Category Archives: Novelty Prints

The Cowichan Indian Sweater

I pulled this great little booklet out of a Goodwill bin, along with some other vintage booklets about Native American textiles.  What really interested me about this one was the section on knitted goods made by Vancouver Island Indians.  I know that knitting is not what generally springs to mind when thinking of Native textiles, but the Cowichan sweater is a special story.

In the early days of ebay chat boards, I loved to read the Vintage Fashion Board.  This was in the late 1990s, or maybe early 2000s, long before any vintage blogs or other sources of information online.  It was the best vintage education I could have gotten because it was an open discussion about anything and everything about old clothes.

One discussion I remembered in particular involved Mary Maxim and Cowichan sweaters.  As ebay was growing (exploding, actually) one of the big concerns was using key words so buyers could find what they wanted through searching.  For some reason, probably due to some “expert” on the board giving bad information, sellers started using the term Cowichan to describe Mary Maxim sweaters.

The only things the two sweaters really have in common is the use of a heavy multi-ply yarn in their making and often, the depiction of wildlife.  Mary Maxim is a company that sold knitting charts and yarns to home knitters.  The patterns are pictorial in nature, with themes like fishing or bowling or airplanes, usually in bright colors on a tan background.  They are best described, I suppose, as novelty sweaters.  Cowichan sweaters are hand knit by Indians on Vancouver Island, often with geometric patterns, but also depicting local wildlife.  They are knit in neutral colors of wool.

In the course of the ebay discussion, some knowledgeable person finally showed up and set us all straight about the Cowichan.  To use the term Cowichan to describe any bulky hand knit was just wrong, and to be honest, ignorant.  It was a good lesson for me, not to rely on the word of people I don’t really know.  Do my own research and be careful with the details.  Of course it is much easier now, fifteen years later.  The amount  of information on the internet is far beyond anything I imagined in 2000.  And it helps that today I know many people online whose knowledge I can trust.

Following is the text from the booklet, Indian Weaving, Knitting, Basketry of the Northwest, by Elizabeth Hawkins.  It was published in 1978.

Knitting is a modern technique that was introduced by early Scottish settlers to Vancouver Island Indians.  Today, Native knitting is predominated by the Salish women knitting the famous Cowichan Indian sweaters, and to a lesser extent, tams, socks, mitts and ponchos.  Many women still spin and dye their own wool both because of the handcrafted touch it gives and to keep the cost down.  Many of the sweaters are knitted in the round using as many as eight needles and therefore produce a seamless garment.

There is such a demand today for these sweaters that I was recently told that on two of the Vancouver Island reserves every woman of age commercially knits.  While the southern Vancouver Island and Fraser Valley tribes are the predominant knitters the demand is encouraging a similar home industry in northern villages as well.


Geometric patterns predominate in primitive Salish design but more modern designs often incorporate wildlife.  Thunderbird, eagle, killer whale and deer are crest figures often portrayed.

Duncan Fall Fair brings forth competition among Cowichan knitters.

I thought the spindles were really interesting.  I’ve never seen a spinning wheel adapted from an old treadle sewing machine.

Note the Scottish influence in the sweaters hanging behind the happy spinners.  I love that argyle.  The snowflake is interesting as well.  It looks like other knitting designs such as Scandinavian were being appropriated into the Cowichan.


Filed under Curiosities, Novelty Prints, Vintage Clothing

Bill Atkinson, Glen of Michigan Shorts Set; Early 1960s

Bill Atkinson for Glen of Michigan is one of those labels that one has either never heard of, or that brings back fond memories of great sportswear.   From 1950 through 1970 architect  Bill Atkinson was the designer at Glen of Michigan.  Atkinson accidentally found he had a talent for fashion after he designed a square dance skirt for his wife.  Made from eight bandannas, the skirt was a big hit.  Atkinson decided to make them to sell, and found a company willing to take on his order, Glen Manufacturing, a maker of women’s house dresses.  In 1951 he released his first full line of sportswear separates.  This set falls in the middle of Atkinson’s career at Glen, sometime in the early 1960s.

Sets like this one are enough to make one long for the days when the American sportswear industry was at its best.  Today the cute kite print would be expected to carry the entire design, but a quick look at the details of this blouse show the types of things that made Glen special.  It would have been simpler to have all the buttons one color, but there are three different colors used, all pulled from the print.

