Shopping with swatches: it’s what I do.
The biggest difference between sewers is location: I have access to resources here that people in the Midwest don’t, but friends in New York have the garment district, which is just a little too far for me. For a lot of my projects, I’m buying from the reputable sources we all know about: Burnley & Trowbridge and Wm Booth Draper. They’re supplying people who want accurate fabrics, they do their research, and the goods are well described. But how to choose among the offerings? And where else can you go?
The creme de la creme are Kochan and Philips wools. I have some bottle green I haven’t cut yet, which I got from Roy Najecki because he’s local, he’s got the stuff, and he has other stuff my household uses (like cartridge box clasps and quarter-inch mohair braid).
Wm Booth and B&T’s wools are also good, and you can get samples. What you buy will be dictated by what you are making. Broadcloth for suits and cloaks, stuff (worsteds) for gowns and waistcoats. Buy the best you can afford: this is an investment. Divide the cost of the fabric by the number of times you’ll wear a garment, and look at the per-wear cost, the way you might look at a suit for work. (I have no regrets about that Saratoga coat, which has now been worn on at least 5 separate occasions, making the per-wear cost $25 after 18 months, and I know it will be worn again.)
Once you’ve felt and seen good-quality, period-correct wools, shopping locally is easier. Take a swatch with you and compare to what’s in the stores and you’re likely to find yourself shopping online. You’ll want 100% wool, and that’s expensive pretty much everywhere. Here in Rhode Island, I do have access to mill stores and remnant tables that make a difference in my costs and allow me to be a little more frivolous in my sewing. Sewfisticated in Framingham and Somerville and Lorraine Fabrics in Pawtucket both have remnant tables with reasonably priced goods with pretty accurate fibre labels. They’ve been the source for many a garment, but have no online sales. I don’t recommend JoAnn’s wools: they’re not as tightly woven and they’re over-priced. Wm Booth and Burnley and Trowbridge are a better value.
Here again, it’s unfortunate, but my local sources come into play. Artee, Sewfisticated and Lorraine all have both discounted taffetas and tantalizing remnant tables, but Wm Booth and Burnley & Trowbridge have fabrics the local shops do not carry. I don’t have a local source for what Booth calls “persian,” but taffeta can be found– though color choices can be limited.
The trick with silks is slub. Much of what is sold today is silk dupioni. It is not universally bad for all historical applications, as by the 19th century, silks were being sold in several grades. If it’s right for your impression (i.e. not upper class), and you can find a pretty fine dupioni, you can use it. But the really slubby (bumpy) stuff should remain in this century.
Crisp taffetas from the bridal department can be your friend, though home decorating can also yield good results. Some higher-end home dec departments do stock wool, linen and silk fabrics, as the best designers and manufacturers use them. You’ll pay for it, but again: it’s an investment you’ll enjoy over time. Online, there’s Hyena Silks, too, which has supplied some friends. But my silks are pretty much locally bought, at $9/yard.
Here’s the biggest trouble spot for a lot of people. The mantra is that today’s quilting cottons are nothing like the cottons of the past, and while that is true in part, it is not the whole, or nuanced, truth. Quilting cottons are stiff and crisp, and generally do not drape as well as apparel fabrics. But what’s more correct is to say that the range and hand of cottons available today in historically correct or acceptable prints do not come close enough to the cottons of the past. Still, you can find good analogues for late 18th and early 19th century cottons (1750-1825) if you’re careful.
Aside from Wm Booth and Burnley & Trowbridge, I buy from Reproductionfabrics.com. She has been a good source for Indian print cottons. Time Travel Textiles no longer has a functioning web store, but the articles are still there, and useful.
Regency Revisited sells via phone and Facebook now, and has an interesting range of prints, though I have not bought from them…yet…as I am trying hard to sew down the strategic fabric reserve.
But again, I buy locally from the bargain loft at the mill store where I can feel the goods. It’s worth ordering some swatches from Burnley & Trowbridge just to get a sense of the hand of different goods. That, along with printed resources, can serve you well in an actual store (presuming they still exist near you).
Again, much of my trade is with the main two sutlers, but I buy linen in quantity from Fabrics-store.com. It’s not the best of the best (see the main two) but it gets the basic job done.
For really nice and perfectly correct linen, in every sense, Justin Squizzero’s hand-woven linens are the way to go. I’ll get a hand-woven neckerchief one of these days– actually, I want one for February– but have yet to make the leap to buying hand woven linen shirts and shifts.