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The Art of Picking Vintage Textiles (as Told by a Fabric Hound)

by Karen Poce (03/21/12).

A baby quilt from the 1930s that I found while scrounging through bales of discarded clothing. It measures 36 inches by 46 inches and depicts “The Three Little Pigs,” a popular nursery rhyme of that era.

I’ve been called a Fabric Hound, a Shmutra and a Picker and really all are just dandy with me. But just don’t ask me where I pick, because we pickers are a tight-lipped bunch when it comes to divulging our secret hunting spots. I’ve been a second-hand textile picker for more than 18 years now, and we are loyal members who belong to a very small club. There’s nothing we love more than diving into a mountain of used denim, dresses or fur.

With the thrill of the unusual find—along with a little patience, dirt and luck—the day can be very rewarding. You just never know what you will find but you are almost always guaranteed you’ll find something and, hopefully, it’s in good shape and pre-dates the polyester from the ’70s, ’cause we know what sells . . . quickly. After all these years, I believe my eye is trained to spot a Puccini print or a circle skirt at 100 paces. When it’s in our hands, oh what a lovely feeling it is.

This quilt combines fine quilting with appliquéd work. The three little pigs are dressed in different colored shorts, holding sticks with hobo handkerchiefs pillows.

I got hooked many years ago when I worked for a vintage and second-hand clothing store in Kensington Market, a happening little area of Toronto that thinks of itself a tiny Greenwich Village.

I had always loved finding and wearing vintage clothing, so I was thrilled to get the position. My “boss lady” there made me promise not to tell a soul about where we were picking because she explained how difficult it was to find these places and how other dealers will do almost anything to get that information. I made the promise, but I was shocked; I had no idea how cut-throat this business was going to be!

Without revealing my treasured picking grounds (or breaking my promise), I can say that there are textile factories operating in a sort of no-man’s land in otherwise nondescript industrial parks. They are usually run by large East Indian families and the businesses deal mainly in import/export trade. These factories are scattered along borders and have been around since the beginning of the global trade; probably longer than you think. It can take a long time to work your way inside a warehouse, even when you finally find out where one is. The owners can be very stubborn when it comes to allowing an outsider to come into their space and even when you’re in, you can be out in a moment. All it takes is a new picker to come along with an offer of more cash and you and your treasures are history.

Once you’re inside, though, you’ll be surprised at how the whole recycling of textiles works. Large bales of used textiles are bought from Sally Anne’s or Value Village, and consist of stuff we are tired of. From there, the clothing is separated and sorted into men’s coats, women’s blouses, girl’s skirts, etc. Once sorted and weighed, carts are moved to compressor machines where the clothing is formed into dense, square bales for export to Africa, India and other developing destinations. These factories can be quite large and cramped, with low lighting and lots of activity as clothing is moved back and forth from conveyor belts to the baling machinery all day long. After a few visits, though, you begin to figure out how each factory works and the little differences between each of them.

The red-thatched-roof house has been embroidered with hearts and curtains and the front of the house is appliquéd grass with embroidered flowers. The road is made of three different-colored green thread embroidered grass and flowers.

Many of the workers are related to each other, so there can be a friendly family feeling, but it is a hard physical job and many work all their lives at one factory.

Luck of the Bale
Now before these textiles fly off to other continents, we Pickers come in and see if we can find anything worth pulling out to sell individually. I have seen and sorted through enough tacky 1970s polyester dresses over the years to fill one of these warehouses. Honestly, that material does not breakdown, which can be a good thing as the ’70s are now vintage, no? But every so often I’ll see a navy and polka dot jersey print peeking out at the bottom of a heap of bridesmaids dresses. After heaving and hoeing and digging down, I will slowly and gently pull out a 1940s vintage mint-condition “Andrew Sister’s” type of dress with hand-sewn buttonholes and rhinestone buttons. Who hoo! All that dust and time can be worth it.