The buttons on the sleeves are all different, and the other sleeve has a different combination.

I forgot to photograph the outfit with the shirt tucked in, but included is the matching belt.

This looks like a skirt, but it was culottes, and in most places a girl could have worn this set to school without bringing the dress code police running.

The shorts even have side seam pockets.

As I’ve said before, it is always a treat when I find all the components of an outfit.  So many times the belts are lost or separated from the set when donated to a thrift store or when an estate is sold.  In this case the seller had bought the entire contents of an estate, and all I had to do was wade through the piles of clothes to locate the matching pieces.


Filed under Novelty Prints, Vintage Clothing

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, Southern Textiles

Circa 1960s Golf Set by Serbin

One of the difficult things about collecting clothing is that often one finds just part of an ensemble.  As a collector of sportswear that often does not matter, but it is always a treat to find an outfit in its entirety.  Having the top or the skirt of this set would be nice, but it is so much better having both, plus the matching belt.

Serbin was founded in 1943 by brothers  Lewis and John Serbin in Cleveland, Ohio.  In 1951 Lewis Serbin moved his family and the family business to Florida.  There the company focused on golf wear and casual dresses.  The Serbins had a daughter, Marianne, and I’m guessing that she is the Mari*Anne on the label.  At some time she married and her name was Marianne Serbin Friedman.

The quilted skirt is covering a pair of shorts made from the same fabric as the top.  It feels to be a cotton/poly blend.  The buttons are a type that was popular in the late 1960s, ball-shaped plastic covered by a matte paint. There is a nylon zipper in the shorts and in the back of the top.

The belt matches the bias trim on the top and the skirt.

I have not firmed up a date, but my best guess is late 1960s.  Besides the buttons, there are other clues.  The A-line shape of the skirt was a popular one at that time, as was the cotton/poly fabric.  I’ve not shown any of the interior details, but the seams are pinked instead of serged.  That tends to mean a manufacture before the mid 1970s when the serger became widely used, but it pays to remember that smaller companies could not always invest in the latest machinery.

Novelty prints are really more associated with the Seventies than they are the Sixties, but when it comes to golf wear, anything goes.  Any other thoughts?

And I’d sure love to hear from the Serbin family.


Filed under Novelty Prints, Proper Clothing, Sportswear, Summer Sports, Vintage Clothing

An Engineered Novelty Print, 1950s

Click to enlarge


What you are seeing above is one of two halves of a print that was designed to be made into a circle skirt.  Circle skirts were a huge fad in the 1950s and into the early years of the 1960s, and there are dozens and dozens of prints to be found.  Many are an all over print that the sewer cut the skirt from in regular fashion.  Some were border prints that were designed to be made into gathered or pleated versions of the skirt.  One could even buy pre-printed pie wedges that were sewn together to form the skirt.

But this is the first time I’d ever seen an actual half circle printed onto the fabric.  I got this from another collector who I found through Facebook, of all places.  I’ve finally found a use for Facebook – finding stuff to buy.

I know I don’t have to explain why this print had to be in my collection.  The ski theme combined with a passion for novelty prints made it easy to set up a deal for this print.

According to the other collector, she got this fabric from a seller in the United Kingdom.  I already thought that the print had a certain European look to it.

What made this really interesting was that one of the two pieces was stamped with the rectangle you see above.  For the life of me I could not figure out what language this was, but sharper eyes at the Vintage Fashion Guild pointed out that this was actually in English.

____________AND WASHING

SDC is the Society of Dyers and Colourists, which is a British group that dates back to the nineteenth century.  That knowledge does not help date the fabric, but it does mean that it was made in the UK.

UPDATED, (but still open to interpretation!):


Unlike the printed wedge-shaped skirt pieces that were made in the United States, there are no instructions printed on this fabric.  It is possible that it came with instructions on paper, but if so, they have been lost.

Novelty prints are having a bit of a moment in the vintage world.  I started buying travel themed skirts about twelve years ago, and I never paid more than $35 for one.  Now they are bringing three or more times that, and there are many collectors who are always looking for the rarer and more desirable designs.  High on the list are two skirts that were licensed from Disney’s Lady and the Tramp.  Both skirts were of the printed wedge variety.

