Tag Archives: Tammis Keefe

Tammis Keefe for Marlboro Shirts

It may not be immediately obvious why I recently added this shirt to my collection. All will become clear when you see the closeup of the print.

If you have followed my writings for a while, you already know that I have a fondness for textile designs by Tammis Keefe. Today she is most remembered for her hankies and towels, but she also designed home decorator fabrics, and for a short time starting in 1957, she worked on textile design for the Marlboro Shirt Company.

If you are like me, the greatest association with Marlboro is with the cigarette brand. Marlboro Shirt Company was an entirely different company, though it does appear that at some point the company was acquired by Philip Morris, which also made the cigarettes. But my story dates to 1957 and 1958, long before that acquisition.

Marlboro Shirt Company had a long history, being formed in 1890. It was located in Baltimore, and for years men’s shirts were the only product. By the 1940s Marlboro had expanded into other men’s apparel, like bathing suits, pajamas, and jackets. In 1957 they entered the women’s shirt market with a new brand, Lady Marlboro.

At the same time, it was decided that the traditional man’s shirt could be made in sports styles, or rather, leisure styles to fit the increasingly casual American lifestyle. Tammis Keefe was brought in to design textiles that would fit into a more casual style. According to a paper written by FIT graduate student Suzanne Chee in 1990, many of the prints were (like mine) conversational in nature. She adapted antique motifs like vintage theater playbills and antique playing cards.  And the shirts were made for men and women in matching prints.

To me, the designs do not look as though they were actually drawn by Tammis Keefe. The style of the ones I have seen all have an antique print look. Or maybe I’m not giving Ms. Keefe enough credit. I’m sure she could draw in more than the midcentury style she is most known for.

The closeup views reveal why I had to have this one. There are tennis players…



beach croquet…

and fishers.

I bought this even though it is badly faded. It must have been a favorite piece. The color is actually an olive green, but I can’t help but wonder if it was made in other colors as well. And if anyone has the matching man’s shirt, I’d love to add it to keep this one company.


Filed under Collecting, Designers, Sportswear, Summer Sports, Textiles

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

Now Dasher! On Dancer! Up Prancer! Away Vixen!

Before I’m accused of not knowing the words to the famous poem, I’d like to say this is the Tammis Keefe version – a version for a more mature audience.

You may remember a post from several years ago, where I found one of these Keefe designs that was ripped off and used without crediting her.  I had seen the cocktail napkins on one of my favorite etsy stores, CallMeJasper, and was wanting them badly, but could not manage the justifiably high price tag.  I did eventually break down, return to the thrift store and buy the plate, but I’ve been looking for a set of the napkins ever since.

You might imagine me, walking through the antique mall on Tuesday, hoping something would catch my eye, and then I look down and there they were, a complete set of eight tiny slight tipsy reindeer.  I snatched the set up and hoped for the best as I turned the price tag over so I could read it.  $12.  I felt like a bandit as I ran to the counter to buy them before someone realized that just one of them was worth more than that.

And so it is in the collectibles business.  Sometimes you have to over-pay to get a marvelous thing, and other times you find a bargain of the very best kind.

Merry Christmas to me!


Filed under Collecting, Curiosities, Shopping

Tammis Keefe, Mid Century Textile Designer

If it is true that being copied often proves one was good at her art, then Tammis Keefe was certainly good.  I’ve written about how Keefe’s designs pop up from time to time on Christmas plates and fabrics and handbags.   Unfortunately, she is usually not credited, with the exception of the current Michael Miller fabrics.  I’m really glad the Michael Miller company has done this line, as it has spread Keefe’s name past the vintage community to a larger audience.

Tammis Keefe is one of the great names of hankie and textile collecting.   She was born Margaret Thomas Keefe in 1913.  After attending art school in the mid 1930s, she worked in advertising design and as a textile print designer, designing prints for home furnishing textiles.  In the late 1940s she worked with Dorothy Wright Liebes, designing textiles for  Goodall Industries and other makers of domestic textiles.

She began designing handkerchiefs for Kimbal scarves in the late 1940s after a friend showed a gift Keefe had made for her birthday to a buyer at Lord & Taylor.  The buyer in turn showed the scarf to Kimbal, who commissioned six designs from Keefe.  Over the next years, Keefe designed hundreds of hankies for Kimbal.  Her designs are typically 1950s – full of whimsy with those great 1950s colors: pink, turquoise, gold and black.

Keefe’s designs were often inspired by her travels.  One can find Oriental, Arabian nights, and European castle themed hankies. She also did hankies featuring American cities and attractions.  Many of these hankies were like little travel guides, showing the highlights of a city that were not to be missed.   Keefe’s work also shows a love of nature and animals. Her dog and cat hankies are true 1950s classics.  Other designs to look for are her antique furniture and motifs, holidays including Christmas and Valentine’s Day, and the special designs she made for the famous 21 Club in New York.  Also, hankies signed Peg Thomas are Tammis Keefe designs.