During a recent picking expedition, I was exhausted and after vainly searching for most of the day without turning up much from those bins. When I was just about to give up I noticed a swatch of bright, turkey-red cotton at the bottom of the household linen bin. Trying carefully to untangle it from the rest of the linens, low and behold, a lovely baby crib quilt slowly emerged. I quickly looked the piece over, searching for any major stains, holes or tears. Looking good, it went straight into my stash.

Baby Crib Quilts, 1920-1940
I have found about six beautiful baby crib quilts pre-dating 1940 over the years. They are all sewn by hand and I believe the reason for this is the small size of the quilt being made. Most of these quilts would be made by the matriarch of the household as gifts for her daughter or daughter-in-law’s children, the prized grandchild. So it goes without saying that these types of quilts are very desirable to textile collectors because they are extremely unique in their design and the quilting is so exquisitely detailed. They usually have nursery rhymes or childhood scenes (circus, cowboys, toys, etc.) appliquéd on them.

A close-up of one of the little pigs. This quilt is in excellent shape and looks like it was hardly used, was most likely made by a proud grandmother who has had many years of experience quilting and given lovingly to one of her many grandchildren.

The one pictured is from the 1930s and measures 36 inches by 46 inches. The background is unbleached cotton and it is trimmed in turkey-red cotton. Turkey red is a common color of that period in North America and it has the unusual quality of remaining vibrant and non-fading after all these years and washings. This quilt combines fine quilting with appliquéd work. The scene depicted is “The Three Little Pigs,” a popular nursery rhyme of that era. The three little pigs are dressed in different colored shorts, holding sticks with hobo handkerchiefs pillows and are shown running down the grass road to their red-thatched-roof house. The house has been embroidered with hearts and curtains. The front of the house is appliquéd grass with embroidered flowers. The road is made of three different-colored green thread embroidered grass and flowers. In the corners are clusters of appliquéd turkey-red leaves with embroidered red thread around each one. Overall, this quilt is in excellent shape and looks like it was hardly used. Surely not by a baby! It was most likely made by a proud grandmother who has had many years of experience quilting in her family and given lovingly to one of her many grandchildren.

How something so beautifully handmade and personal finds its way to this remote factory in the big city is a puzzle. I don’t have the answer, but how fortunate I am to have had the opportunity to restore and sell it to someone who will love it again, giving it a new life and the respect it deserves.

Karen Poce has been a vintage textile dealer since the late 1980s. She still enjoys selling at the St. Lawrence Antique Market in Toronto, Ontario. Most days she can be found on her farm north of Toronto, where she restores antique quilts for resale and auctions. Along the way she re-designs vintage fabric into unique one of a kind home furnishing for local interior designers and grows the best organic garlic this side of Gilroy.

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13 Responses to “The Art of Picking Vintage Textiles (as Told by a Fabric Hound)”

  1. John Garrett says:

    I HAVE AN 1856 COVERLET WITH NAME OF PRECILLA FILMAN WHO MARRIED INTO THE LAND FAMILY WHO FOUNDED THE CITY OF HAMILTON, ONTARIO, CANADA.
    THERE IS ANOTHER ONE OF THE SAME DESIGN WITH THE SAME DATE BUT NAME OF – I THINK – SARAH CARPENTER WHO WAS RELATED BY MARRIAGE. IT IS OWNED BY THE ROYAL ONTARIO MUSEUM IN TORONTO, ONTARIO.
    BOTH COVERLETS WERE THOUGHT TO BE MADE BY A MENNONITE GENTLEMAN EAST OF HAMILTON.
    I HAVE SOME OF THE FILMAN & LAND FAMILY TREES.
    DO YOU HAVE ANY INTEREST IN PURCHASING MINE?
    PLEASE LET ME KNOW.
    THANK YOU,
    JOHN R GARRETT

    • Sherry Fillman says:

      Hi John! I have an interest in your items, since my husband is a Fillman. What are you asking and could you send me a picture?
      Thanks, Sherry Fillman

