Vintage fabric has become increasingly popular over recent years. Whether it’s shabby chic or mid century modern, I have seen grown women come to blows over bits of old cloth such is the appeal and desirability! One person’s trash is another’s treasure and one person’s vintage textile is another’s old fashioned and unwanted bedroom curtain.
The best vintage fabric acts as a window into another era: the design, colours and imagery captures a particular era. It can be precious stuff, but just using a few small pieces alongside modern prints can lift a project from the everyday to something special and one of a kind. Knowing where to find vintage fabric, how to care for it and when to mix it with your stash is easy if you follow some basic principles.
- Prewash every time. You may not do this with your modern fabrics but always prewash with vintage. It may be unused, carefully stored vintage material but the dyes may not be colourfast, and the fabric may shrink. Colour catchers are essential on the initial wash and some fabrics take more than wash to freshen up after years of storage. I machine wash any vintage cottons that I may one day use in a quilt as that must be able to cope with a washing machine cycle! I use a 30-degree programme and non-biological washing powder. Biological powders have enzymes to remove stains; they effectively eat the grease particles but as a result they can also weaken your fabric and lighten the colours, so are generally best avoided if possible. I prefer to cut around the marks on stained fabric rather than soak for a long time in detergent and risk damaging a fabric beyond repair.
- Identify your fibres. It can be hard with vintage fabrics to know what the fabric is made from- these fabrics don’t tend to come with a care label! Linen and cotton crease and crumple easily but respond well to ironing. Poly cotton is harder to work with, can bobble and be a little slippy to work with. The ‘feel’ of a fabric can give you an idea of the contents- no creases even after you scrunch it up hints at some manmade fibre in the mix. A fabric that feels cool to the touch and drapes easily usually means there is rayon or maybe viscose fibre present. A burn test can help to identify if a fabric is natural or has a synthetic element. Great care must be taken when doing this as you are dealing with the unknown. I use metal kitchen tongs, long matches, a large metal container and a bucket of water for my testing to stay safe! You only need to test tiny pieces- 1 inch squares are sufficient and it is often safer to work outside as some fabrics give off a pungent smell. Use a fabric that you already know the content of as your ‘control’ subject. If your test scrap is 100 % cotton, observing it gives you the perfect comparison for your unknown fabric. Cotton burns with an even steady flame, a natural smell like burning leaves and leaves a crumbly ash. Linen burns more slowly and the ash is dusty and fragile. Manmade or natural manmade blends which include polyester/acrylic or nylon smell more pungent, the burning fibres start to melt into a ball and falling particles will burn your skin so great care is needed. The resulting ash of manmade fabric tends to be hard rather than dusty. A burn test can only give you some idea of fibre and I tend to rely on how the fabric looks and feels more than anything else.
- Vintage or repro? How can you tell if what you have found is a genuine vintage fabric and not just a modern reproduction of an old design? The width can provide a clue. Vintage cotton fabric pre 1950s tends to have a narrow width with a 36” selvedge-to-selvedge measurement. From 1950s onwards this increases to the measurements we see today, generally 44”, so width can help identify a fabric but it is an inexact science.
- Think outside the fabric box. Table linens, dressing table mats, handkerchiefs, sheets, tea towels, pillowcases, aprons, curtains, cushion covers- all make good vintage fabric sources. I never find bolts of vintage fabric when I am scrabbling in a pile of rags at a market but I find lots of napkins and linen coasters- many unused with hand embroidered motifs- they can all be used and will add a unique feature to your makes. Look out for other sewing paraphernalia too like threads, fastenings and buttons that you may want to display or use in your sewing.
- Beware of sunlight. Beware of fabric stacked on open shelves. Fabric does look pretty stacked in colour order on a bookcase but the sunlight will fade the colours and weaken the fibres and vintage fabrics are especially vulnerable.
- Dip into your stash. With the best prints being hard to come by, we often end up hoarding vintage fabric rather then using it. The good news is a little can go along way. Don’t use your last piece of your favourite vintage fabric to experiment with a new bag pattern- test the pattern with a less precious fabric first! Many craft projects work with scraps and a teeny piece of your precious vintage stash is enough to lift and enhance whatever you are making and add a little touch of vintage charm. Small pieces of your favourite prints also work well framed in mini embroidery hoops or tiny picture frames.
Where to buy
Online: eBay, Etsy, Folksy and vintage online specialists such as Donna Flower Vintage or Vintage Fabrics. You may find a bargain online but be prepared to pay a bit more for someone who has found the fabric for you and has checked its quality and researched the design.
Carboot sales, church sales, friends clearing out, jumble sales and charity shops are all good sources for vintage textiles but they are often full of other people looking for the same thing! Be prepared to get there early or visit frequently. Jumble sales in more rural and remote areas can be more fruitful than those in well-populated cities. Vintage shops, fabric fairs and rag markets have sprung up in the last few years and many sell sewing paraphernalia. Prices tend to be on the high side but you may find a bargain.
Building your vintage stash takes time. I’ve collected my vintage fabrics over many years. Swapping small pieces with sewing friends is a great way to increase variety. Remember, you don’t need yards and yards of fabric; just a small collection of vintage scraps can greatly enrich your stash and add an individual touch to your projects.
Find out more about Kerry and find several useful tutorials on her blog: http://www.verykerryberry.blogspot.co.uk