Here it comes, the true confessions of a rabid fabric fan!
Now, I’m not a schooled expert on fabrics for home decorators. I don’t work in the industry as a designer, and I’m not a fabric house mogul nor an academic textiles historian. I’m simply an antique and vintage fabric and textile seller who loves home decorator (and other) fabrics big time.
Luxurious, intricate, richly colored, and finely woven fabrics made for upholstery or drapery have always been a way to make furniture and windows into works of art. Some argue that high end fabrics are one of the most essential aspects of an interior home re-do. But designer textiles can be expensive. Fortunately, there’s a way around that, as I have found.
Anyone who has the same passion for fabric that I do can tell you that fabric collecting is the undiagnosed addiction. DSM-V material. It’s no coincidence that people who have a fabric collection call it a “stash!” And mine is huge. Too huge for my own interior design projects. So huge that it’s turned into a business as my Etsy shop Lady Virginia Vintage, where I sell pieces from history that are just the right size — usually one or two yards — for a small project like:
- A couple of pillows
- A chair seat
- A Roman shade
- A message board
- A foot tool
- Part of a piece of furniture (where you’re using other pieces to make the whole)
Most of my pieces like this come from old school “purchased samples,” the kind used by showroom reps and salespersons back in the day. I say back in the day because back then, oversized samples were more common than now.
Today, smaller decorator fabric samples, bound in books, with cardboard glued to the edges and grommets puncturing the center are in place to prevent customers from getting samples for use in small scale projects.
But there’s a trove out there of the vintage types across the 20th century, all the way up into the 1990s, that are oversized and have little or no impediments to using the piece for a small interior design or furniture re-do project.
These classics from the industry, from some of the finest high-end fabric houses the world has seen, can be much more affordable than acquiring current re-issues of the same or similar fabrics, if they can even be found. Part of the appeal of vintage decorator fabrics is that they may no longer be in print, and even if they are, earlier milling (weaving) and printing techniques are often superior in hand and vibrance than those produced today.
And I have a huge collection of them (see a tiny sampling of the fabrics below).
Over the years my instinct for and attraction to good fabric design patterns and superior textile fibers has grown from loving how a fabric looks and feels (thus HAVING to have it) to a deeper pull — wanting to know who made the piece and how? What are its historic roots? Why this design or that one — what are their meanings, or influences, or context? And is there a known designer behind the work who deserves our attention?
I love doing that research and it influences my fabric sourcing. This has led to an impressive collection that I use myself, and that I sell to bring the same joy to you, my fellow fabric hoarders! I want you to have a story to tell when you get a gorgeous piece of vintage fabric for your DIY project. When friends and family ooh and aah over your latest creation it’s so fun to tell them where the fabric came from and its importance in the design world.
The big, long, deep history of decorator textiles is fascinating. Today I want to focus on a few of the amazing fabric houses of the last three centuries that made — and in some cases are still making — textiles for upholstery, drapery and wallpaper. I’ll tell you which ones are still active today along with why they’re important, why I love them, and why I think you will fall in love with them too.
What we know of today as “fabric houses” was not really quite a thing in the 18th century per se. Back then there was a definitely a quest for ever more efficient modes of textile production similar to industrial revolution advances in other industries. And there were companies and “brands” if you will. But not like what came later.
Back then companies were definitely known — for example, Robert Jones’ Old Ford textile manufactory in the East End of London. His great mastery of the recently developed copperplate printing technique (instead of the small repeats of wood block fabric printing by hand) gave him a leg up on the competition in making fine, mostly cotton, ready-made printed textiles for the middling and upper classes in Britain and the American colonies.
Another manufacturing place was established by dyer and designer Christophe Oberkampf in 1760 at Jouy-en-Josas, in France outside Paris, to make what we think of today as toiles, or fabrics with various rural and idyllic or political or sensual scenes on them, like these.
While I don’t have a Jones or an Oberkampf for sale in my Etsy shop (sorry, maybe I’ll part with one one day), studying the advances of hand- and then copperplate- and roller-printing methods has made me pounce upon fabrics that are hand printed out of a sheer appreciation for how exacting such a method is. You have to admire the skilled labor and technological achievement along with the exciting colors and designs.
Many prints in my shop are hand printed, or use other multi-color printing techniques that mix roller and hand printing. And many in my collection harken back to 18th century roots in their design sensibilities or as frank reproductions drawn from historic sources.
By the 19th century plenty of advances in industrial weaving, dyeing, and printing meant that cloth-making was having a modern renaissance of sorts. This included making fabric more affordable and thus available to a larger buying public.
Now the stage was set for brands to distinguish themselves in what was fashionable and make a mark for creating designs of a particular look and feel. And that’s where I want to tell you about some of my faves.
