Fall for Cotton: vintage fabric shopping, part 1

Are you thinking about your fabric choices for Fall for Cotton yet? I admit, I’m not quite yet, as I still have to figure out what I’m going to sew!

I know that at least a few of you in the sew-along are hoping or planning to use original vintage fabric. Since you know I sometimes use vintage fabric when I sew, I figured this would be a great topic to talk about. I have shopped for vintage fabric a lot, and while I’m certainly no expert, I hope my tips will come in handy for some of you sew-alongers!

{Source: Sears Catalog, Fall 1947}

Vintage fabric is just so swoon-worthy, isn’t it? We all wish we had the myriad of options available then, but sadly that’s not the case. Of course, there are reproductions available and plenty of retro prints, which are a wonderful alternative and especially great when you want a vintage look but with the assurance of modern durability, or just want to be able to go to a store and buying something off the shelf. (And trust me, speaking as someone who’s spent more hours than she cares to admit sleuthing for vintage goods, that can be a mighty nice thing indeed.)

But original vintage fabric is still out there, too, and can be found! The prints, the colors… they set my heart a-flutter. For ease of care I lean towards modern fabric more often, but that isn’t going to stop me from finding and sewing up vintage fabric whenever I can, while it’s still around. πŸ™‚

I’m going to break this topic up into two parts since there’s a lot to talk about. Today, I’ll cover fiber content, condition and getting a good deal. Next time I’ll talk about shopping online and in person!

How do I know if it’s 100% cotton?

The main issue with using vintage fabric for Fall for Cotton is that we’re trying to limit ourselves here to 100% cotton. (By the way, if you asked any fabric content questions on either Lucky Lucille, here, or on Flickr, please see this thread Rochelle started in the Flickr Group for more clarification on fabric content, lining, etc.)

When buying vintage fabric, you might not know exactly what you’re getting.

Sometimes it’s pretty easy to know that what you have is cotton, and sometimes… not so much. But that doesn’t mean you can’t find out! You can do a burn test (please be careful!) on a very small snippet of fabric to find out more about the fabric content. Here are a few great places to start:

If it turns out your fabric isn’t cotton or is a synthetic blend, that doesn’t mean it’s not wonderful! It just means you can save it for another great vintage project after the sew-along. πŸ™‚

Am I getting a good deal?

Well, this is the subjective part. Just like vintage anything, what two people are willing to pay for the same item can vary dramatically. So I really can’t answer that question for you. But what I can do is tell you how I think it through!

Decide how much you’d willingly spend on similar modern fabric. Take a cotton print, for example. Is your budget closer to $8 a yard or $25 a yard? Obviously that’s a big difference. Then decide if you’re willing to spend the same, a little more, or less on the equivalent vintage fabric. That’s all up to you. And keep in mind that most pre-1960s vintage fabrics (and some later ones) are 36″ wide vs. 44″ or wider with most modern fabrics, so yard-for-yard you get a little less with the vintage fabric.

I sew with both modern and vintage fabrics. And I personally don’t like to spend more on vintage fabric than I’d spend on modern fabric. I don’t want the final garment to feel so precious that I never wear it, and I personally can start to feel that way if the supplies are really expensive! Of course there have been a few exceptions when I have fallen absolutely head-over-heals over something, but when I see $40 for 2 yards of vintage printed cotton (putting it at $20 a yard), no matter how awesome the print, I will walk away from it. But if $25 or more a yard is regularly your price point for cotton prints, then you might think differently.

Since I don’t personally tend to like to spend a lot of money on fabric (see above comment about not wanting things to feel too precious!), I don’t tend to spend a lot of money on vintage fabric, either. So think about your modern fabric spending habits and how you’d like that to apply to vintage fabric.

You don’t have to spend a lot to get great vintage fabric, you just may have to be willing to put in a lot of time looking. I have found plenty of lovely vintage cottons in very good condition for under $10 a yard! Most recently, I bought this beautiful floral cotton on Etsy for $4 a yard. I may even have enough for a dress!

What about the condition?

