Rebecca Frey gave us a tour of the New York City Garment District and now her team is back with tips to find, select and utilize vintage fabrics in your garments. Rebecca is a licensed New York City Sightseeing Guide with a focus on the city’s garment and retail industries. She is also the owner/founder of Seek, a New York City-based company which provides costume design and styling services, as well as tourist-oriented shopping and fashion history tours.

Find her guides’ best tips for vintage fabrics below, and visit www.seeknewyorktours.com for more information on tours. You can also connect with Seek on Facebook and follow them on Twitter.

How to Find, Select + Utilize Vintage Fabrics for Garment Making

Find the Fabric
Etsy is a fantastic source for vintage fabrics, but it isn’t the only place to look. Estate sales, thrift shops, flea markets, auctions and even eBay are all potential sources as well. And if you have an elderly relative with a penchant for sewing, ask permission to poke around in their stock; you never know what you might find!

The costume department at a local community theatre or college theatre department can be a fantastic untapped resource for vintage clothing, fabrics, notions and trims. Most costume shops offer sales at least once or twice per year, as they’re often faced with limited storage space and the need to make way for new acquisitions. These sales are generally open to the public. Be sure to get there on the first day as the best items tend to disappear early in the sale.

Antique or vintage buttons can make a unique finishing touch, so be sure to keep an eye out when hitting the flea market or costume sale for fabrics. Don’t forget that you can always purchase an inexpensive piece of vintage clothing (worn or tattered as it may be!) and remove the buttons, buckles, collar or trims for use on your new garment.

Don’t limit yourself to fabric yardage. Vintage curtains, tablecloths, dish towels, scarves and even existing articles of vintage clothing can all be repurposed as fabric.

Two-sided, vintage upholstery fabric.
Photo from designer and tour guide Amalya Meira.

Select the Best Materials for Your Project
Once you’ve hit on a potential fabric find, inspect it carefully. Check for stains, smells, holes and other imperfections. (Incidentally, this rule goes for all vintage items, including clothing and home furnishings!) Vintage fabric is typically more durable than fabrics made today, but it is old, and in some cases has been used before; make sure you know what you’ll be working with.

Next, check for drape-ability. Some vintage fabrics tend to be stronger and stiffer than their modern counterparts. Make sure that the fabric you’ve chosen will have the right amount of drape and flow for the type of garment you are planning to make.

Utilize the Fabrics You’ve Chosen
Acknowledge what you like about the materials you’ve chosen, such as the specific print, texture or color, then showcase your vintage fabric find by utilizing those features in your design. Some ideas include reversibility, mixed patterns and textures, and directional play.

Embrace the inherent characteristics of the vintage textile (like vertical pleats, distressing, or borders) instead of fighting them. Find a creative way to include these elements in your design rather than attempting to hide them, such as using the border of a vintage fabric to adorn the hem of a skirt. If there are unavoidable (and unsightly) holes or stains in the material you’ve chosen, try to arrange your pattern pieces in a way that allows you to cut around them. Hide very small holes/markings in a seam or behind a button or piece of trim.

Vintage upholstery fabric in a new skirt design (with a vintage scarf!).
Photo from designer and tour guide Amalya Meira.

Laundering + Care
Pre-wash fabrics prior to use. Hand washing separately or dry cleaning is typically the best way to care for vintage materials. (If the fabric you’ve chosen is from the 1980s or 90s, you may be able to get away with washing it in the washing machine on a gentle cycle.) If you’re planning to sell or give the finished garment to someone else, be sure to warn the recipient to wash the item alone as it may not be color-fast, even though it has been pre-washed.

Tips courtesy of vintage buyer Claire Marston of Eco in Disguise, and fashion designer Amalya Meira. Images courtesy of Amalya Meira.

Seek New York LLC is a New York City-based company offering a range of guided fabric shopping and fashion history tours in and around the New York Garment District. Learn more about the tours they offer, purchase tickets to a group tour, or book a private guided tour of the Garment District (special group rates available for sewing and quilting clubs). You can also follow Seek on social media: @seeknewyorkllc.