Now that I have a little girl I have started creating keepsake dolls. I absolutely love bringing to life these unique personalities and sourcing gorgeous vintage fabrics to dress these treasures.
One sunny Sunday I travelled to A Piece of Cloth to see what gorgeousness they had to offer. Not only was the fabric studio an amazing piece of heaven, but I also met the owner, Jennifer and she was just devine. Her knowledge about fabric is incredible and I could talk to her all week! I asked her if I could do a blog post on her (since I was using so many of her fabrics in my dolls) and here are her responses. If you are not in love with vintage fabrics now, read on and you soon will be.
Question 1- how did you get started on your fabric loving path?
Fabric has always been around me. My Nana was a society dressmaker who started her career on Collins Street in the fancy boutiques making clothes for the well heeled of Melbourne. I always remember this blouse she had that was made from a print of the painting by Seurat – The Promenade, a classic impressionist Pointillism painting. I loved that fabric. This was the 70’s so i’m tipping it was probably some hideous polyester photo print but none the less I loved it. My mother was always impeccably dressed in clothes that my Gran tailored for her, copies of Audrey Hepburn dresses by Givenchy are still in my mums wardrobe from the 60’s, they don’t fit me though. (sigh)
I remember tweedy wools in winter and crisp english style florals in summer. I worked out what was good, what hanged well and the importance of quality over quantity.
I was also dressed in things made by my Nana, but at one point head to toe dark denim was a bit of a look I didn’t really pull off! This ensemble included a matching railway style cap.
I bought my first fabric when I was 13, it was a dark burgundy paisley. My dad saw I had an interest in sewing so he bought me a sewing machine and I started making my own clothes. I taught myself from books and used patterns and fabrics found at op-shops and I created my own grungy style as a teenager.
I ended up becoming a graphic designer and as print and pattern has always been a love, this steered me into designing fabrics for the Australian clothing industry. I would always pick up fabrics when I travelled as I used them for inspiration and storyboards for clients. So over time I did amass a huge stash which is now a part of my business.
Question 2- what is so special about vintage fabrics?
There is a language to print and pattern, and this is clearly seen in fabrics. They record the tastes and fashions of the time they are made in. The fabric is the fashion and vice versa. Interiors, clothing and utilitarian items using textiles tell us a story of the time. A patchwork quilt is a testament to this. Often containing a few decades of a person’s life of textile consumption, the clothes they made for their families, the left overs used in a quilt for the home.
I am fascinated with the technology used to create textiles. The innovations that enabled certain colours to be created. Imagine this, Black, a ‘colour’ we take for granted and most of us wear every day, was not widely available until 1890! Before then, it was unstable and would rot out or become ‘fugitive’ due to the chemicals used to create it. So black as a wardrobe staple is only 123 years old. In the scheme of things, thats a pretty short time frame.
The technological advances in textile production give us the choice that we have today. The industrial revolution gave us affordable fabrics and colours that were stable. The mid 50’s saw the advent of synthetic dyes and new brighter clearer colours that changed the way colour looked forever.
Two favourites of mine are early Rayons and Acetates, the first so called synthetic fabrics. The early versions of rayon are what we call Viscose today. These were created in the early 1900’s. Then came the real synthetics in the mid 1900s- nylons and polyesters, i’m personally not a fan and avoid them where I can, but they are still important to textile development and history.
100 years ago, your choices would have been cotton, wool or silk, in limited colours, prints and supply and you paid a princely sum for them. Today, the choice is practically unlimited, if you can think of it, it probably exists and exists in a quantity that far exceeds its practical use.
But for me the thing that is truly amazing about vintage and antique fabrics is they were designed by hand, before computers. Each colour was painted or inked up separately for the printing screens by separation artists. Or earlier they were engraved into metal. The designs were drawn from scratch with pencil on grids, carefully worked out to create the repeat. Today a computer does most of this at the click of a button. To me the romance and beauty is often lost with clear crisp computerised precision. I love the little organic outlines that show hand work. I love the unexpected layouts. Or where the designs were created to compensate for shortcomings in the machinery or a tight production budget. Reversed out and overprinted to create texture and depth with a few colours. The early textiles show true design acumen and technical skill. This is what I hunt down. I learn from these snippets of fabric and by doing so this is what I strive to design for my clients.
Question 3- what are your favourites pieces?
I go through phases with the fabrics I covet. I love American printed textiles and seek out mid century fabrics and ones from the 1920s. But now I am chasing fabrics from the late 1800s. Indigos, cadet blues and mourning prints. Mourning prints are tiny prints in black that became fashionable in the Victorian era as Queen Victoria was in mourning and wore black. The more I learn about these textiles the more I need them in my collection.
I love the geometric nature and stylisation of the prints in 1920’s fabrics. I am a geometric girl as opposed to florals. With Mid century designs I like how the colour palette changed post WWII and the quirky subject matter of some of the designs. Also, so much happened during this period with design and technology and this is reflected in the designs. The ‘space age’ was very influential on designs of this era, right down to the invention of TV.
But most of all, I love a scrap quilt. Why, because its a visual feast of 100’s of prints in the one spot. I also love how some scrap quilts are totally wacky and do not follow any trained design principals. I love this free use of colour, or the use of things for necessity.
This quote sums it up for me…its from an old book I picked up at a flea market about quilting printed in the 1960’s talking about quilts of the past.
“Patchwork should be, and was, the best use of materials available, for our ancestresses surely had to use every scrap of everything they could, and not waste anything, and use their wit and ingenuity to make something useful and, if they could, attractive as well” and to go on “patchworking requires nothing that one does not have in the home already”. Unknown.
Some of these old quilts are magic.
4- what can people expect to find when they visit your store?
My studio houses my stash. It is my work place and it operates as a working studio. So sometimes its pretty hectic in there during the week. I open the studio doors to the public on Saturday and Sunday from 10am to 4pm. Sometimes I will still be working on orders but do pack most of the mess away for these 2 days. It is a relaxed environment and I encourage everyone to dig in and enjoy themselves, and if you would like a cup of tea, just ask.
I have over 2000 different fabrics on show and for sale. There are many more in stock and I do rotate the shelves regularly or if what I am working with changes. There are bolts to remnants and everything in-between. Fabrics from the late 1800s to the 1970s from the USA and Europe. I am also an authorised Liberty stockist and have both new and vintage Liberty Tana Lawn fabrics.
I only stock cotton, silk, wool, acetate and rayon. I don’t stock synthetics.
I also have traditional fabrics from Africa, Japan, Indonesia, Vietnam and a range of recycled silks and hand woven fabrics from India that are ethically sourced.
There are buttons, buckles and trims and other vintage sewing items. Vintage and Antique quilt tops, orphan blocks, scrap bags, swatch packs all sorts of bits and bobs.
If you are heading out to the studio its located in the Heritage listed Barwon Paper Mill in Fyansford. You take Lower Paper Mill Road down to the end then go through the gates on the private road and follow the signs. My studio is in the original boiler room of the mill that was built in 1876.
So there you have it. If you live in Melbourne or Geelong region, take a trip with the girls to visit Jen. To see some uses of what you can do with these amazing fabrics, visit my etsy store. I have a few gorgeous pieces from Jen, that I am holding onto to make some pokey puppies for the boys. If your interested, let me know, as I would love these to go to homes where they are valued. xx
Photos courtesy of A Piece of Cloth and Macaroon Kids