Category Archives: Southern Textiles

1930s Chenille Bathing Suit Cover-up Cape

During a recent lucky streak, I ran across this fantastic cape, which is a bathing suit cover-up.  It is made from machine-made chenille, a fabric that started out as the product of a cottage industry in northern Georgia.  Based around the town of Dalton, Georgia, home workers began making hand tufted bedspreads to sell to travelers going south on the newly finished Dixie Highway.  A local textile mill, Crown Cotton, provided the base material, which is a heavy muslin-type fabric.  By 1910 the homeworkers were setting up stands along the highway to sell to the growing tourist travelers.

In 1917 a manufacturing process was set up. and some of the tufting was done by machine.  Hand tufting was still being done, but it was increasingly mechanized.  At first the product was just bedcovers, but by the 1920s some garments, such as bathrobes and beach wear, were also being made.

I can remember seeing the bedspread stands as a child traveling to visit relatives in the far western reaches of North Carolina and on the road to Atlanta.  Some of the designs were quite bizarre – wildly colored peacocks spring to mind.  And occasionally a stand can be spotted even today, but for the most part, the chenille factories converted to carpets years ago.

I can’t say a lot about the origin of the cape.  There is a small, handwritten label, that looks more like a collections number than anything else.  Could this cape have been in a collection before becoming a part of mine?  It is possible.

I do have two more chenille garments, one a bedjacket and the other a shorter cape.  None of them have  makers labels of any kind.

The neckline is gathered with a cotton robe tie.  There is an extra row of red chenille for decoration.

The back of the gathering.

I don’t have any photos showing a chenille cape, but I did find this jacket.  It is dated July 1939, Mountain Lake, New Jersey.

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Filed under Collecting, Curiosities, Proper Clothing, Southern Textiles, Sportswear, Summer Sports, Vintage Clothing

Currently Reading: A Fabric of Defeat

One of the things that makes fashion history so interesting to me is that there are hundreds of ways to approach it, and hundreds of subtopics to grab my attention.  Growing up in the South in a town that was dominated by its relationship with the local factory (paper, not textiles) and having relatives who worked in cotton mills from the 1930s through the 90s  has made me quite interested in the textile and garment industries of the Carolinas.

People often make the mistake of confusing the two states. The piedmont (the area between the coastal plain and the Appalachian Mountains) of both was textile country, but having different governing bodies meant that what applied in one state did not always apply to the other.  Being from North Carolina I am quite familiar with the labor movement here, and the struggles workers went through in order to have safe working conditions and a fair wage.  I knew about the deadly battles fought between unionizers and law enforcement in my state, but was ignorant of similar situations that happened just south of me.

I found A Fabric of Defeat: The Politics of South Carolina Millhands, 1910 – 1948 at my favorite Goodwill.  I’ve been reading it over the past month, interspersed with other, lighter reading.  It’s not that the reading is hard, but that it is difficult to digest.

There were quite a few truisms that I was exposed to in my days as a history student, and one of them was that it is rarely fair to judge the actions of people in the past by the mores of today.  Still, it is hard to come to grips with the way people were treated in factories, and also with the racism that kept Blacks out of the mills and in the worst kind of poverty.  It is especially true knowing that mill conditions have not really changed, they have just moved to Pakistan and Bangladesh.

There is no way I can summarize the story this book tells, as it is too complicated to go into the sort of detail that would lead to a real understanding of the situation.  But simply put, the situation in the mills was good through World War I because of the increased demand for textiles.  We tend to think of the 1920s as boom years, but for many Southern textile companies, this was not so.  The loss of army contracts combined with fashions that required much less fabric led to over-production, which led to the collapse of prices.  Many millhands lost their jobs even before the stock market crash of 1929.

The Great Depression just served to make the situation worse.  And in another of those great history truisms, it was not until the war machine cranked back up in the late 1930s that recovery came to the mills of South Carolina.  By that time the mill workers had tried, and failed, to influence the politics of South Carolina in a way that would better their lives.