      • John Garrett says:

        PRECILLA FILMAN COVERLET DATED 1856

        I AM GOING TO TRY TO INCLUDE A PHOTO OF HER NAME & DATE THAT IS ON THE COVERLET

      • John Garrett says:

        I have sent 4 photos of the coverlet to this website hoping that Sherry Fillman will see the Coverlet as she asked me to, but the photos are not coming through.
        Would someone please tell me what I am doing wrong.
        Thank you,

        John Garrett

        • Sherry Fillman says:

          John, I received your message and look forward to seeing the coverlets when you are able to load the photos.
          Thanks, Sherry

          • John Garrett says:

            Hello Sherry,
            I have sent 5 photos through and don’t understand why they aren’t appearing on this website.
            If you send me your e mail address, I will send them there.
            Thanks,

            John Garrett

    • Sherry Fillman says:

      Hi John. Would be happy to send you my email, but would rather send it to you than putting it up on the web. How do I get it to you? I have no idea re: the connection of the Filman and Land families, but am interested in learning more about my husband’s roots. He doesn’t know much, as his Fillman connections died young.
      Thanks, Sherry

      • John Garrett says:

        Hi Sherry,
        I have been including my e mail address with these notes, but I guess that the owners of the site have been deleting them.
        I’ll try to find some way to contact them.

        John

      • John Garrett says:

        Hi Sherry,
        I have sent an e mail to Worthpoint asking them how we can get in touch with each other and am waiting for a reply.
        I live in Roslin, Ontario near Belleville and my phone number is 613-477-1435
        I hope that they don’t delete this information

        John Garrett

  2. Hello Karen, You have found a great treasure. We are also hooked on vintage fabrics and antique quilts and quilt tops.
    My wife got started in the 1970′s collecting old quilts and eventually also vintage fabric to repair the damaged quilts. Since it notes that you also repair old quilts, you may be interested in the over 800 different pieces of vintage fabric dating from 1860 on that we have available on our web pages at: http://www.countrycreationsantiques.com.

    Many quilt restorers have found our selection very useful and you may also. You may also be interested in the 100+ quilts, quilt tops, quilt blocks and sewing collectibles available.

    Keep up the hunt for the vintage fabrics and the occasional find of a quilt or top. These need to be salavaged and saved as part of our heritage.

    Aaron & Gail Ziegler
    Country Creations Antiques.

  3. Cathy Allcorn says:

    I have several vintage tablecloths, dresser scarves, and a beautiful quilt that is close to 100 years old. Some of the linens are spotted, age, food, etc. The quilt is just kind of dingy looking. I would love to know if you have written any articles on how to clean these types of things. The quilt especially. It was given to my 91 yr old mother by a neighbor when she was a small child. If I can clean it without messing it up I would like to display it in my home. It has alot of red and that scares me off from washing it, although my mother said when she had admired it, it was hanging on a clothesline. Any help is appreciated.

    • Cathy, We have had great success in cleaning old quilts by using a solution of warm water and apple cider vinegar. The natural apple pectin in the vinegar acts as a natural cleaner and attacks the stains but does not harm the old fabrics. Add apx 2 cups of the apple cider vinegar to 4-5 gallons of water in your bathtub. (Make usure the bathtub is clean of any soap scum and reside first). Lay the quilt in the water and soak it and when completely wet, allow the quilt to soak for 1/2 hour. Then very gently massage or work and rub the stained area and then allow it to soak for another 1/2 hour. Drain and rinse with more clean warm water. Again massage the fabrics to remove any old water and dirt. Repeat twice or as necessary. Gently squeeze the water out and lay the quilt out on towels to dry. Repeat process if necessary with slightly stronger solution if stains are still there after air drying.

      Country Creations Antiques.

  4. Jan Roloff says:

    We have the “three little pigs” nursery quilt like the photo in “as told by a Fabric Hound”. What is the worth of a quilt like this. It is in very good condition.

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