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Jackie asked about fabrics: how do you choose?

I’m going to start with prints, cottons, linens and silks; the second part will cover wools and sutlers.

There’s no substitute for feeling up the real thing, or samples, and while I do not have the book, I’m told by a very reliable source that it is worth buying Swatches from Wm Booth or from Hallie. I also order Burnley & Trowbridges swatch sets, which are often  more extensive than what’s on their website. Those samples help me gauge fabrics online– comparing the actual square with a thumbnail online is helpful.

Barbara Johnson: a typical page

Barbara Johnson: a typical page, this from 1803

Where else can you look for guidance? One of the best books that spans a wide range of living history time periods is the Barbara Johnson book of swatches. Owned and published by the Victoria and Albert Museum, A Lady of Fashion is out of print, but the pages have been scanned and are available online. The print version is better– it’s big!– but you can download the images and get a better sense of the scale of the samples.

What is particularly useful is that Barbara Johnson dated the samples, and wrote down how they were used. You can’t get better than that!

Susan Greene’s Wearable Prints is neither small nor cheap, but it is extensive, covering 1760 to 1860. This is a very hand book to have to help sort out typical looks for different time periods, and the likely range of colors.

Textile Sample Book, 1771. Metropolitan Museum of Art. 156.4 T31

Textile Sample Book, 1771. Metropolitan Museum of Art. 156.4 T31

Other museums have digitized sample books: the Met, for example, has multiple images of woven fabrics from a 1771 sample book online.

What you need to remember here is fibre: those homespuns at JoAnn will not behave the way linens behave, even if they look the same. Hand and drape are everything, and cotton, or cotton-poly will not do want linen does. Buy the linen, it’ll look, feel, and wear better.

There are many more sample books, but you have to be careful: some are dated only “19th century.” Great. That’s where Susan Greene and Barbara Johnson can help you sort out which *part* of the 19th century you’re looking at.

Swatch book, 1763-1764. Victoria and Albert Museum, T.373-1972

Swatch book, 1763-1764. Victoria and Albert Museum, T.373-1972

For silks, you can see a very specific and detailed range of silks in Selling Silks, which reproduces another sample book at the Victoria and Albert. Not all samples are 1763-1764; you will need to read the descriptions, but this can be helpful in figuring out how to use fabrics. I have come into some red silk damask that I can make into a gown; it’s vintage silk from France, probably pre-World War II. The pattern is large, replicating a 1740s fabric, but when I make up my gown, I think it can be 1760s, but not a lot later.

Part of looking and buying is understanding how textiles might be bought, saved, made up, reused and repurposed over time.