You’ve seen fabric such as this:
And even this:
In fabric stores or on websites. In our quilting world, this is called Reproduction Fabric. This means the cloth is an imitation of an older color palette and print produced by modern methods and with modern dyes. Quilters tend to broadly categorize Reproduction Fabrics into three categories: Revolutionary War, Civil War, and 1930’s Feed Sack designs. This categorization tends to fit our quilting world pretty well as we muddle our way through patterns and applique. However, what you may not realize is in some way, all fabric is reproduction fabric. At some point in time, the colors and prints used now came from or was influenced by some other fabric in the past. Even the wild 1970’s fabric was inspired by something else. And in turn the 1970’s palette inspired this:
Which was designed by Maureen McCormick, who you may remember as Marcia Brady and who is also a quilter.
The fabric playing field has plenty of Reproduction players and substitutes. And it’s fairly easy for cloth manufacturers to produce this material – and not just because of modern spinning, weaving, and dying methods. What most quilters may not realize is a great many of the inspirational resources for the Reproduction Fabric are not copyrighted. Much of the fabric from the Civil War Era and further back does not hold a copyright, which means cloth manufacturers are free to duplicate it without any fear of legal repercussions. And if it did per chance have a copyright, it has long expired. The exception to this copyright-free reproduction free-for-all begins with the feedsacks produced around 1925 and forward. The feedsack manufacturers were very serious about their prints. They hired artists to design their product and patents were held on the design of both the sacks and the prints – pretty much assuring the competition could not duplicate the feedsacks.
So, what did the fabric manufacturers such as Moda and Windham do? Any quick look at the larger quilting fabric websites such as Hancock’s of Paducah shows plenty of 1930 Reproduction Fabric and those fabric designs are still under copyright. There is always the possibility these cloth producers contacted whoever owns the copyright and received permission to reproduce the fabric. However, chances are better they took advantage of the copyright rule which states any design which is 35 percent different from the original is, in and of itself, its own and does not violate copyright law. The designs on this Reproduction Fabric may be similar, and definitely holds the 1930’s color palette, but you’d be hard pressed to find a feedsack which looks exactly like the Reproduction Fabric.
Another concept we quilters must remember is we are small fish in a large Reproduction Fabric pond. Costumers are by far the largest consumer of this fabric – from all Eras. While we tend to limit ourselves to the three categories of Revolution, Civil War, and 1930’s, costumers run the gamut. And I break “costumers” into two broad categories: Professionals and Reenactors. Professionals have given us breathtaking costumes for TV shows, plays, and movies such as Downton Abby, Outlander, Les Mes, Emma, The Great Gatsby, Mary Queen of Scots, Macbeth (2015), Little Women, Memories of a Geisha…and probably one you’d never think of: The Muppets Christmas Carol.
Seriously…research the clothing during this period and then watch the movie. It will blow you away…from the tiny smocking on the sleeves to the bonnet Miss Piggy wears.
Reenactors – the second group of costumers – while smaller in number are no less passionate about accuracy of both pattern and fabric. These are the folks who re-enact battles and time periods– which for us means primarily the American Revolutionary War and the Civil War. I taught several of these young reenactors in school and was extremely impressed by their desire everything be as accurate to the time period represented as possible – from the food to the weapons to the clothing. Inevitably at some point one of them would discover I sewed, and I was called on to construct everything from hoop skirts to soldier jackets (once even a wedding dress). And while I may have the exact color of fabric needed in my stash, if it wasn’t representative of the time period, it was always politely declined until just the right fabric could be found.
Yup. In the Reproductive Fabric pond, quilters are indeed small fish.
However, there may come a time when you’re browsing Ebay or another auction site and come across fabric which the seller will authenticate as original to the time period – in other words, the Civil War fabric you’re interested in purchasing may actually be from the mid-1800’s. How do you know if it’s really, truly material from this era? There are several ways, and the first one to consider is the width.
Prior to 1915, fabric widths were under 24 inches.
From the 1920’s to the 1930’s, fabric widths were 30- to 34 inches.
From the 1940’s to 1950’s, fabric widths were 36- to 39 inches.
In the 1960’s, fabric widths expanded to the 44- to 45 inches we have today. Also, please note these are generally American manufacturer widths. European and Asian widths can be slightly less.
The dying process is another item which should be carefully looked at. I realize some dyes in antique fabric will alter over time (and we will look at those later), but there are some general differences between 21st century dye processes and those used in older fabrics. If a seller is claiming a piece of material is antique, the first action to take is flip the fabric over to the wrong side or ask to see a picture of the back of the fabric. If the color saturated to the wrong side of the fabric (meaning the wrong side of the fabric is nearly identical to the front), chances are the cloth is authentic. This is especially true of indigo fabric. Reproduction fabric tends to have a definite right and wrong side and the difference is easily seen.
Printing techniques may also give you another clue to determine if the fabric is authentic or a reproduction. Older printing methods only allowed for printing one color at a time on the fabric, and often these colors didn’t line up perfectly, so you’ll find dyes “outside the lines.” Today’s printing techniques are nearly flawless, so these errors in printing aren’t generally present.
The last characteristic which should be taken into consideration are particular colors. Broadly, there are three colors that should be closely examined. In some instances, these colors do not exist in our palettes at all today. In other cases, they exist, but because we may not use the same chemicals in the dye vats (primarily because we discovered they’re poisonous or just plain nasty), the colors in reproduction fabric may be just a tad different. Specifically, these colors are turkey red, indigo, and some greens. Let’s take a quick look at each.
