos showing various textile machines and equipment. About $10-15. Modern Textile and Apparel Dictionary, George Linton, 1954, 63, 73.

This remarkable 716-page reference could easily be part of the basic books. Provides significant domestic and foreign terms for everything on the textile horizon from apparel to asbestos, fabrics and finish to costume, fashion and style, legislation, management and labor, technology, care and testing. Loaded with illustrations and photos. $30-$40. Contemporary Textiles in America 1650 –1870, Florence Montgomery, 1984.

One of the most popular and coveted textile books, a dictionary based on original documents, prints and paintings, commercial records, American merchants papers, shopkeepers advertisements and pattern books with original swatches of cloth. Expensive $300!!

Call away  Linton Textile sinamer cover linda

Specialized dictionaries provide detailed information often not found in other textile references — Callaway Textile Dictionary, 1948, contains technical textile terms and products; Modern Textile and Apparel Dictionary [1973 ed shown] is enormous in scope; Textiles in America is coveted for coverage of early fabrics but is out of sight at $300! – Textiles in America courtesy Linda Learn General History of Fabrics Vintage The Story of Textiles, Walton Perry, 1912.

A birdseye view of the history of the beginning and the growth of the industry by which mankind is clothed. An homage written at the time when the textile Industry and the factory system had revolutionized American social life and the beginning of the heyday of American mills. Excellent photos and illustrations of old loom construction, mills and equipment and inventors. $35-$40.

America’s Fabrics, Bendure and Pfeiffer, 1947. Written for the consumer and student. Traces origin and history, manufacture, characteristics and uses of fabric. Good glossary and reference for view of post-WWII technology and the rise of early synthetics. Wide variety of color and b&w photos supplement text. About $25.

Contemporary Fabric Catalog, Hardingham, 1978, British softcover. Comprehensive collection of names and descriptions of fabrics for wear and home décor, each accompanied by a photo, fiber history, textile terms and production plus a delightful glossary of obsolete fabrics. All from a European point of view. About $10-$15.

Home Sewing Vintage: Lippencotts’ Home Manuals — Clothing for Women, Laura Baldt, 1916, 18, 20, 22, School text series and consumer use. Working directions for the design and construction of women’s outer and under clothing and correct selection of fabric. Large glossary provides popular fabrics of that period and their use. Wonderful colored fashion illustrations; clear photos of patternmaking and sewing construction techniques, laces and fabrics. About $15-20.

Women’s Institute & Library of Dressmaking – Sewing Materials, Mary Brooks Picken, 1924, 28; Fabrics & Dress, Rathbone and Tarpley, 1931, 37, 43, 46, 48; Textile Fibers and Their Use, Katherine Hess, 1941, 48 — These three series are excellent home economics high school and college and consumer books which teach fabric use, design, fashion and care. Extensive fabric glossaries and wardrobe budgets, trade and sewing terms. Good photos and illustrations on sewing techniques, garment construction, types of weaves and laces. Another insight into how past generations worked with textiles. About $8-$15.

Bendure  Hard in game

Good sources for general history of fabric, production, glossary and selective photos — America’s Fabrics 1947 and Hardingham’s Fabric Catalog 1978, a British publication.

lip pen cottsm  pickens book leona Hessm

Vintage books which show appropriate selection of fabrics for garments and the latest in construction techniques — Lippencott’s Clothing for Women [1922 ed. shown], Women’s Library Institute-Sewing Materials [1924 ed. shown] and two school home ec perennials, Fabrics & Dress [1937 ed. shown] and Textile Fibers and Their Use [1948 ed. shown.]     – Women’s Library Institute courtesy Leona Stormoen Level III The Specialty Books By now you are saturated with the textile world and it’s time to find those books which appeal to your area of collecting.

A few suggestions, then let your fingers trip the internet: Costumemaking/ Fashion Godey’s and Peterson’s from the 1850s-60s; Costume de la Mode, R.Turner Wilcox, 1942, 48; The Book of Costume, Millia Davenport, 1948; Victorian and Edwardian Fashion, Alison Gernsheim, 1963, 81 $6. [Dover];Costume in Detail, 1730-1930, Nancy Bradfield, 1968, 75, 81, 93, $36-$96; 1997 trade paperback, $27.

Mode costume  costume detailsm

Wonderful resouces for constructing fashions of long ago and fabrics to use — The Mode in Costume [Costume de la Mode, 1948 ed. shown] and Costume in Detail 1981. Feedsacks Textile Bags by Anna Lue Cook, 1990, $13. Quilter Two of the best have been listed in Level II.

There are a million books out there as this is the top hobby interest of the decade. A comprehensive listing would require a tome or two.Textiles A History of Textile Art, Agnes Geijer, 1979, $36-$65; Medieval English Clothmaking, A.R. Bridbury, 1982, $28; and Textiles and Clothing-Medieval Finds from Excavations in London, Museum of London, 1992, to be reissued in paperback this summer $45 — these three books contain details about types of fibers, how threads were spun and woven, twist and ply of threads, threads per inch, cloth industry in historical times and definitions of names of cloth as recorded in history.

Textile art   Medieval english cloth making   Text Clothing Museum London

Good examples of references for researching textiles from specific periods — A History of Textile Art 1979, Medieval English Clothingmaking 1982 and Textiles and Clothing -Medieval Finds 1992.

– Books courtesy Linda Learn Where to Find References It is a dictum that we can never have enough books.

Those listed in this column are suggestions and serve to represent the broad spectrum of books and periodicals available. It is not too difficult to locate books, thanks to internet search. Prices, however, can be intimidating. Note that prices quoted are approximate and may be outdated, depend on book condition and will differ from store to store. Here are some places to start: Bibliography section from textile books – an excellent source to obtain titles for internet search.

http://www.addall.com probably the best site as it provides all chains, independents, most major book exchanges and other book sites; best feature is price comparison chart, all in 25 seconds or less. Offers both current and used/out-of-print menus.

http://www.doverpublications.com or http://store.doverpublications.com Always a grand selection at great prices and an alternative to expensive hardbacks.

It is gratifying to know this store finally has a web site. http://www.ebay.com hard to beat this site for locating books at good values. A good source for obtaining salesmen’s swatch folders and other unusual fabric references. Check vintage fabric and vintage books categories; use keywords textile books, fabric books, costume books, etc for quick searching. The usual places – used book stores, library sales, antique stores, flea markets, swap with friends, join online discussion lists where books are frequently mentioned or you can post your wants.

Your comments are always welcome. If you have a particular book that would fit Level I or II, please let us know so that those references can be added to this column. Or share any other comments regarding references which can be included. Now, enjoy your book-hunting excursions.

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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