There are no heroes in this story.  Most of the state’s leaders were not from the area where the mills were located, and saw no reason to pass laws to help the workers. The few politicians who did fight to improve the lives of the mill workers also worked to keep the vote from Black people.  The mill workers themselves refused to work in factories where Black people worked, thereby keeping their one claim of status – that they were at least better off than the Black man.

Several years ago I visited the South Carolina State Museum.  There were several great exhibits on the textile industry and the lives of mill workers.  I can’t recall reading a word about the political strife of the 1920s and 30s, even though workers were killed.  In all, it now seems like a sanitized version of the past, with a model of a cute mill village viewed through a rosy lens.  To be fair, I may have missed that part of the history, and will be revisiting the museum in the near future.

Bryant Simon managed to take a difficult subject and report on it objectively and without judgement.  Even though I found A Fabric of Defeat to be very enlightening, I can’t really recommend it to readers who are just wanting to read about fashion.  What I do suggest is that you explore the historical roots of your own state or region, whether it be on the subject of fashion or any other topic.

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Filed under Currently Reading, Southern Textiles, Uncategorized

Cruso Quilt Show, 2015

One of the things I have to do every summer is attend the Cruso Quilt Show.  Even though I’m not a quilter, I’m enough of a textile lover and appreciator to love spending an hour or so examining the quilts, both modern and vintage.  I always learn something and I always see something that is new to me.

The bowtie quilt above is a vintage quilt top that has been newly finished using machine stitches.

This is a new quilt made from vintage fabrics and feedsacks.  The fabrics had belonged to the quilter’s mother-in-law.

Quilts are meant to be seen from a distance, but also close up.  I love the visual impact of a beautiful quilt, but the little squares are sometimes design marvels by themselves.

In the quilting world, things are not always as they seem.  This quilt is made from modern reproductions of vintage fabrics.  The maker could have gone one step further into vintageland by using a natural muslin for the background fabric.

This one is vintage, and after looking at a lot of vintage and reproductions, the background fabrics are usually a big hint as to which is which.

This quilt that uses reproduction fabrics really caught my eye, and not only because it is so bold.  Some of the fabrics in this quilt are reproductions of the “neons” of 1892 through 1900 that I learned about back in April when I found some old swatches.

I have the originals on which the leaf prints are patterned.  Even the colors are the same.

Crazy quilts are associated with the Victorians, but women were still making them in the mid twentieth century.  The fabrics in this quilt date from the 1930s through the 1960s.  This method of making crazy squares is more obvious without all the Victorian embellishment.

This vintage quilt had the best dancing elephant fabric.

This vintage quilt is interesting for several reasons.  First, I need to point out that the squares are very small, about one and a half inches across.  This was obviously made by someone who saved even the smallest scraps.  Second, note the way the fabrics are positioned, with no attempt to cut the triangles on the grain of the fabric.  And finally, there was not much effort put into matching the corners.  We tend to thing that old equals quality, but in many cases that is just not true. Today quilting is a craft, something that people do for fun, but for many women in the past, it was just work that had to be done.

And I’ll end with a new quilt, this one made by my sister-in-law for my niece’s soon to be born baby boy.  I love the bold colors!

Correction:  I changed the word foundation to background in the paragraph following the fourth photo.  Thanks to my more-knowledgeable-than-me readers for keeping me straight.

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Filed under Southern Textiles, Vintage Sewing

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!

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Filed under Curiosities, Novelty Prints, Southern Textiles

Cotton Fields

I was on the road yesterday in the North Carolina piedmont which is cotton country.  As I passed by one of the large fields it occurred to me that it was likely that many of you have never seen a cotton field.  So I decided to stop and take a few photos.

Cotton is the second most valuable crop in  North Carolina, behind tobacco.  It is too cold to grow it here in the mountains, but the southern piedmont and the coastal plain are ideal for growing the crop.  It isn’t an easy crop to grow, as weeds and insects can be major problems.  It requires a lot of water and so must often be irrigated.

