Collector's Corner: Hot Vintage Fabrics
By Linda Goucher
The trends in vintage fabrics seem to move in sync with other collectibles. When items from the 50s are in vogue, so are the fabrics. Just as fashions from previous decades are imitated, so fabric manufacturers bring back the look of yesterday in today’s prints. But for the purist, the collector who wants the genuine article, vintage fabrics continue to be sought after for collecting and decorating.
Some of today’s hot fabrics are cowboy prints and bark cloth. Cowboy prints include scenes from the old west; rodeos, bucking broncos and maybe a Davy Crockett or two. It’s not unusual to see bids for westerns spike to as much as $15 a yard. I picked up a little girl's skirt from a thrift store for 50 cents. Because it was printed with a cowboy comic it sold on eBay for $14. Watch out for reproductions though. The new fabrics are often described as “vintage cowboys” rather than vintage fabric.
Bark cloth is a nubby linen-like fabric, often heavy enough to use for upholstery projects. The prints I’ve seen are often large scaled flowers, loosely designed prints in mostly muted hues. However, orange and olive green are not uncommon. In frequenting fabric stores, I have not yet seen barkcloth come back in newly made fabrics, keeping demand for the old stuff high. To pay $10 - $20 per yard for decorator fabric is not unreasonable. New fabric of this weight and quality can run much higher, but given the fact that barkcloth can be found at yard sales and such for $2 to $3 per piece (often more than a yard), there is certainly the potential for profit.
Feed sacks remain popular and probably always will. The shear number of quilts made during the 1930s insures the need for period fabrics to keep them in repair. Not only that, quilters love to make “new from old” to mimic their favorite antique quilts. There is a whole network of people out there specifically shopping for feedsacks, thus creating a category of its own.
When shopping for or listing vintage fabrics on eBay or some other online auction, there are a few things to bear in mind. Sources of fabric are not only found in yardage. Retired curtains and printed tablecloths are a good place to find recyclable fabrics. One clue for shoppers is the use of the word “material.” My mom has been sewing all her life and as a kid I spent hours hiding among the drapes of fabric that hung down from the display rounds. Only, back then, my mom was always looking at “material,” a term that has since been replaced by the word “fabric.” Some bargains can still be found by checking your search under “material.”
Another little known secret in the search for antique fabrics is in its width. Selvage to selvage, the standard width of cotton fabric today is usually 44 or 45 inches. In genuinely old calicos, the width may be 35 or 36 inches. This, however, is merely a clue. Some really cheap fabric in the past few decades was made in these widths.
There is a certain amount of detective work involved in online shopping. That’s part of the fun! Check the sellers' other auctions for other items from the same source, ask questions, and bid with a certain amount of risk factored in. Smart sellers know that the more facts they can give, the higher the bidding is likely to go.
A simple generalization for sellers deciding whether to take a shot at listing yard-sale fabrics is this: desirable vintage fabric of the ordinary variety will most likely yield a price comparable to the “per yard” price of today’s fabric. About $3 - $5 per yard for cottons and up to $15 for decorator-weight fabrics should put you in the ballpark. Stay away from polyester for now. Poly/cotton blends are likely to leave you without bidders unless the print is something really special.
For fabric lovers, getting “stuck” with a piece of fabric that wasn’t quite right is not usually a problem. Building your stash is all part of the race. Whoever dies with the most vintage fabric, WINS!
About the author:
Linda Goucher has been collecting and studying antique quilts for about ten years. On a limited budget, she has often settled for a few quilt blocks, old fabric scraps or old quilts in need of repair. Persistence over the years has yielded a collection of roughly 30 quilts or tops and boxes of discarded fabric. Her library consists of roughly 40 books pertaining to old quilts. Many were the result of quilt documentation projects that occurred in the late 1980s or 1990s. She started selling on eBay last April under the name oldman*21771, but admits that her expertise in vintage fabrics comes more from bidding than listing.
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