Also highly desired are skirts made from fabrics designed by artist Saul Steinberg.  There prints are not signed, but all are stamped  “A Regulated Cotton – Never Misbehaves” in the selvage.

Of course, being highly desirable means that these prints are now being reproduced.  The Lady and the Tramp print is being made as a border print, and at least two companies are making clothes from modern adaptations of Saul Steinberg fabrics.

To see examples of the printed wedge fabrics and to see vintage catalog pages of novelty prints, there is a great Facebook media set.

I had planned to turn the fabric into a skirt, but now that I have it I think it is more interesting as fabric panels.


Filed under Collecting, Novelty Prints

My New Favorite Martex Design

Look familiar?  If you’ve been reading The Vintage Traveler for a month, then you’ll recognize this Martex design from a earlier post where I showed a modern dress that used a modified version of a Mid Century Martex print found on a linen towel.  I was delighted to get the same towel, but in blue in the mail the other day.

It was a gift from Mod Betty of Retro Roadmap, who had found the dress that sparked my original post.  Sometimes I think I ought to put Mod Betty (along with a few others who are always sending great leads my way) on the payroll.  But then I remember that there is no payroll, so MB ends up getting paid the same as I do.

I find the current obsession with mid 20th century design to be interesting, and a bit amusing.  Being born in 1955, I was surrounded with “modern” design.  When a generation that had not been as exposed to this design rediscovered it ten or fifteen years ago, I thought it a bit odd.  What was so commonplace to me looked fresh and exciting to their eyes.  And I can see that they were right.

I can’t see myself living in a house surrounded by the artifacts of my childhood, but I look at the Mid Century houses of so many of my online friends and I can easily see the appeal of the style.  I realize that I was very lucky to grow up surrounded by good design.  Well, except for the lamps, and I’m sorry, but the Fifties and Sixties saw the birth of some mighty ugly lamps.

I bet there is a black version of this one.


When  it comes to textile design, I really think that the designers of the 1940s through 60s were at the top of the game.  The simplicity of these Martex towels say “Cocktail Time” without the overly cutesy-ness of similar designs being made today.

Thanks so much, Beth!


Filed under Collecting, Curiosities, Novelty Prints

1930s Baby Fabric Reproduction

Some of the very best vintage feedsack designs are those that were designed for babies and small children.  To look at this photo, you might think that is what I’m showing.  But take a closer look.

This is actually a cotton flannel, and it is not vintage.  It’s still really cute.

Since we were talking about the blurred lines between old fabrics, and those that are meant to look old I wanted to show this relatively recent fabric and the print in the selvage.

Copyright Judie Rothermel for Marcus Bros. Textiles, Inc. 1930’s

A quick google reveals that Ms. Rothermel is a textile designer who seems to specialize in “fabric reproductions.”  In order for it to be a true reproduction, it has to be a copy or a duplicate of an original.  I suspect that these fabrics are actually adaptations of old fabrics, and not faithful reproductions.  At any rate, they look “vintage-y” enough that without the selvage they could fool people who are not experts on 1930s prints.  And that includes me.

This is just another case of how difficult telling old from new has become.  People who handle this type of thing a lot would not be fooled, but I suspect that after a few washings this fabric is going to look even more vintage.

If you have not been in a large fabrics store in recent years, especially one that deals in quilting cottons, you might be very surprised at the huge variety of prints that are designed to look vintage.  If you are familiar with the graphics of an era, say the early Sixties, then you will see that there are things that often give the new designs away.  Sometimes the colors have been updated, or they tend to deal with themes that we in 2014 have assigned to an era, such as martini glasses for the early Sixties.

I’m not saying that these fabrics are bad, but it really does pay to be aware of the new, even when collecting the old.

In the 1970s laws were passed that require that the sleepwear of small children be made of fire-retardant fabrics.  Personally, I can’t imagine for what one would use a warm,soft fabric printed with little bunnies except sleepwear.  I wonder how many rebellious mommies out there  have ignored the selvage and made junior’s jammies from fabric not impregnated with fire-retardant chemicals.


Filed under Novelty Prints, Viewpoint