Keefe’s hankies are most prized, but look also for linens and fabrics with her signature.  Her designs for the kitchen are just as clever and fresh as her hankies.  Silk scarves with the Tammis Keefe signature are rarer, but do surface from time to time.  Even rarer are clothing items she designed for the Marlboro Shirt Company.    There are even greeting cards, published by the Irene Dash Card Company, and playing cards from Random Thoughts.

There are hundreds of Keefe designs from which to choose, as she was quite prolific, especially considering that she died in 1960 and had a relatively short career.

Update:  A very nice ebay seller, putting*ontheritz emailed some photos of Tammis Keefe hankies that came from the collection of an 85 year old woman.  Some of these I’ve never seen before.


Filed under Designers

Tammis Keefe Tribute Fabric from Michael Miller

After looking locally and striking out, I decided to order some of the new Tammis Keefe Tribute fabric.   I usually do not order modern fabrics without first having seen and felt them, but I really wanted to try these, and I really, really wanted some of the Unruly Reindeer print.    As it turns out, the fabric is better than I’d anticipated.  So many modern novelty fabrics are a bit on the rough and stiff side, being used mainly for quilting and crafts, but these have a nice smooth hand and would be suitable for garments.

The owl print, called “Hoot”, will make a cute summer top.  I’d also like the birdcage print, called “Cage Free” as a blouse or a gathered shirt.   And if you love seeing such things, the original tea towel that inspired the Cage Free print is for sale in the etsy store of Callmejasper. There is also a dog print, and two cat prints, and Michael Miller just released several new prints, so I’m hoping that means there will be even more.

After all the unattributed copying of Tammis Keefe’s designs, it is so very nice seeing her work with her name attached to it.  The icing on the cake is that Michael Miller will be donating all royalties from the Tammis Keefe line to fund cancer research.  Ms. Keefe died in 1960 from cancer, and so what a fitting tribute!


Filed under Curiosities, Novelty Prints, Sewing

Design Inspiration

I know the topic of modern designers copying from vintage has been pretty well beaten to death, but since I seem to be stuck on the topic of hankies, this one had to be shared.  The skirt above was made by me from vintage fabric, probably from 1961.  More on it later.

This bag is currently for sale at  Anthropologie.com.  They call it the Purebred Tote.  If you go to the Anthropogie site you can scroll over the image and see the doggies close-up.  When I first spotted this bag this morning, I immediately thought of Tammis Keefe.  Of course, nothing on the bag, nor on the site references Keefe as the artist, but I was pretty sure I’d seen this in the form of either a hankie or a tea towel.

So I grabbed a hankie in my collection, a Keefe grouping of dogs,  and while some of the dogs are similar, none were exact.  Still, something told me I had seen those particular dogs before.  Finally it hit me; these were the same dogs that are on my skirt!  A quick trip to the closet confirmed that my skirt and the bag have three dogs in common.

But what about the others?  I felt sure these did come from a Tammis Keefe textile, so I went on a hunt for the  other hankie I know I’ve seen.  Unfortunately, I did not turn it up, but I did find a very interesting photo on True Up, a fabrics blog.  Scroll down to the third entry, and there you’ll see a rare Tammis Keefe silk scarf, with some of the the very same dogs!

Eventually, the other Keefe hanky will come up for sale, and when it does I’ll link to it.

So it appears that not only is Keefe’s work being used and not attributed today, but this was also being done if not in her lifetime, then at least very soon after her death in 1960.  The fabric I used for my skirt was from Robert Kaufman, and there was no reference to Keefe on the fabric.  On the True Up page, note that a Keefe cat was also used in printed circle skirt panels, also unattributed.

I’d like to point out that fashion designs are not copyright protected.  That’s why a company like J. Peterman can buy a vintage garment and reproduce it or why a cheap mall brand can copy the work of a designer who charges much more for his or her work.  It’s why many people are legally reproducing vintage sewing patterns for the purpose of selling them – only the drawings on the envelopes can be copyrighted – not the design itself.   For a great explanation of how this works, you must watch this video of Johanna Blakley of the Norman Lear Center.
But what about a textile design?  Look at the selvedge of the Robert Kaufman fabric. With true irony,there’s the little copyright symbol.  Look at any Vera textile from after 1959 and you’ll find the copyright symbol.  What a shame that once again an artist like Keefe is not getting the credit she deserves.
Note:  The photo of the bag is from the Anthropologie site and is their copyright.  As a general rule, I do not take any photos from other sites without asking, but when a site puts a “download this image” message beneath a photo, I think you can safely deduce that actually means ” Take the image of our product and put it on your blog so we will get free advertising.”


Posted by stephanie Coop:

I enjoyed reading this and learning about Tammis. It took me on an internet journey while I was drinking my coffee.

Tuesday, July 20th 2010 @ 3:33 AM

Posted by Karen/Small Earth Vintage:

Ugh. That bag is cute as sin, but this is another reason (of many) why I can’t stand Anthropologie and will not shop there or at Urban Outfitters. What a shame. While I admire their “look” (which is constantly, and understandably, deified by bloggers everywhere), their practices leave much to be desired. Not a fan.

