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The Vintage Fabric Detective

My top tips on where to buy vintage fabrics

‘Where do you find the fabrics?’ is a common question I’m asked by customers and friends. I’ll admit, it isn’t easy finding vintage fabrics and I stumble to give a straight answer. Here is an attempt to share some of my vintage shopping secrets…

1. Look down

This might sound strange but in the years I have been buying vintage and remnant fabrics, I’ve noticed they are rarely given the space they deserve. I scour antique markets, vintage fairs, vintage and charity shops. My favourite pieces have been discovered hidden from view. I picked up a sunny piece of daisy cotton fabric at an outdoor antique market in Yorkshire. It was neatly tucked into in a box of table linens sheltering from a trestle table laden with antique keys. The last place I would have thought to look if I hadn’t trained my eyes to search at ground level. In excellent condition and over 2 metres long, all the fabric needed was a wash and press and was is ready to be made into a summer dress or cushion covers for garden chairs.

2. Charity shops

Buying vintage or remnant fabrics is a great way to recycle, giving a new lease of life to a piece of fabric that might otherwise be thrown away. Double the sustainability points if the fabric is bought from a charity shop. We can pat ourselves on the back for recycling, giving money to charity and picking up a bargain at the same time. Due to a suffering husband who has been dragged around most charity shops in the UK, I’m nimble at scouring a charity shop for fabrics in a matter of seconds. My top tip: head straight to the back of the shop. Sometimes bulkier fabrics are hanging with the linens or in a box shoved under a shelf. My best buys have been in charity shops by the English coast. I can only assume people by the sea like to buy more fabric than us city dwellers. Charity shops are my go to for haberdashery items. I have a rainbow stash of darning yarns that have been collected over the years along with a treasured vintage darning mushroom. The best charity shop I have found in the UK so far is The Big C distribution centre in Wymondham, Norfolk. A treasure trove of fabrics, haberdashery and craft items you never even knew you needed. All neatly categorised in baskets. I had to visit twice during my holiday to take it all in and came away with a car full.

3. Online marketplaces

I’ve had mixed experiences of buying fabric from sites such as Ebay and Etsy. Both are fantastic sources for haberdashery but I haven’t had as much luck buying fabric. I’ve paid over the odds for pieces that are beautiful but too small to make into anything other than a cushion. I’ve also bought pieces that look amazing in the photos. They claim to be original barkcloth but when they arrived I could tell they were reproductions and not vintage. They were still lovely fabrics and I was able to use them for my own projects but they were too pristine to be vintage barkcloth and they had a slight sheen to them. I’ve since seen the same prints elsewhere which signals they are unlikely to be vintage. Often, but not always, vintage fabrics are narrow in width, around 90cm. It can be very lucky to find over 2 metres of the same print, not unheard for granddaughters to discover whole bolts of fabric in their grandmother’s loft, but it is rare. I strive to offer authentic vintage fabrics on my shop and avoid reproductions.

4.Instagram

I haven’t been able to get out and about to source new stock due to the Covid-19 pandemic but Instagram has come to the rescue. Other vintage traders such as Anchors Aweigh have a fantastic stock of vintage fabrics. A pretty little shop based in Whitstable, they have been selling online via Instagram whilst their shop is closed. Today I picked up a bundle from @ladyboosalutesyou, a vintage fashion trader who stashed away vibrant vintage fabrics to create with. Lucky for me, she is having a lockdown clear out! Thanks to @london.vintage @shopatlovevintage @callingallhipstersvintage for helping me buy a great selection of fabrics. Many of vintage fair organisers are hosting virtual vintage fairs via Insta-stories. I’ve been following Pop_up_vintage every Thursday for fashion and accessories.

5. What is the fibre composition?

A downside of buying vintage fabric is that I rarely know the fibre composition. Using my experience of working with fabrics over the years I can make an educated guess. How does the fabric feel? How does it drape? What is the weave? For example vintage barkcloth is a distinctive hopsack weave with raised fibres within the twisted yarns. It has a distinctive matt feel and look to it and absorbs bright colours beautifully. Barkcloth is generally known to be made from cotton. Sometimes I get lucky and the fibre content is printed on the selvedge, especially on designer fabrics. Sue bought a length of fabric from my stand at last year’s Knitting & Stitching show. ‘Liberty’ was printed on the selvedge but it didn’t reveal the fibre content. Sue played detective and got it touch: ‘I tested the fabric before I began cutting it because I wasn’t sure if it was wool or cotton. It is so fine and most of us are used to using Liberty cotton fabrics. I thought if I wetted the fabric, it might smell like a wet jumper if wool, but not if it was cotton. My test worked! Customer Services at Liberty confirmed that they printed the design on fine wool.’ Sue used a great bit of initiative and made this beautiful ‘Rochester’ dress from a Mavern pattern. Another way to test the fibre composition is by conducting a burn test, which I covered on a previous blog post.

Sue made this gorgeous dress using vintage Liberty fabric and the Rochester pattern from Mavern patterns.

It takes a bit of detective work to find these beautiful vintage fabrics but it is worth it. I enjoy meeting friendly traders and customers on my journey around the UK. I get home and refresh the fabrics ready to sell on my vintage fabric shop. I’ll admit some of the fabrics end up on my keep pile so I can sit and look at them for a while or work out what to make with them. Let’s hope we can get out vintage shopping again this summer. I’d love to hear where you found a favourite piece of vintage fabric and the story behind it. Get in touch on sarah@oliveroad.london