Fall for Cotton: vintage fabric shopping, part 2

When last we met, I talked about hunting down vintage cotton fabric for Fall for Cotton, and discussed fiber content, condition and my thoughts on getting a good deal. Today, let’s talk about the actual shopping part! That’s the fun part! Well, sometimes it’s the fun part… sometimes it’s just annoying. Ha!

Where can I find vintage fabric shopping in person?

Flea markets, antique malls and thrift stores come to mind! Depending on where you go, where you live, the angle of the sun and if you’re holding your nose and standing on one leg, you might find a great deal… or someone trying to hose you.

I personally don’t get to hit thrift stores nearly as often as I’d like, so I can’t really say I’ve had a lot of luck finding fabric there, but I know people have! As well as finding actual fabric yardage or remnants, don’t be afraid to think outside the box when you’re thrifting. Large cotton duvet covers, flat and fitted sheets, and pillowcases are all great sources of fabric! You can often find fun patterns or nice solids, and even novelty prints. And at most thrift stores, they’ll be cheap! If you’re looking for heavier fabric, drapery fabric can also be a nice way to go.

Now how about flea markets, antique malls and vintage fairs?  I tend to find better deals in booths where the seller isn’t focused on linens. When I walk into booths where there are stacks and stacks of gorgeous old fabric, I know I’m probably going to walk out empty-handed. Why? I find those specialty booths tend to charge higher prices. Whereas the person selling a random assortment of goods is often more likely to have a good deal. Of course, this logic doesn’t always play out as I’ve found linen vendors with reasonable prices, and also non-specialty vendors who want you to sign your life away in blood because they think what they have is so rare. So it pays to check everything! I’m just telling you how my own experiences tend to go.

Can I actually find vintage fabric online?

Totally! Although just like in person, it can be a hunt! Etsy and eBay are the biggest places to look of course. You can also get lucky finding a deal on TIAS and occasionally Ruby Lane, both of which are online antique malls.

In my experience, I find that there tend to be better and more accurate descriptions and better photos on Etsy listings than on eBay, but sometimes you may pay a little more for it. So it’s up to you to decide how and where you want to hunt.

eBay seems to be a little more of a free for all, and narrowing down by keywords only gets you so far. While it can be a problem on Etsy sometimes too, I find way more eBay sellers using words like ‘1950s‘, ‘1940s‘ and/or ‘vintage‘ when what they’re selling is a modern reproduction (or just retro). It can be frustrating sifting through 350 Michael Miller prints. I’m not knocking Michael Miller, I love those fabrics! But when you’re on the hunt for vintage fabric, that’s obviously not what you’re looking for. I find it’s often a little easier to narrow results down to the actual items you’re searching for on Etsy than on eBay, but your mileage may vary.


  • Read the descriptions thoroughly. And don’t be afraid to contact the seller with questions if the description doesn’t answer them all! They’re usually happy to provide you with more info. This is especially important if they don’t mention whether or not there are stains or holes. Some sellers assume “vintage” also equals “some problems exist” without actually telling you what those issues are, and that’s not cool. If there is any question, ask them.
  • Look for listings that indicate the seller has actually looked at the fabric carefully and said something like “no apparent flaws noted” or “2 small pinholes 1 inch from the selvage”. If there is no indication they’ve given it a thorough look, I personally won’t buy it unless I contact the seller for more info.
  • Watch for “vintage” being thrown in as a keyword when it’s not, in fact, vintage. Reading the description (or just looking at the photos) may show it’s modern fabric.
  • Watch for the terms “reproduction“, “repro“, or “vintage style” to indicate it’s modern and not vintage.
  • Unsure about the fabric content when purchasing online? I’ve had quite good luck in this regard and I’m almost always looking for 100% cotton, so I don’t worry too much about it (see above about asking questions if you’re unsure), but remember I do this hunt a lot. 🙂 If you stick to looking for 1940s or 1950s cottons, you’re much safer than if you are looking for 60s or 70s and later, as those decades were much more likely to have poly blends. You can always do a burn test (see my previous post), but remember only 100% cotton will work for this sew-along.

Be specific when you search online—really specific

Okay seriously, this point is so important it gets its own section! It’s one of the crucial keys to the magical vintage fabric shopping online kingdom. Okay maybe not that important, but it sure does help.