Brunschwig & Fils: A 19th century French firm, Brunschwig & Fils is noted for its rich textiles across home decor categories. Zelina Comegys Brunschwig married into the existing fabrics family and into the firm, contributing significantly to its later design offerings as well as demonstrating a commitment to fair labor conditions for textile workers. She almost single-handedly maintained production during WWII in America, and was a huge influence in the preservation of history through material culture in her many designs. Here’s a great NY Times article about her and the firm. And their stuff is simply stunning. Rich patterns, saturate color, historic designs, superior fabric quality. You can’t go wrong with one of their pieces so if you see their name on the selvage, snag it up!
G. P. & J. Baker: Brothers George Percival and James Baker founded G. P. & J. Baker in 1884 with an aim to create vibrant, exotic, unique textiles (decorator fabric and wallpaper) based on historic research from fine British homes and museums , drawing on longstanding motifs and designs. They are among the most significant designers and textile preservationists in the modern world and their stuff is GORGEOUS.
Schumacher: A truly all-American firm, F. Schumacher & Co. was founded by Frederic Schumacher in the late 19th century in New York and went on to become one of the most influential American design houses of all time. Schumacher worked on multiple White House interior redesign projects across the decades, as well as in other historic homes. Schumacher also employed design doyenne Dorothy Draper, and drew from history and their own archives in notable design projects. Take some time to read their fascinating history.
Jofa (and then in the 20th century Lee Jofa): Johnson and Faulkner were American fabric and textile importers of mostly British goods who, in the early 19th century founded their firm and portmanteau’d their names into Jofa. Jofa was known for its richly detailed, vibrant, and historically important fabric designs.
Warner: Fabric royalty! Benjamin Warner founded Warner in Britain 1870, having come from a long family line in the textiles industry. It became Warner & Sons in 1891. They were known for their very high-end silks in particular, with design references dating to the 15th-18th centuries. (They later acquired Greeff, one of my ultimate favorite fabric houses.)
I could go on and on (fabric addiction!)…have to leave it there for now.
Bailey & Griffin: Founded in 1923 as an importer of textile designs coming from the UK firm Arthur H. Lee & Co., by the mid 60s Bailey & Griffin was sourcing raw textiles and designing their own line of traditionally inspired prints, all handprinted! Like so many other fabric houses there were plenty of mergers with the B&G archive ultimately ending up in the Duralee family of fabrics today.
Bassett-McNab: With roots in Philadelphia as early as 1894, Bassett McNab was officially incorporated in 1921. Always a traditional design house currying in the finest textiles and historically-based designs, Bassett McNab was a leader in fine American textiles of the 20th century. The company has had many mergers and changes in ownership over time, while retaining ties to the original family and always maintaining the original finer design aesthetics and archival references that define its style, making them relevant to successive design ages. By 2019 Bassett McNab was acquired by the American firm Stout Brothers Co., Inc., which was founded in 1927. Great people doing amazing work in the past and today, too!
Kravet: Founded in the US in 1918 by a Russian immigrant tailor — Samuel Kravet — with his sons Morris, Sam, Sol and Hy, this firm started out as S. Kravet & Sons. Over a hundred years later the company is still privately held and boasts five successive generations of descendents involved in the company which is known for its beautiful and luxurious decorator fabrics. Kravet now holds Brunschwig & Fils, Lee Jofa, and GP & J Baker along with other acquisitions, distributorships, and partnerships worldwide.
Lee Jofa: In the mid 20th century, in 1965 , Arthur H. Lee & Sons acquired Jofa making it Lee Jofa. Both had always been in the high end manufacturing and textile trade, but with Lee’s noted and innovative tapestry techniques, and Jofa’s extensive archive, they had a new way forward with these two important fabric houses. LOVE them!
Scalamandré: Perhaps my favorite fabric house of the 20th century because of their mastery of Italian silk production and passion for history. Founder Franco Scalamandré has a great story to tell of coming to America in the 20s from Italy and making a huge success of himself. From engineer to historic textile researcher to major design firm and more, Scalamandré is the ultimate high-end outfit that’s synonymous with quality, success, and above all, historic preservation. Do take some time to read up on the phenomenal Scalamandré history.
So much fabric, so little time
I’d like to tell you about some of my favorite smaller 20th century design firms, like David and Dash, Kent-Bragaline, Jack Valentine…and others. I’ll save it for another time!
Hope you check into these amazing designers, fabric houses, and manufacturers for all they’ve contributed to what we think of as great design today! And lucky for you you can find oversized mid 20th century vintage fabric samples in my Etsy shop that allows you to acquire some of this fabric without breaking the bank while setting the stage for a totally unique home decor project.
Visit my Etsy shop today. I add new old fabrics all the time!
— Lady Virginia