Who We Are: Vintage Fabrics, Notions, and Refashions

The wonderful world of sewing is filled with many different niches. From quilting to costuming to RTW dupes, there really is something for everyone. One world I have become very interested in (as an outsider looking in) is vintage sewing. I asked you, dear readers, to share your experiences sewing vintage and here they are in a fun mini-series! Without further ado, I present you with a tiny sliver of the richness of vintage sewing.

Allison

Allison is wearing sunglasses, a yellow cardigan, and a green dress with pink flowers on it. She is holding a clutch purse and she is standing at the entrance to a beach.

Two years ago I started on my sewing journey after watching The True Cost and giving up buying new clothing. I have always loved thrifting but hadn’t bought clothes before, as it seemed so intimidating. (How do you find your size, no returns?!) I’ve always loved fabric (worked in 2 fabric shops), so I got a starter machine in my favorite color and I dove right in! 

My first refashion project was an unflattering, sweetheart, spaghetti strap Forever 21 maxi dress with a FANTASTIC jungle print. I shortened it (too much by accident), added makeshift drapey short sleeves, and then added more length back as a frilly bottom hem. The slippery sheer chiffon was a nightmare for a first project but I’m so glad I stuck with it! 

Since that first project, I became more interested in vintage clothing because the quality is much better than other secondhand clothes and I love a treasure hunt! Vintage sizing is consistent; I always know that a size 16 and 18 are workable. My first vintage refashion was on a silk turquoise ’80s dress with outrageous puffy sleeves.  All I had to do for this dress was take out shoulder pads, cut off the sleeves (I’ve got broad shoulders so this is 90% of my refashions), and finish the armholes. I think I even repaired some buttonholes! Wore it to a cousin’s wedding—impressed and surprised the family!
Last November, I started a new office job that required a wardrobe upgrade from my work-from-home lounge wear. I’ve been enjoying finding vintage treasures and giving them some love. My go-tos now are pencil skirts and statement blazers!

Allison is an office space planner who lives for crafting. She can be found @abakes90 on IG, where she shares her other crafty adventures, garden obsessions, and eco-friendly life.

Margy

Margy is standing on a sidewalk in a neighborhood. She is wearing a red, orange, and yellow shift-style dress that has three-quarter length sleeves. She is also wearing sunglasses and orange flats that have bows on them.

When we moved to our new house a couple of years ago, I started walking to explore our neighborhood one Sunday afternoon. I stumbled upon a house that looked like a yard sale but you could actually walk in. Well, that was strange, I thought. Once inside, someone explained to me that this was an estate sale and this was the second day, so most of the items had already been sold and were waiting for people to come back for pick up. I have to admit that I have never been to an estate sale. I guess I thought they were a collection of antiques. As soon as I got home, I looked for an email list that I could join so I wouldn’t arrive on day two but on day one. At my next estate sale, I found boxes of old sewing patterns. I looked through them, picking out just a few because they were from various decades that I thought I would probably never use. When I went to pay, the cashier tried to give me all the patterns because apparently, old patterns were something people weren’t interested in. And frankly, I wasn’t at the time. I got home and posted on a Facebook sewing group that I got the patterns at an estate sale. To my amusement, so many people commented on the vintage Vogue Patou pattern that I acquired. I had no idea that people even collect and/or sell them. I just liked the elegant, ’60s form-fitting dress with shoulders and back cut out that I thought if my sewing skills were ever up for it one day, I could try it.

These days I’m very particular about estate sales. I only go if there are fabrics and notions to acquire. My largest haul at one house alone was 48 yards of fabric for $45. This was the home of a fashion designer who had a packed basement of fabric and notions. I walked out with yards and yards of linen, wool, and stretch fabrics. I also like finding thread, especially ones that are on wooden spools. Over time, manufacturers have been using plastic spools. Thread is not cheap so finding them at estate sales is like finding treasure for me. It’s also fun to try out the vintage sewing machines. I bring a piece of scrap fabric with me so I can do exactly that. Many times other shoppers will stop to watch me try out the machine. I don’t need another machine, but it gives validation to others that the machine is in working order. My Instagram feed is full of finds and makes from estate sales.

Here’s what I’ve learned from just a couple of years of going to estate sales:

  1. Get on a mailing list for your area. Many estate sale organizers will post pictures of the contents of the house. If there is something you really want, go on day one and be early. Many times if it is a packed house, there will be a line of people and you will need to get a number to enter. There will be a limit to the number of people who are allowed in at a time.
  2. Bring cash. There might be an extra fee if using credit.
  3. Each estate sale is different. Sometimes the prices are set for a quick sale, while others are priced so that it will drop the next day. If you’re looking for a really good deal, come back on day two to see if the prices have dropped and your item is still there. You can also try to bargain while you’re there. You never know until you try. I find that sewing items are usually not hot items so organizers are mostly willing to make a deal.

I hope you try out an estate sale. It’s a thrilling experience because you just don’t know what you’ll find in an old house. And hopefully, you don’t have a husband who says that if I keep coming home with more fabric, he’ll have to one day have an estate sale for all of my stuff!

Margy is a sewing nerd and sci-fi geek. She loves her rescued 4 year old labrador retriever, donuts, and ice cream—in that order. She can be found on Instagram @ohsewmargy

Marcia

Marcia stands in the doorway to an antique shop. She has short brownish-red hair and wears glasses. She is wearing an A-line pinafore dress with a 1970s design. The colors on her dress are brown, yellow, green, orange, and red. She is wearing a red and white striped shirt and a long necklace as well. On her feet are yellow socks and red mary jane shoes.

