Who We Are: Curating Vintage Fabrics

Three full-length photos of the author in vintage dresses
1950’s cotton canvas, 1970’s cotton barkcloth, 1920’s sheer wool

I collect vintage fabric, patterns and notions and together they create an almost true vintage creation.  While vintage patterns and notions are relatively easy to find out in the wild, vintage fabrics are a little more difficult to obtain.  I search the fabric bins at thrift stores and delve into the sewing sections of dealers at antique stores quite often (pre-pandemic — MUCH more often!) and it’s a rarity to come across them, but when you do, it’s pretty exciting.  Sometimes vintage fabrics are mixed up with draperies and linens (also usable for fabric!) and at my favorite stores, they’re separated into their own bins.  I rarely wish to go through a big pile of “junk”, but for fabric, I will.  Along with thrift and antique stores, I’ve also found vintage fabrics at estate sales.  I have “saved searches” on estate sale apps for “sewing” and I peruse photos to see if there are sewing things and if the sale looks promising, I will go and cross my fingers that there’s some good fabric.  Some of the best fabrics and sewing things that I’ve found at estate sales, didn’t have photos or a mention of them, so you never know where you’ll find them.  In addition to estate sales, I’ve also found fabrics at church sales and flea markets. Finding fabric at yard sales is a little more difficult in my area, but they are also great opportunities to find material.

Four folded pieces of fabric
1920’s-40’s fabrics:  rayon taffeta, cold rayon, cotton voile, cotton mousseline

Luckly, we don’t have to go out to buy fabric and the same goes for vintage fabric.  If you’re adept at searching for things, eBay is a great place to find vintage fabric.  Some prices may be high and a lot of sellers don’t know the fiber content or type of fabric, so you might have to do more searching and study lots of photos before you buy.  But deals are to be found if you spend time to look!  Etsy is more curated and a great place to buy fabric as well, plus a simple google search will find many online stores that sell vintage fabrics.  In addition, to those sites there are selling groups on Facebook for vintage fabrics and vintage sewists who occasionally destash their fabrics on Instagram. 

Five folded pieces of fabric
1950’s/60’s fabrics:  cotton pique, cotton border print, cotton voile, cotton lawn, cotton sateen

Buying vintage fabric is more environmentally sustainable and you can save money as well as possibly keeping fabric out of a landfill.  I also think of the sewist who owned the fabric before me and how they might be happy that I’ve finally sewn up fabric from their stash.  Along with the environmental and economic factors, there are so many unique and interesting prints to be found and fabric types that have all but disappeared.  If you’ve ever read the fabric suggestions on the back of a vintage pattern and been confused, you’re not alone.  There are countless fabrics that are no longer in production and you might find some of those in your search for fabric.  Two of my favorites are sheer wool and cold rayon — both of which I am always searching for.

Four folded pieces of fabric
1950’s/60’s fabrics:  cotton upholstery, cotton barkcloth, cotton lawn, rayon

How do you know it’s vintage?  Generally, vintage (pre-1990’s) and antique (pre-1930’s) fabrics are narrower than their modern counterparts due to the loom width, but not necessarily.  Over time, when you’ve looked at and felt many different fabrics, it will be easier to pick out which one is vintage.  Look at the colors and prints and the way it feels.  When you bring it home, do a burn test to find out the fiber content.  The two volumes of Dating Fabrics by Eileen Trestain (volume 1 and volume 2) are a good resource for fabric identification by color and print.  You can also look at vintage catalogs and magazines and study the fabrics and prints used in garments.  My rule of thumb when shopping for vintage fabric is: if I like it, can afford it and I can picture making something with it, I buy it, regardless of its age.

Tanya occasionally posts on her blog Mrs. Hughes (tanyamaile.com), but more often on IG @tanyamaile where she shares her love for vintage sewing, historical costuming, vintage kitchenware and animals. She lives with her husband and menagerie on a ranch in the Sierra Nevada foothills of California.