Ten years ago, the scope of collecting antique textiles demurely confined itself to pre-1900s quilts, samplers, hooked rugs, lace-edged linens, and other forms of needlework finery. Over the past decade, however, the field has expanded to not only include these old favorites but also 20th-century creations and manufactured items like printed tablecloths, velvet pincushions, beaded flapper dresses, and spools of thread. “The textile market seems to broaden every year,” confirms Linda Zukas, organizer of the thrice-yearly Sturbridge Vintage Fashion and Textile Show, in Sturbridge, Mass. “The constant influx of new material keeps the field incredibly vibrant and fun for collectors.”
Dealers tracking the trend report that demand for 20th-century items–particularly 1940s and ’50s tablecloths, aprons, upholstery fabric, and the like–is driven mainly by nostalgia and is closely linked to the current popularity of other collectibles from this era, including glassware and toys. “I once spotted a woman far across the room at an antiques show and watched as she made a beeline for my booth,” recalls textile dealer Mary Beth Temple, author of Rescuing Vintage Textiles (St. Johann Press; 2000; $17.50). “When she got to where I was standing, she pointed to a 1940s tablecloth on the wall and said, ‘That’s the exact pattern my grandmother had, I’ve been looking for it for 15 years, I don’t care what it costs, I’ll take it.’ I hear similar stories all the time.”
The market for dressmaking trim, sewing tools, and accessories, on the other hand, tends to rely less on fond childhood memories and more on pure appreciation of needlework crafts. For instance, a textile enthusiast who falls in love with an elaborate Victorian crazy quilt would likely be overjoyed to find the maker’s sewing basket filled with fabric scraps, sewing scissors, and embroidery thread. Even when tools and trinkets cannot be directly tied to a specific craftsperson, the objects still offer a unique glimpse into the leisure time, artistry, and industry of the past.
One of the most active areas of the textile market today is vintage fabrics–from humble 19th-century homespun to colorful 1950s bark cloth. “Old fabrics are extremely popular,” observes Jude Seyk, owner of Vintage Collection, a Half Moon Bay, Calif., shop filled with yardage from the 1 930s through the ’60s as well as quilts, lace, buttons, and other sewing sundries. Two of her best-selling styles, Seyk reveals, are toile de Jouy and ticking stripes.
The value of vintage yardage often depends on the amount of fabric available. Single-yard upholstery swatches range in price from about $5 to $25 apiece, while full bolts can sell for $35 to $50 per yard. Rarity of design is also important, sometimes increasing an item’s value fivefold. Witness the current market for feed sacks, a wildly popular collectible among quilters. During the 1930s and ’40s, sacks for flour, sugar, grain, and farm-animal feed were made from colorful printed cotton; industrious homemakers recycled the cheerful prints into clothing, quilts, aprons, and other household necessities.
Today unused feed sacks bearing common patterns like tiny circles or squares sell for about $20 each; nursery rhymes and other rare designs can fetch $100.
Vintage clothing is another category experiencing heightened interest. Because the earliest items are far too delicate to wear, most collectors either display their 19th-century treasures or carefully pack them away using acid-free tissue and storage boxes. By contrast, sturdier designs from the mid-20th century are often worn by their new owners. Popular styles tend to mirror mainstream fashion; during the 1990s swing-dance revival, for example, suits, dresses, shoes, and hats from the 1940s were all the rage. “Vintage clothing is evocative of both the original owner and the era in which it was made,” says Susan Langley, author of Vintage Hats & Bonnets 1770-1970 (Collector Books; 1998; $24.95). Her extensive collection spans the late 1700s through the 1960s. “When I look at these pieces I’m being transported back in time.”
A word of warning before you hit the shops: Because most dresses, doilies, and bedcovers were well used in their day, few items survive in pristine condition. In some cases, this works to the buyer’s advantage, especially if the buyer is a craftsperson who can recycle the good portions of a heavily soiled (and extremely inexpensive) tablecloth. For those people searching for something a bit more presentable, take heart: There are plenty of pieces on the market almost as good as new. “Almost like new,” Mary Beth Temple emphasizes, “but in many ways better than new. The softness and character that come with years of washing and care cannot be manufactured.”