I love hunting for old stuff and I am now lucky enough to do it for a living. As I am on a constant hunt for stock for my shop, I come across a lot of vintage fabrics. Some I sell, but many I keep. I love pattern and colour, and many of these old fabrics, particularly curtains and tablecloths, are just perfect to upcycle into very individual clothes. 
I have always loved big, flowing frocks like prairie or the old Laura Ashley styles, so I do use these old patterns occasionally, but I mainly make it up as I go along. Upcycling garments from charity shops is also very satisfying—you can do a lot with an extra-large man’s shirt.

I don’t tend to buy many vintage clothes for two reasons: they don’t tend to fit my body shape, and I love the process of finding an old curtain and making it into a garment that nobody else will have. Apart from the fun of all this, it is better for the environment …win-win situation really.

You never know where or when you are going to find old fabrics, so in order to find them you have to put in a lot of time. Fortunately for me, this fits in with my day job, which is sourcing stuff for my antique shop. Carboot sales, antique fairs, antique shops, and charity shops are where I find most of my fabrics. I do occasionally buy from Instagram and several really lovely women have sent me gifts of old fabrics just because they thought they would suit me…the sewover50 sewists are very generous and supportive.

I am generally first attracted by colour and design. If they have been used, you have to expect some wear and fading, but you can generally work around this. It is best not to go out looking for a specific length. If you find a fabric you like, just buy it whatever the size, as you can always find a use for a piece of beautiful fabric, however small. I personally only buy washable fabrics, generally cotton or linen, as you really need to launder them first. You can find very unpleasant creatures in the hems of old curtains. 
The majority of the fabrics I buy are from the 1940s through the 1970s and generally old curtains or tablecloths. There are some wonderful designs in this period, which are usually not too expensive and are good quality. However good the colours, I do draw the line at some of the synthetics of the 1960s and 1970s. 

I am Marcia, I’m 68, and I run an antique shop, Smoking Monkey Antiques in Suffolk. My Instagram is mainly my sewing life and it is @marcialoisriddington.

Joanne

Joanne stands in front of a light colored wall that has small blue polka dots. She has short, light brown hair and is wearing red lipstick and a sleeveless button-front dress. The dress' fabric has a banded abstract design with purple, blue, mustard, and cream colors.

I love to upcycle and I cannot sew quick enough when I find a bargain, get a flash of an idea, and need to wear it!

My go-to is the Reduced Rails to look for prints, fabric quality, and future pattern potential.

Boho maxi skirts have so much fabric that I can usually sew a cute 2 piece, dress, or  short jumpsuit, and ’70s/’80s dresses often get discounted because they have too much sleeve, bow, or frills.  A few quick alterations and you have something far more flattering, with extra fabric to sew a matching accessory if you wanted.

I love ’40s, ’50s, & ’60s dresses and most of them I got for less because they needed a new zip, seam, or button.

I work in Humana in Berlin and can be found on Instagram @JoMcpheeBerlin and I haven’t had the chance to post much, as I am a little homeschool teacher.

Jewel

Photo of a metal box with a hinged lid. The box's lid has been lifted, and in the box are vintage sewing notions, such as small scissors. There are some notions outside of the box; for example, two vintage Coats and Clark's thread spools and a few buttons.

Sewing means more to me than the actual garment that is produced. Clearly, it is less expensive, faster, and easier to walk into a store and purchase a t-shirt or skirt than it is to purchase the fabric, prewash it, choose a pattern, trace it, cut it out, pin it, sew it, finish the seams, et cetera. The history and legacy of sewing is what gets me. I spend time finding the perfect fabric and pattern, combining special buttons and notions to make a one of a kind dress made with my own hands, rather than one mass produced in a factory and sold at the mall. This means something to me. My favorite thing to do is to comb thrift shops and antique markets for vintage sewing materials. Bakelite buttons, silver thimbles, wooden spools of thread, and delicate, decorative scissors.

I have amassed quite the collection of these throughout the past few years.  The connection to women in the past through their sewing seems so personal to me.  Going through an old sewing box provides a great picture of its owner…the amateur sewer with mending needles, utilitarian buttons, and plain scissors, to the sewing pro with fancy scrolled scissors, mother of pearl buttons, thimbles, and trims.

I like to imagine who owned the materials and what they used them for. Sewing had a different meaning and purpose for women back then; it was certainly more mainstream and popular than it is today. The decorative packaging and labels give it such an elegance that is missing today.

I like to think I am carrying on a small piece of history when I use these materials, especially when I share this with my girls. When they were small, nothing would hold their interest quite as long as rummaging through a pile of old, fancy buttons.

Unfortunately, I am the only one in my family that sews, knits, or crochets.  This interest is not something that was passed on.  I did not grow up watching or learning from my Mom or Nana (grandma). No handmade clothes for me as a kid! All of my vintage sewing notions have been purchased, not passed down or inherited. As I now have quite the collection of fabric, notions, and patterns, I ask myself “Will someone cherish mine after I am gone, or will it be relegated to the thrift shop like so many I have combed over in the past?” For now, I will enjoy going through this with my daughters and hope that they find an interest in it as well so that this history lives on.  

I’m Jewel from @jewelmakes on Instagram and former blogger at smallseams.wordpress.com


I’m not sure that I’m totally ready to hunt for vintage notions and fabrics, but I certainly feel prepared should I decide it’s time. I love the idea of being even more sustainable in my sewing choices. Are you feeling inspired to thrift for fabrics and notions? Let me know in the comments below!

Amanda is a tired mom of 2 boys sharing everyday normal life over at @mandabe4r. Maybe someday she’ll find time to finish something and post it on the ‘gram.


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