Antique Fabric Swatches Need a Date

One of the reasons I keep returning to my local Goodwill Outlet bins is because I never know what will be found there.  It truly is a giant treasure hunt, with some people hunting for gold in the book bins and others hunting for silver in the toy bins.  Like me, there are those who are looking for textile treasures, so I have to really keep my eyes open and ready to spot something interesting.  On a recent trip I found a plastic baggie full of what looked to be at first glance, swatches of reproductions of antique fabrics.  I threw the bag in my buggy anyway to give it a closer look.

A closer examination showed that every swatch was different and they were all the same size.  A previous owner had written “$5” on the baggie, and so these were left over from a sale of some sort.

While examining the pieces I noticed that on the backs were remnants of glue and even little scraps of paper.  These swatches had been torn out of a sample book, was my guess.

And one was still clinging to this piece of very old paper. At this point I was convinced that these swatches were actually antique fabrics.  My guess is that they were attached to a sample book or cards, and that someone removed them to use as quilt or crafting pieces.  That’s the sort of act that just breaks my heart, as it removes the object from some very vital information.  Who made these fabrics?  When were they marketed?  Are they American in origin?

It’s likely I’ll never know the answers to all my questions, but I’m sure there are some of you who can help me narrow down a date for them.  Using the information and photos in Eileen Jahnke Trestain’s book, Dating Fabrics: A Color Guide 1800 -1960 I’ve placed them in her category of 1880 through 1910.  I’d like something a bit more precise.

I was amazed at the sharpness of the colors…

And the modern look to some of the designs.

There was even an early novelty print, in the form of card suits.

There were several prints that were made in different colorways.

About half of the swatches have a black background, but there are also some pretty, light prints in pink and white.

And then, as now, black and white prints were a favored combination.

So please, if you can shed some light on the age of these lovely little pieces, post and enlighten this mid-century girl.  I’d also like suggestions on what to do with them.  Should I put them back in a book where they belong?  Pactchwork is out of the question!


Filed under Curiosities, Novelty Prints, Textiles

33 responses to “Antique Fabric Swatches Need a Date

  1. kherbaugh

    HI Lizzie, Can’t see all the pictures for some reason but from the ones I can see the fabrics likely date between 1892 and 1900. I gave a paper with a colleague in Italy this past fall at the Costume Colloquium in Florence, Italy.
    At ATHM we many different manufacturers that produced these “neons” for at least 8 years. It could be longer but we stopped at 1899. The interesting thing is I have only ever seen one garment made of these neons, which was about 12 years ago on Ebay. Despite their continue prevalence in the manufacturers sample books existing clothing seems to be elusive. There are also very few that have made it into quilts. I have found these bright colors in silk clothing of the time period. You did find a treasure.


    • Karen, thanks so much for this info. It’s really interesting that the “neons” were made for only a short period, and that so few garments remain that were made for this type fabric.


      • kherbaugh

        Maybe I will get lucky and one of your readers will know where some extant garments are!


          • Jessamyn

            I can’t help but wonder if perhaps they weren’t actually used for clothing. I am thinking, for example, of chintz (meaning the flowery, brightly-colored cotton, not polished cotton per se). Hugely popular in the 18th century for dresses, caracaos, etc., it gradually fell out of fashion for clothing in the early 19th century and by the middle of the century was relegated to home dec use for curtains, slipcovers, and the like. Then in the 1870s it suddenly had a huge resurgence for dresses with the 18th-century-inspired “Dolley Varden” fashions.

            Or take the “double pinks” that were used in some quilts of the mid-19th-century. If you looked for them in women’s clothes of the Civil War era you would be hard-pressed to find an example, because they were almost entirely reserved for children’s dresses.


          • kherbaugh

            The American Textile History Museum has 10 years worth of sample books by the four major producers of cotton prints (for clothing) in the 1890s with hundreds of examples of these “neons” so I think they were used for clothing.


          • It’s too bad that the photography was all in black and white, as photos of the era would provide valuable clues.


          • Jessamyn

            Perhaps the intensive colors were fugitive under washing-and-wearing conditions – although I imagine you’ve looked into that.


  2. poppysvintageclothing

    Love the one with the chrysanthemum looking flower and b & w wave and that red & white which although older has a very art deco look about it. Wouldn’t that card print one have made a great blouse for a bridge player!

    Great find!!!


  3. Popka Superstar

    Drive by comment that they look 1890s to me. I’ve often had the experience of initially thinking a fabric has to be 1960s, because it’s so bright and uses odd combinations of colour and pattern, only to discover it to be 1890s. Very possible from around 1900 but I wouldn’t put them later.


  4. I worked at Kovacks Fabric Shop when I was a teen…Milwlaukee 1949….and although they are beautiful….sorry I can not help you.
    They would made great background matts to photograph your old photos (the black and white prints).

    Or maybe use them to do decopage (misspelled) a large vase, dress form, tray,… or something else….even a table top or chest drawers.

    I think they would be great if you painted a chest of drawers black and covered the drawer fronts in the black and white prints. ??? Am I too far out of the box? smile.

    Your trips to the GoodWill Store always sound most interesting. Thanks for sharing.


  5. You might try looking through Barbara Brackman’s Material Culture blog.
    She is a textile historian, and posts all sorts of interesting things about colours, patterns, etc, of different eras. She has also written a couple of books about antique textiles, which might be useful if you can find one in a library.


  6. News to me that neon was used so long ago, thanks for that juicy bit of info … They are beautiful… Wish I had a goodwill like that near me 😛


  7. Another one for 1890’s. There were some mad modern looking prints in the 1890’s. Also, be careful with the blues – try to keep them out of the light if and when possible. Depending on the dye, they can turn a different color or they can eat away at the fabric when exposed to light for too long.


  8. What an education this blog is, Lizzie!


  9. I’ve retweeted your appeal, Lizzie, but it sounds like you’ve found the information you needed. Excellent!


  10. Christina

    Several of those designs look early 1930’s.


  11. I think I would make a book for these fabric swatches, and you can label them when you discover the information about each swatch. It is too bad they aren’t in their original book. As a girl, my mother brought home fabric swatch books as well as wallpaper swatch books from department stores. i remember spending time carefully looking at these books, and it probably explains my passion for vintage fabric. My design books don’t go back any farther than the 40s, so I can’t look these fabrics up. Good luck on your search, and I will keep my eyes open for you.


  12. This is a fantastic find!

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Pingback: Cruso Quilt Show, 2015 | The Vintage Traveler

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