Tuesday, July 20th 2010 @ 7:48 AM

Posted by KeLLy Ann:

Thanks for the new info. I never knew that about the patterns. I’m an artist, so the whole copyright thing gets pretty annoying sometimes. I think its the whole “ownership” vs “credit” thing…

Tuesday, July 20th 2010 @ 7:52 AM

Posted by Anonymous:

Interesting and informative. I do have to say, modern knock-offs of current art and fashion are annoying too.

Tuesday, July 20th 2010 @ 4:39 PM

Posted by Lin:

arg. lost my original post. I was saying that the tree at the centre looked very familiar too, but I can’t quite find the parallel I was thinking of…

Wednesday, July 21st 2010 @ 11:17 AM

Posted by Lizzie:

Lin, bare trees like these are a common Keefe motif.When Keefe died in 1960, her only survivor was her mother, and as far as I know, there is no one to hold the copyright to her work. So it may be legal to use it, but it bothers me that people are profiting from her work without even acknowledging that she was the designer. Most of her work was clearly signed, so you know they know who the designer was.

Thursday, July 22nd 2010 @ 6:29 PM

Posted by Lin:

“Most of her work was clearly signed, so you know they know who the designer was.” A very good point, especially in the era of reissued and reinvigorated Vera and Liberty prints. A continuing business interest ensures the authorship is cemented. A lack of business continuity turns a completely coherent body of work into design flotsam and jetsam. What a shame.

Friday, July 23rd 2010 @ 9:19 AM

Posted by Sarah:

This is a prime example of the valuable work your blog does, Lizzie.Not only do you make sure that these designers are recognised for their beautiful and original work, but you’ve demonstrated how wilfully modern companies will exploit that original work without credit.

As ever, you are raising awareness, thank you!

Wednesday, July 28th 2010 @ 12:52 AM

Posted by Lizzie:

Sarah, it nice for you to say so.

Friday, July 30th 2010 @ 6:32 PM

Posted by Lin:

here you go, for comparison while it’s up on Ebay – the Anthropologie bag is a direct lift from one of the dog collection scarves. http://cgi.ebay.com/VINTAGE-FOLK-ART-DOG-SCARF-/140475670342?pt=Vintage_Men_s_Women_s_Accessories&hash=item20b5009f46#ht_500wt_1156

Monday, November 8th 2010 @ 5:37 AM


Filed under Designers, Viewpoint

Hey Blitzen, or What the Hey, Blitzen!

photo courtesy of callmejasper

The above cocktail napkin is the current object of my affection.  No, it is not mine, and neither are the others in this super adorable set from Tammis Keefe.  You will find these in the etsy store of Callmejasper.  I really wish someone would go there and buy these and save my Christmas budget, as I am weakening…

Because I’ve been so enamoured with these, I had no trouble at all identifying this modern, plastic plate I ran across in a thrift store today:

But, look what’s missing – the Tammis Keefe signature.  I was completely shocked to see this wonderful graphic, by one of the best mid-century hankie illustrators, on an object with no indication at all of its origins.  As a person who looks at a lot of vintage clothing, and who reads all the vintage related blogs, I know there is concern within the vintage community of modern designers taking a vintage object, reproducing it, and calling it their own.  Unfortunately, that seems to be an accepted practice – one that has been going on for some time.  But to take a graphic like this and totally erase its history is so wrong, especially since Keefe is not as recognized as I think she ought to be.

I was so shaken that I didn’t even buy the plate, and that is saying something!


Posted by the little patch of cement:

just passing by to say hello and its been great reading your recent blog entries. what an interesting blitzen design! i am definately a fan. hope you have a great week and holiday season! 

Tuesday, December 2nd 2008 @ 2:03 PM

Posted by Jennifer:

What an outrageous rip-off of the witty and whimsical Tammis Keefe! I love how you refused to buy the plate, in solidarity. By the way, Tammis designed not only hankies and cocktail napkins but also towels and tablecloths and probably more. One of my best finds ever was a spotless linen Tammis tablecloth in a grotty little thrift shop. It was $4 and I didn’t even see her signature until I got it home. Bonus! I love your blog and I thank you for featuring my tipsy reindeer napkins. 

Tuesday, December 2nd 2008 @ 3:12 PM

Posted by MC:

Oh, how cute! And how infuriating. Lizzie, did you happen to notice if there was a manufacturer’s name on the bottom of the plate? 

Wednesday, December 3rd 2008 @ 2:40 PM

Posted by Lizzie:

MC, the back just read Melaninewear / China. I’d say made within the past 10 years. 

Thursday, December 4th 2008 @ 7:40 PM

Posted by Ookoo:

Such a cute design! Sad that someone stole it without giving credit. 

Friday, December 5th 2008 @ 8:23 AM


Filed under Curiosities, Designers, Holidays