Borrowing from Tammis Keefe

I recently had the great pleasure of spending a little time vintage shopping with Lisa Durfee who owns Five and Diamond Vintage in Hudson, New York.  She was visiting her mom who lives in my area, so we were able to get together for a bit to look for vintage treasures.

Probably the cutest find of the day was this 1950s cat skirt.  I’ve seen similar skirts that were made from printed wedges of fabric.  The sewer had only to cut out the wedges, sew them into the shape of a circle skirt, attach a zipper and a waistband, and do a hem.  It was easy, patternless sewing, with the only adjustments needed being the waist size and the hem.

I hope you can tell how the sections were cut out and sewn together.  This photo shows white edges along the seam allowance.  This was printed onto white cotton.

You can see the seams where the wedges were joined.

I also noticed how much this looked like the work of Tammis Keefe, and when I got home I was able to confirm my suspicions.

The second photo is of a tea towel that I sold on etsy several years ago.  Without the bell, it’s the same design.  There is also a hankie that Keefe designed with the large cat and several kittens, and that hankie seems to be the source of the kittens on the skirt.

This is not the first time I’ve written about the work of Tammis Keefe being used and not credited.  In fact, I went back to my prior posts, and one of them linked to a post at the textiles blog, True Up, in which you can see what I was trying so hard to describe above – the original printed skirt fabric.

There is always a copying controversy or two going on in the fashion world, but the truth is that in the US, it is not possible to copyright a clothing design.  It is, however, possible to copyright graphic design, which this is.  So why is it that we see so many Tammis Keefe copies?

The answer might be found in the fact that Keefe worked for firms such as Kimball (hankies), Falfax (linens) and Goodall (home design fabrics) rather than for herself.  It is most likely that the companies for whom she worked were the actual copyright holders of the designs she did for them.  In that case, they would have been free to sell her work to other makers without giving her the credit for the designs.  And as far as I can tell, none of these companies is still in business, in which case their design assets often become a giant (and probably not legal) free-for-all.

In contrast, consider Vera Neumann, who designed for her own company from the very beginning of her career, and who was careful to make sure everyone knew that her work was copyrighted.  Even after she sold The Vera Company, it retained the sole right to use her work, and today the company’s owner exercises control over how Vera’s work is used by other companies.  It’s an amazing success story of using the law correctly to protect the integrity of Vera’s work.  It’s a shame that other designers did not always have Vera’s savvy and luck in regards to copyright protection.


Filed under Curiosities, Designers, Viewpoint, Vintage Clothing

18 responses to “Borrowing from Tammis Keefe

  1. Great detective work Lizzie. That red skirt with cat print is adorable too! 🙂


  2. Goodness! That is super cute! And I agree with Catwalk there, great detective work! 😉


  3. I was there holding up the skirt for you to photograph , but only now am I noticing that the kitties are dancing around a maypole, kind of echoing the design of the skirt. So cute.


  4. For some reason, the True Up site seems to be down, but I do suggest that anyone who cannot visualize my description of the fabric should check back to click through to see it.


  5. The True Up site was working fine just now and I saw the skirt fabric. Fascinating info on Tammis vs Vera and copyright.

    I was reading through some American Fabrics magazines at a library yesterday and thought of you. I saw lots of cool info but didn’t make any discoveries.


  6. Enjoyed seeing the charming kitty cat skirt…plus reading the copy right info. Your vast knowledge amazes me. Thanks much…Marge


  7. Teresa

    Oh, those little kittens are adorable! Love the design.


  8. That skirt is gorgeous, very interesting to see how it’s made too.


  9. Adorable print–I like it in the color scheme on your tea towel even more! Great eye and detective work, Lizzie.


  10. This is so cute–and I would love to see the concept available to us now! As for design copyrights: it is amazing to me how many well know vintage graphics are currently being copied for profit. I have seen new mugs with Franciscan pottery designs on them. I guess that even among crunchy crafters ‘business ethics’ is a loose term.


  11. ourdailydress

    That sounds like a skirt that would be within my skill range to make! And I am so glad I found this post because I had no idea about Tammis and now realize I dress I wore the other day was made from the same kitten print. Amazing! You can see it here:


    • Adorable! That Tammis Keefe tribute fabric has been released by the firm of Michael Miller. There are several prints including your cats, a similar one in dogs, an owl and a Christmas print with reindeer. They even printed her signature on it to make sure people would know the connection.


  12. How cute!
    And detetive work humm!


  13. Great post Lizzie! That skirt is an adorable find and I could not have given up that tea towel. It’s true that whatever copyright protection Tamis Keefe would have had while she lived is over now and her designs are probably in the public domain. Regardless, I do dislike it when an artist isn’t given attribution for their work. It is too bad that even today many people don’t realize that under current law copyright protection starts as soon as the pen is put to page, so to speak.


  14. Pingback: Betsey Johnson Meets the Spring Maid | The Vintage Traveler

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