Vintage Textiles


If you follow style predictions, you already know that vintage is going to be big for this winter 2013 and continue well into 2014. But, before we head down to the nearest emporium to rummage for a unique length of vintage fabric, let’s briefly consider vintage textiles and their wider implications.

So what exactly does the term ‘vintage’ mean? For example, when does vintage become ‘antique’ or, moving forward in time, ‘retro’? The term currently covers such a broad spectrum – just take a look online at the myriad of fabrics that are included in the category. The English dictionary defines the term ‘vintage’ as being a ‘genre’, marking an era or period in history with a value of class or quality.

The custom of acquiring vintage or second-hand textiles is not new, in fact, the practice has been carried out for centuries. The term, ‘fripperers’  was coined in the 15th Century to describe people who used to trade second-hand clothing, which was derived from the old French word ‘friperie’ that comes from ‘frepe’, meaning ‘rag’. The English Websters’ dictionary (1886) describes a ‘fripperer’ as someone dealing in old clothes and ‘frippery,’ or second-hand finery. So in the true sense of the word, it describes fabrics of quality. But how do we interpret ‘quality’?  The subject is too vast and complex to be entered into here, but it is worth considering our own interpretation when looking at vintage.

Nor, is this a new phenomenon for interior design: for example, in the early 19th century, the then popular neo-classic style was a revival of Greek motifs, such as the key pattern. Similarly, in the 1960’s, certainly in Britain, the fashion was for William Morris fabric and Victoriana, marked by the romantic designs of Laura Ashley. (William Morris lead the Arts and Crafts movement in the latter part of the 19th Century). Today, original William Morris fabric, is highly valued and displayed in domestic settings.

In the past, precious fabrics and items of clothing were bequeathed in wills or formed part of a dowry. What would our reaction be today at a similar gift, would we value it as much as our ancestors? Probably not.  So what is behind the vintage fabric revival? Are we seeking authenticity by possessing an historic object, regardless of its origin and provenance? Or, are designers so lacking in originality that they have to constantly re-invent the past?

One particular area that should be questioned is the practice of incorporating ‘vintage’ fabrics into pillows. On an international scale, there are numerous websites that sell soft furnishing items and décor, that include a plethora of pillows including grain-sacks, parts of kilim, tapestries and pieces taken from Middle Eastern and Asian textiles. We can argue that it is legitimate for a badly damaged textiles, where elements can be recycled, for them to be incorporated into new pillows but to this end, is it ethical to destroy entire textiles that are in good condition? If we believe this is the case, should we support the market in these items? After all, how many decorative pillows does society need and have we ever stopped to think what the knock-on effect might be in other areas: Chinese chickens for instance, being the major supplier of feathers for the filling?


As history has demonstrated, we will continue to bring vintage fabrics into our decorative interiors, and for that reason, we should take responsibility for them by creating better methods for displaying them in our homes. For example, hanging a length of vintage fabric as a backdrop to a bed or, hanging it as one would a picture against a wall space, works just as well.

Good hunting!

Alexandra Seth-Smith

Textile Conservator

The Textile Conservancy Co. Ltd.

Leave Reply