Just like the price you pay, the condition of vintage fabric you buy is a personal decision. Are you willing to deal with a few stains or holes? There’s a big difference between the light spots on the vintage cotton below on the left versus the 1 inch holes in the feedsack on the right:

The spots on the left are smaller than the head of an eraser and don’t bother me (actually they look worse in the photo than in person), but the holes in the feedsack are much more difficult to work around.

Maybe you’ll be more lenient on trouble spots if you thrifted it for a buck or two or got an awesome deal (like the holey feedsack), and less if you paid a little more? Or maybe you only want pristine fabric? You’ll have to draw your own line in the sand.

I tend to be more forgiving about holes or stains if I’m shopping in person (and getting a good deal), because I can easily assess how easy or difficult it’ll be to work around problem areas. Online, I much prefer to purchase fabric that has no noticeable issues. A seller’s idea of a few “light” stains might be quite different than yours.

All in all, I’ve found plenty of vintage cotton that’s in great condition with tons of life left in it. It just takes some work to find it!

{Source: Sears Catalog, Spring 1958}

In part 2 on shopping for vintage cotton fabric for Fall for Cotton, I’ll talk about finding vintage fabric in person and online, with lots of tips especially for you online shoppers. And of course don’t forget, you can use any fabric you want so long as it’s 100% cotton, it sure doesn’t have to be vintage! I just wanted to cover vintage fabric for those of you who are interested in using it. Rochelle will be talking non-vintage fabric soon!

Don’t forget to join the Flickr group to check in with your fellow sew-alongers and keep tagging your Instagram photos and tweets with #fallforcotton!

Filed: Sew-alongs, Sewing


Golly, 12 Comments!

  • Thank you for this, Tasha:) Very helpful! I entered the Fall for cotton-sewalong as my first ever, and I am having difficulty making my mind up both on pattern and fabric. So many pretty items πŸ˜‰ But I am really looking forward to the experience!


  • I love those old Sears catalogs! They are a great source of what fabrics were used and how. I’ve go several ideas of what I want to do.


  • I’m so excited for this project, and you must have been reading my mind when you wrote this post. I’m horrible at determining fabrics and you’ve restored some confidence in me πŸ™‚ Thanks



  • Excellent tips and pointers, dear Tasha. I feel that some of these apply to those who buy vintage cotton garments (as well as, or instead of, pieces of cotton fabric), too.

    β™₯ Jessica


  • I’ve only just started to sew & as a rule I’m trying to just source vintage fabric for my projects (am trying to not buy new clothing/fabric!). That being said the most I have paid is about Β£5 a metre & have recently bought some amazing fabrics from boot sales for about Β£2 for 4 metres!


  • Great advice!! It’s good to have an idea of what you are willing to accept before you go shopping. Too many times I’ve bought things without thinking it through and regretted my decision. Thanks for sharing πŸ™‚


  • Excellent post Tasha. Even a seasoned old fabric buying bat like me has come undone with vintage cottons. s yu say, marks can often be worked around especially if you’re in love with the cloth. There’s nothing quite like buying fabric in a hurry only to get it home and find tiny holes all through! Or even worse buying online when the imperfect is sold as perfect.Generall y speaking theres’s loads more good vinatge cotton out there than unusable stuff. I’m looking to use a piece of vintage gingham I’ve had in my stash for ages.


  • I have a few feed sacks that I’ve yet to cut into because I’m scared! I guess I have to wait for the exact perfect project to come along. Or you need to send me some of your bravery πŸ˜‰


  • Great post! I often wonder how amazing fabric shopping must have been in the past when home sewing was the norm.


  • […] last we met, I talked about hunting down vintage cotton fabric for Fall for Cotton, and discussed fiber […]


  • Bravo! Clapping wildly from the rogue’s gallery. I am too late for the Sew-A-Long, but this is most useful information especially for a thrift store shopper as myself.

    Thank you for researching and posting. I need to somehow include a link to this in an article on my site so I may have it for reference when I need it.



  • […] excellent post series about vintage fabric shopping for the Fall For Cotton sew-along! You can find Part One, and Part Two, on her […]


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