I’ve started talking a bit with a seller on Etsy, which started because I bought some beautiful fabric from her that she estimated to be from the 1930s. I sent her a message asking how she figured out the age of fabric, because I was curious, and that started a whole back and forth conversation of the sort that is had between two people who love old things. And in case you’re wondering the same thing I was:
The two Worlds wars are quite big guides for 20th Century fabrics because each one marked the end of non essential textile production for the duration and styles and technology changed quite dramatically after each one. So there might be a little bit of overlap, a small factory picking up with the pre-war production afterwards.
The older fabrics are always narrower than modern copies and mostly you will find that the textile is much finer. The one you bought has a very dense weave, if you look the individual threads are very fine and the threadcount is very high.
This is the fabric I bought:
The woman who sold this to me lives in a village in France, not too far from where I live, and I’m starting to want to go visit because it sounds like a place that is packed with the ghosts of clothes-making past: “My 85 year old neighbour tells me that his grandfather used to weave sacks from hemp for a living. The bakery opposite my house used to be the place where they unwound cocoons from silk worms, washing the filaments in the clear mountain water before sending them to Lyon to be twisted and dyed into threads for the silk industry. There used to be a couture school in my village, so that although the area is rural with a historic peasant culture, early photographs of the village girls show them wearing incredibly stylish clothes that they have made themselves.”
I only discovered Etsy last month when it occurred to me that maybe I could find some interesting fabric there that I can’t get here. I was hesitant about buying something so tactile online, but I haven’t been disappointed, especially because there are loads of vintage fabrics and for that the pickings are particularly slim where I live. I did a search for sellers of vintage fabric in France — both to buy local(ish) and avoid import taxes at the border <– I’ve learned about the latter the hard way — and even with relatively narrow search criteria it was really, really hard to narrow down my shopping basket to my budget because there was so much to choose from. Everything’s arrived and so now I’m starting to get to work on what to make with my not-technically-new-but-new-to-me stash. With the above three meters of fabric I’m going to make a dress with the Belladone pattern from Deer and Doe, and I’ll eventually find a good pattern for the others.
I turned to Etsy for fabric (and to my local sewing shop, which I’ll write about in another post) because my stash was filled with a mish-mash of second-hand things I got at thrift stores in the name of recycling, but which I don’t really like all that much, in addition to a big heap of cheap cotton jersey that I got in Madrid when we were there visiting my in-laws over Christmas.
The story on that:
Madrid has an enormous variety of fabric stores, of course because it’s a big city but also because it was historically a center for textiles and clothes making. The area around Puerta del Sol and Plaza Mayor in particular is packed with fabric shops and haberdashers. While out on a family walk my mother-in-law led us down those streets so I could check it all out, but it was so intensely overwhelming that I couldn’t think about buying anything: picture the busiest farmer’s market you’ve ever seen, multiply it by 100 and replace vegetables with buttons and that is Madrid’s textiles and haberdasher neighborhood: big, loud shops with a long counter separating the public from the salespeople, walls of buttons and zippers and ribbons and more stocked behind the counter and shoppers pointing and shouting over the counters at the salespeople to move a bit to the left, now up, and yes those buttons, those! Since I didn’t have anything specific in mind, and it wasn’t really an environment for browsing, I admired the chaos and we continued on to go stuff ourselves with cotton candy at the Christmas market and buy my niece a fluorescent green mermaid wig and Santa hat, which she wore together for the entire rest of the day.
I had grand plans to get lots of stash fabric during our time there (because Madrid is way less expensive than where I live) but somehow never got around to it in the two weeks we were there. Finally, the day before we left, while everyone else was lying around in a holiday food and wine coma, I set off by myself to go fabric hunting. I wound up in the La Latina neighborhood based off of some online reviews of fabric shops there, but it was already late and things were closing soon and I didn’t have any clear idea in my mind of what I was looking for. And I also made the mistake of going to the biggest store on my list, and I can’t really deal with big stores because too much choice blinds my senses. So I wandered around this big store, not liking anything and feeling slightly stressed, when finally it occurred to me that what I really needed (and when I say needed, I mean wanted) was a bunch of jersey in solid colors. I suddenly had a vision in my head of churning out piles of basic t-shirts. I would fill out my wardrobe with startling speed and thus be able to start wearing all my brightly colored and patterned things that I had hitherto never really worn because I never buy or make basics. Hell yes, that was the answer. I would become a basic-making machine.
So I bought a grand mass of cheap cotton-ish jersey from origins unknown, and I now deeply regret that purchase. I’ve made one black tank top with some of the fabric from this haul, and I’ve worn it maybe five or six times and it’s already fading and pilling, despite the fact that I wash everything but my running clothes and my schlepping clothes on the delicates cycle. Contrast that to the blue shirt refashion I wrote about in my last post, which I have worn repeatedly over the course of more than a year and it shows no signs of age — and it had already been worn by someone before me! I have no idea of its age, but judging from the dressmaker’s tag on the inside of the original dress I would guess the 1970s or so.
My Etsy seller pen pal pointed out this difference in quality in not just fast fashion clothes today, but also fast fabric: “I know from my older neighbours that when they bought new clothes, or the fabric to make them, they chose the best quality they could afford and expected their clothes to last. A big contrast with lots of mass produced textiles now that don’t always survive the first wash.”
The price of a lot of the vintage fabric I’ve found on Etsy is well within what I can allow myself to pay for fabric, and I’ve also discovered several French fabric companies producing very nice organic textiles today (found them thanks to my local sewing shop) that are a little more expensive but that are still within budget for smaller things like t-shirts. (Because we’re also talking cotton and the like, not handwoven silk, so it stays manageable.)
The contrast between the flimsy jersey I bought in Madrid and my purchases since then is astounding. Meter for meter what I bought in Madrid is much cheaper by far, but much cheaper fabric makes clothing that falls apart and looks old after four wears. The black tank top I made from the cheap stuff is already teetering on the edge of becoming schlepwear, and it takes me way too much time to sew even a simple shirt for it to reach bumming around the house status after a handful of wears.
I know I’m not the only sewist who has gotten lost along the way and started getting into a mindset of mass production, because I’ve seen and heard similar stories and comments along these lines. It’s funny that we fall into this trap. I’m chalking it up partly to being over enthusiastic in newfound skills and creativity, but I think it’s also symptomatic of the world we live in: having a full closet and options options options is the current normal. That is most likely the big reason why I was pulled toward mass production, rather than seeing sewing as my Etsy friend’s eldery neighbors saw it, always buying the best I can afford so I can make things to last, rather than simply replicating the very industry I try so hard to shun.