The Hunt for Vintage Cotton: In Search of Warp Ends

This hunt for and knowledge of vintage cottons column was inspired by several queries to fabric.net about Indian Head and a nudge from Judith.

First, the revival of cotton, saving us all from the polyester blahs, is due in large part to quilters demanding premium muslin and the southern heirloom ladies for insisting on fine swiss.

However, between those two extremes is the loss of wonderful now-obsolete yard goods. Older sewers know the joy of sewing with such cottons and miss their existence; younger ones will never know the infinite variety no longer within their reach except through second-hand purchase.

Two and possibly three of these lost fabrics deserve special attention. Their disappearance has us puzzled because there are still practical uses for them and they would be a welcome sight if they were to reappear.

Indian Head — in answer to questions for Andy about this fabric, the communications staff at Textron Inc. provided this information: the Indian Head brand label has been known since the 1820s, the cloth manufactured by Nashua Mfg. Co. in New Hampshire. Textron, having just changed its name from Atlantic Rayon Corp and seeking diversification, bought the firm in 1945 to meet the growing demand for postwar fabrics. In the early 50s, Textron sold the Indian Head operations and a new company, Indian Head Inc., was formed. The fabric was highly regarded and a popular seller.

Elizabeth Dyer, Textile Fabrics, 1923, described the fabric as a heavy cotton muslin with more yarns and a smoother finish than many muslins; sturdy, substantial, warm, inexpensive. Used for white skirts, petticoats, girls dresses and middies, boys’ suits, men’s nightshirts, aprons, luncheon sets and table covers. Grace Denny, Fabrics, 1953, reports fabric was available in 36″ and 44″ widths for white; 36″, colored. Fairchild’s Dictionary of Textiles, 1996, lists fabric as a well-known cotton crash first woven by Nashua in 1831.

My memories of this serviceable fabric are from the mid-40s to 1960. I used it for summer casual dress and sportswear, including countless maternity shorts. I do not recall seeing it after that time nor have I yet found any source stating its demise. It may be in a later Denny book which always features a glossary on the latest obsolete fabrics. If any of you know when it was discontinued, let Judith know.

Cambric — I wish I had the pleasure of sewing more with this fabric when I started to sew in 1946. However, white cotton cambric went out of fashion in that year according to Denny. I have, however, several vintage pieces, both in linen [it’s original manufacture] and in cotton and a blend of both and in varying degrees of fineness and texture. This is a fabric which handles superbly, creases nicely, especially when finger pressing, and gives no trouble. It has been around for centuries and can be identified by its linen-like slub weave; cotton when washed will lay flatter and not horribly wrinkle like linen.

Its uses ranged from blouses, underclothes, children’s and infants’ garments, underlinings and linings, handkerchiefs, bedding and much more. Considered a white yard good, it was available during the 20s and 30s in colored prints for dressmaking by Worth Cambric. However, I wonder if this was indeed a true cambric. Cambric has such a smooth, lustrous surface that its name was also given to a fabric finish. The Sears 1933 catalog lists its finest percales as having a cambric finish and collectively called its best percales cambrics. Whoever said the textile industry was easy to categorize?

I understand a fine linen cambric is available today but no sources were available from my informant. If you can contribute to this fabric’s history, tell Judith and perhaps there can be a column devoted solely to cambric.

Kettlecloth — this is a fine homespun, one of the best home decor fabrics ever. I discovered it in the 70s and lost it in the mid-80s.It was marvelous for drapes, bedskirts, quilting and other household uses; even for children’s clothes. Like cambric it was a joy to sew on and behaved beautifully. During the early 80s it was also available as a blend. Its longevity is incredible — all my bedroom decor mentioned above is still in action from the mid-70s and shows no signs of wear. Many persons remember this fabric but like myself do not know its origins or if it’s still available. I have not seen any at fabric chain stores nor advertised in sewing magazines. Here’s another material for research and your input.

In Search of I — two other brands readers asked about were Cloth of Gold and Quadriga Cloth. I could find no references in my books to Cloth of Gold but I do have some in my collection. It is nainsnook from 1941. Whether the brand is limited only to this fabric or includes other plain weaves is a subject for research. Quadriga Cloth, according to Fairchild’s, is a trademark for an obsolete printed cotton with a silky, easy- to-sew finish. There’s a photo in one of my fabric books showing a throng of bargain hunters at Macy’s in the early 40s crowded around three sales tables of this fabric. Another fabric which needs researching.

In Search of II — As an adventure in tracking down vintage fabric books, let http://www.addall.com do the work for you.  This web site searches 41 book stores to give you sources and best price.  Also, a 10x non-distorting linen tester [thread counter, thread pick] is available for under $10.00 from Indigo® Instruments.  It only measures 1/2″ but double the thread count to get a 1″ count.  This handy gadget makes your fabric pop.

In Search of III — an excellent source of information was the American Textile Manufacturers Institute,  which was dissolved in 2004.

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.

6 Responses to “The Hunt for Vintage Cotton: In Search of Warp Ends”

  1. Nancy Bouldin says:

    I was looking for batiste and was referred to  ‘nainsook’ (without the n} and wonder if that is the same?  Do you have any info on batiste?  The dictionary refers to it as being  “a fine, thin cloth made of cotton, rayon or wool… has the same  texture as cambric but with a different finish.”  I was recalling the cotton version which I wore often in the American south in the 1950s.  Any information appreciated

    • Judith says:

      Batiste is finer than nansook. In our Vintage Textiles book it describes batiste as “A soft, fine, sheer, closely woven plain weave. Two-ply yarns give fabric a wavy appearance. Also made in wool, silk, rayon, and blends.”

  2. Julia says:

    Hey Judith !
    Kettle cloth seems like “Käseleinen”? Google that.
    And Cambray could be “Chambray”; ditto. Chambray has a smooth finish and is soft and still quite stable – the creasing quality you describe.
    Cheers from France ! Julia

  3. Julia says:

    Cambric, of course, for chambray.

  4. Judith says:

    Hi Julia,

    The person who wrote this article, Joan Kiplinger, is no longer around to comment on whether or not your “Chambray versus Cambray”. I do remember when I questioned her on terms for various fabrics and her reply was that she is writing from an historic view, not the current day use of these terms. More about Joan at http://info.fabrics.net/a-celebration-of-joan-kiplinger-1933-2009/


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