I look at, touch, and buy lots of vintage textiles for Wear the Shift ... and folks always ask where I get 'em and how I decide what to buy ... so I thought it might be fun to share some of my hard-earned knowledge with you on the blog today!
Where to buy
Ebay, of course, has some great deals and a lot of stuff to choose from. Of course, much of it is poorly photographed / poorly described / crappy, so make sure you ask lots of questions, request additional photos, or whatever you need to do to make sure you're buying what you think you're buying. All that being said, I have found many amazing fabrics on Ebay for fantastic prices ... so be cautious but not scared!
Etsy also has a great selection of vintage fabrics. Both prices and quality are a bit higher, and the customer service of the vast majority of Etsy sellers has been great. I also appreciate the fact that most Etsy sellers are not just selling whatever they find -- they are curating stuff that they think is cool. As you look around, you will find sellers whose editorial eye meshes with your own tastes -- bookmark them and watch their new listings.
Thrift stores are incredibly hit or miss, but I have found some of my very favorite fabrics there, like Peak Experience which I'm making for myself this week! (The cobbler is finally getting some new shoes! Woo hoo!) I don't have a lot of spare time to hit the thrifts regularly right now, but I do end up stopping in to my favorite shop a couple times a month, and I find something I like more often than not. The prices also tend to be insanely good.
Word of mouth has gotten me some great fabrics, too. Wear the Shift was actually started using a huge stash of double-knits and wool blends that I was given by my friend Sarah's mom -- thanks, Ruth!
I also picked up several bags of sweet stuff from an awesome lady I met at a the Geek Arts/Green Innovators conference. Once people know you are looking for vintage fabric, you'll be surprised at who has some rad cuts that they want to get rid of! Put it out on Facebook and see what fate and your friends bring you.
It's also worth doing a search on Craigslist every now and then to see if anyone's getting rid of their stash. Like thrift shops, Craigslist can be very hit or miss, but it's easy to check out, and estate sales can be great fun!
What to buy
OK, so now you know where to look for deals. What are you likely to find, and what should you buy?
Part of it, of course, depends on what you like. Some people (like me!) adore a funky polyester double-knit, and others can't abide synthetic fabrics at all. Take a minute to think about and identify what you're looking for -- every preference you can use to limit the selection is only going to make your search easier. Here's a little more detail about the vintage textiles I look for in particular.
There is a LOT of double-knit in the world, and it varies greatly in how nice it is. Fortunately, it is also fairly cheap, so you can afford to take some risks with your purchases. Watch out for lightweight DKP in pale colors, as they are extremely hard to wear without an arsenal of crazy undergarments. Closeup shots can be really helpful in figuring out how a fabric will feel, especially when you can't actually touch it, so don't be afraid to ask an online seller for extra photos if you need them.
Many of the fabrics you shop for online will be called "cotton" when really they are not -- just something to be aware of. Also, remember that crisp cotton dresses will probably need to be ironed before you wear them. I actually enjoy ironing (this is how I know I'm getting old) ... but not everyone does, so do what works for you.
Also, lots of vintage cottons are pretty narrow, only 35 or 36 inches wide. Make sure you double check that you will have enough fabric to complete your pattern, as most commercial patterns are designed for 46-60" wide fabrics.
Drapery is a category I always try to check out online and especially in person at thrift stores. There are many drapes out there that you will want nowhere near your skin -- fiberglass!! blerg!! -- but there are some super beautiful nice-feeling ones, too. Look for fabrics that are described as soft, drapey, or cotton -- though very few vintage drapes are actually all cotton, that's usually a signifier that it at least feels like cotton.
A special note on barkcloth drapes: Be aware, especially when buying online, that not all barkcloths are created equal. Some feel not very nice, and in fact many of the items sold as barkcloth are not really barkcloth. And folks tend to jack the prices up since barkcloth is so hot right now.
Also, when buying drapes to use in garment-making, keep an eye on the scale of the pattern of the fabric. If the scale is super huge, you may very well end up looking like you are wearing drapes. Again, if you can't tell what's going on from the pictures, ask the seller.
Acrylics can range from lightweight and barkcloth-y to heavy and upholstery-ish. Both can be lovely ... but I've also bought some pieces that ended up being so splitty and annoying that I elected to chuck them rather than destroy my sanity by continuing to work with them. Watch out for acrylics described as having a "loose weave" -- the kiss of death! On the upside, most acrylic blends tend to be very soft against the skin.
What else can I tell you about vintage fabrics? Got any questions or listings you have your eye on that you'd like to help me decode? Or any favorite places for finding awesome old stuff? Leave a comment and let me know what you think!
(Thanks for the photo, marywasadj!)