When the cotton is ripe, the fields are often described as snowy.  Actually, snow in this region does look like a cotton field, as the snow often falls on ground that is not entirely frozen and so patches of the ground show through.

Cotton forms in a pod (boll) which pops open when it is ripe.  What you can’t see are the seeds, which are stuck to the fibers and are hard to remove by hand.

And speaking of snowy, this is what we woke up to this morning.  The snow had been forecast, but somehow I don’t think we really believed it until confronted with three inches of the fluffy white stuff.

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Filed under North Carolina, Southern Textiles

Vintage Sewing – New Look 6838 and Vintage DVF Fabric

For most of my sewing projects I use vintage patterns, but I found this modern pattern, New Look 6838 when I was looking for one with which to make pajama pants.  I also loved the style of the top, which is designed for knits only, and I put cotton jersey on my fabric shopping list.

I knew that I did not need stripes, as I already have quite a few in this style.  Besides, though the drawing of the matching at the sleeves looks nice and tidy in the illustration, I know that would be easier drawn than sewn. So I started thinking about dots.  But then I got distracted cleaning and sorting my existing fabrics.  And in the middle of my “reds” bin, I pulled out this vintage fabric from designer Diane von Furstenberg.

I found the fabric in an antique store in one of the many little towns in the piedmont of North Carolina that for years survived off the making of cotton textiles.  These towns were a source of the best fabrics for a home sewer as well, as the factories often sent remnants and “seconds” to their factory outlet for sale to the public.  I suspect that is what happened with this fabric, as there was a small wrinkle in it that caused a bare spot in the print.

In 1976 Vogue Patterns magazine did a feature on Diane and her printed dresses.  As you can see, the patterns were by Vogue, and the fabrics were made by Cohama.

I never did finish my sorting job because I laid out the fabric piece and realized I had just enough of it to make the boat-necked top. I spent the rest of the afternoon sewing, and before long my new top was finished.  As the pattern envelope promises, it was easy.  There were only three pieces, the front, the back and the sleeves.  The back has a center seam, which I like because it makes for a smoother fit.

The neck was to be finished simply by turning under the seam allowance and topstitching, but I made a little facing using the selvage of the fabric.  I just could not see “wasting” that Diane von Furstenberg signature.

And here is the finished product.  It is perfect for the early fall weather we are having.

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Filed under North Carolina, Southern Textiles, Vintage Sewing

Mitchell Company Rayon Piece Goods, 1949

When I was a kid in the 1960s, going to Spindale meant going to the numerous fabric mill outlets to buy bargain fabrics.  It was the heyday of North Carolina textiles, and Spindale was right in the center of the action.

From the name, you could guess that Spindale got its start as a spinning and textile center.  It was not a town at all until the 1920s when the company town around the textile mill incorporated.  By the mid century there were several large textile and sewing factories in and around Spindale.  Stonecutter, which was a vertical operation, which involved both spinning and weaving, Spindale Mills, and the factory that made Bon Worth clothing were all located in Spindale.

I could not find a reference to a Mitchell factory, so I’m guessing that the Mitchell Company was one of the many sellers of textiles in the area.  From what I can tell, it was in business until fairly recently, though I could not find a reference to its closing in the local newspaper.  But it probably happened after 1998, when the bottom fell out of Spindale industry.  That was the year Bon Worth moved their operation to Mexico.  From there it was like dominoes falling.

But in 1949 business was thriving, as textile companies switched from war production to making consumer goods for the new and fast growing families of America.

Click to enlarge

Inside this sales brochure are samples of the various rayons offered by Mitchell. Especially handy are the different samples along with the name of the colors.

I was amazed at how many of them were advertised as being washable, as 1940s rayon is notorious for shrinking and having color bleed.

I found several references to Mitchell Company on the internet, with an address and telephone number.  I called the number and was informed that it was no longer in service.

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Filed under North Carolina, Southern Textiles