Use specific terms and operators to your advantage when searching. Fabric is out there, you just have to find it! Take a look at this basic search first as an example: 

search terms: 1950s cotton 

Over 10,000 results, and notice they aren’t limited to fabric, either. In fact, most are clothes (not including the sponsored search results in the first row of course). You can either put the word ‘fabric‘ in there or limit your search results to the Craft Supplies category (left-hand column). I went the first route below.
That’s better! But since there’s over a thousand results, you can always limit it further. On both eBay and Etsy, you can use the minus ( ) sign with a word so it does not get included. This is probably just as important as what you do want to search for!

search terms: 1950s cotton fabric -polyester -reproduction -repro -fat

Why ‘-fat‘? That means no results will show up that are fat quarters, or a quarter of a yard of fabric, which is often used by quilters. (There’s nothing wrong with them, they’re just small, so not suited for full garments.) You can also add in the word ‘yard‘ or ‘yardage‘ if you’d like, although people don’t always specify that in the listing. If the seller is unfamiliar with fabric, they might just give you the dimensions.

Maybe you’d like to get more specific with your search? Narrow it down to a particular color, or perhaps novelty prints, or holiday themes? Throw anything you like in there.

search terms: 1950s cotton fabric red novelty -polyester -reproduction -repro -fat

Now there’s only 16 results for such a narrow search, but right off the bat I saw several I loved the looks of and would like to investigate. And at least one modern retro fabric, and a couple of household items, but that’s to be expected.

And that’s how it goes! Try narrower searches and wider ones alternately. Try a search that includes the word ‘vintage‘ but then see if you get any better results specifying a decade. Use search terms like ‘1950s -50s‘ and then later ‘50s -1950s‘… that will search for items where the seller used one way to write a decade but not the other. (By the way, these tips also apply to shopping for vintage clothing online… hint, hint!)

Think wisely about how you search and it may pay off in the end! Oh yeah, and it probably goes without saying, but be prepared for a major timesuck if you decide to start shopping for vintage fabric online. Ask me how I know…

{Source: Sears Catalog, Spring 1954}

In the end, finding vintage cotton isn’t too difficult, but it takes a bit of work to make sure you know what you’re getting, and you feel good about the price you’re paying and the quality of the fabric. Sadly we’ll never have the swoon-worthy assortment of options available in decades past, but we can still get lucky now and again with a lovely piece of vintage fabric!

And don’t worry, if vintage fabric isn’t your thing or you’d rather go modern, Rochelle has a great post for you on shopping for modern cottons!

Do you have some vintage fabric hunting tips to share that would help out fellow Fall for Cotton sew-alongers? Please share in the comments or in our Flickr group!

Filed: Sew-alongs, Sewing


Golly, 13 Comments!

  • I have a lot of luck finding vintage fabrics at estate sales. Sewers of yesteryear have stashes that would make most modern sewers blush. And, most of the people running estate sales don’t know how to value fabric, so it’s usually INSANE cheap- I’ve found it for as low as dimes on the yard.


    • Yes! I completely forgot about estate sales since I rarely make it to them (although we keep meaning to change that). Thanks so much for mentioning it!


    • YES!! I’ve gotten loads of quality fabric at estate sales! My most recent find was a wonderful cranberry wool with the tag still pinned to it’s corner; just Lovely!

      Folks can find out what sales are in their local area by going to: estatesales.net and typing in their zip code or using the map feature, as well as, checking places like Craigslist.


  • Fall for Cotton aside, this is a really interesting post. I had no idea about the minus sign thing. Wow! How useful is that? I’ve also really enjoyed both these posts so far. Really interesting!

    I’m as yet undecided about whether to join in or not. Sewing to deadlines tend to stress me out and as I am being made redundant from my job AND am toilet training my 3 year old, I have quite enough stress going in right now… But it does look like fun! And it would make me actually use those vintage patterns I have stashed away, which would make me feel less guilty…


    • Helen it would be great if you could join in and maybe choosing an easy project would be exactly what you need right now. Try not to worry about your three year old, they ALL learn sometime, it will happen. Do some sewing in the meantime. 🙂


  • Oh thanks for this great post! Usually I give up trying to find fabrics online. Great tips!


  • As you know I LOVE fabric and use it a lot. Sadly I’m in the UK and my preference is US prints so I struggle but I still find good deals on ebay occasionally, both US and UK. I find etsy too expensive for my budget. I still have a stash of good fabrics, but I’m always on the look out. I wish we had your estate sales here *sigh*


  • Wow I never knew that either about the minus sign, how useful. A lot of tips here, thank you so much and thank you for the laugh, this article was the first over my morning coffee and the first paragraph nearly had me spilling my coffee with laughter. Thank you.


  • Great post! I often give up because my time could be spent sewing instead of wading through all the results that come up with a wider search. I will definitely be trying these tips to narrow my search.


  • Superb tips! I really like how you pointed out the fact that while you may have to pay a bit more of the item in some instances, listings are often more accurate on etsy. I’ve really found that to be true over the year no matter what I was purchasing there (as opposed to eBay).

    ♥ Jessica


  • Wow, THANK YOU for such awesome tips!!! Also, are those fabrics from your stash pictured first? …I might have to fight you for those ;P


  • Thank you for this great tips! It’s easy to get lost while searching.


  • […] 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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