Turkey Red – This name doesn’t describe the color so much as it does the process need to produce the red cloth. Cloth manufacturers wanted a true red color and through a series of trial and error, the country Turkey (Levant Region) developed a process. The reason fabric producers can no longer produce a “true” Turkey Red is because none of them would go through the process to have true Turkey Red fabric. The process is arduous and well…gross. After you read what goes into it, you’ll understand why modern cloth makers are happy to settle for close. It begins with the root of the rubia plant – also known as madder – for the dye.
1. Boil cotton in lye of Barilla or wood ash
2. Wash and dry
3. Steep in a liquor of Barilla ash or soda plus sheep’s dung and olive oil
4. Rinse, let stand 12 hours, dry
5. Repeat steps 3 and 4 three times.
6. Steep in a fresh liquor of Barilla ash or soda, sheep’s dung, olive oil and white argol (potassium tartrate).
7. Rinse and dry
8. Repeat steps 6 and 7 three times.
9. Treat with gall nut solution
10. Wash and dry
11. Repeat steps 9 and 10 once.
12. Treat with a solution of alum, or alum mixed with ashes and Saccharum Saturni (lead acetate).
13. Dry, wash, dry.
14. Madder once or twice with Turkey madder to which a little sheep’s blood is added.
16. Boil in a lye made of soda ash or the dung liquor
17. Wash and dry.
I know Halloween is long gone, but somehow, I feel if you threw in Eye of Newt and Toe of Frog, no one in the dye house would be surprised.
Anyway, the red in this quilt is a true Turkey Red…
And this is about as close as manufacturers can get to it today.
It is necessary to note that as fabric manufacturers moved away from the traditional method of producing Turkey Red fabric, they employed synthetic dyes, which turned out to be fugitive. The term fugitive in the quilt world means the original color produced by the dying methods eventually fades into an entirely different color. With the early synthetic Turkey Red dyes, the fabric faded into pinks, as you can see in this quilt.
The stars made from “real” Turkey Red fabric are still nice and red. The ones made from the synthetic fugitive dye have faded into a light pink.
So, could you possibly find actual, true Turkey Red fabric from an antique dealer? Perhaps. However, I would definitely compare the antique red fabric to a swatch of modern Turkey Red. And if the fabric has been folded, I would carefully search the fold lines for any fugitive dyes – the early synthetic Turkey Reds can fade at the fold lines or in places where the fabric has been exposed to sunlight.
For a lot of antique quilt enthusiasts, when the color green is thrown out, their minds immediately think about the color called Poison Green. We will talk about this green in a bit, but for right now, I want to give an overall description of the greens used in old quilts.
Early dyes were either vegetable (the color came from plants), animal (shellfish, cochineal), or mineral (the color was derived from minerals). It wasn’t until 1856 that William Henry Perkin accidently discovered synthetic dyes. Perkin was working to produce synthetic quinine. Real quinine was used in the treatment of malaria, but it was expensive to produce from natural ingredients. Perkin thought if he could find a way to artificially synthesize quinine, more malaria patients could be treated, and their treatments wouldn’t be so expensive. However, in the process, he accidently discovered a synthetic dye which produced the color mauve. Therefore, prior to 1856, dyes were produced from plants, animals, or minerals, and the colors created were red, yellow, purple, and blue. Even with all the greenery out there in the big world, no one could find a dark enough natural green to produce green fabric. As a result, early green dye methods involved overdying fabric. It would first be dyed yellow and then dyed again – the second time in the blue dye vat. And it’s these greens which tend to be the most fugitive.
The dyes used were Prussian Blue and Chrome Yellow. The problem with this is the blue can fade more quickly than the yellow. As the green fabric fades, it can look as if it is lime green or yellow green because the blue disappears at a faster rate than the yellow. If you come across an antique quilt with yellow-greens or lime greens, chances are the original color was a darker green and the blue dye is fugitive. However, if the yellow dye is the fugitive, we’re left with quilts like this:
And the original green vines and leaves appear blue. Evidently two different kinds of green fabric were used on this basket quilt, as we have yellow-green leaves and blue vines and leaves.
Around 1870, a synthetic green dye was produced, and it made deep green, teal, and blue-green fabric available. It was an aniline (coal tar) dye and was horribly fugitive. It would bleed out in water and fade to a light khaki color.
It wasn’t until after 1925 a reliable green dye was produced.
Now about those Poison Greens. When that term is tossed out in quilt groups, this is the green which usually comes to mind:
However, that isn’t poison green. This is poison green:
Poison green dyes were based on copper arsenate – arsenic. Chemist Carl Wilhelm Scheele (1742-1786) discovered arsenic’s use as a coloring agent in 1778. It became a super popular color and was used in wallpaper, upholstery fabric, clothing, and food. It was decades before people learned anything produced with this green dye made them sick and could even kill them (this was years before anyone in Washington thought about developing the FDA). Scheele himself fell victim to the poisonous side effects of his own green dye and passed away at the age 44. By 1860, folks became aware of the arsenic in this green and it quickly fell out of favor (to show you how popular this color was before 1860, even the White House had a Green Room comprised of poison green paint, wallpaper, and fabric). Light green did not regain favor until the 1920’s when a safe, light green dye was invented, and it was dubbed Mint Green.
The chances of finding true antique greens are iffy at best, unless the fabric is post-1925. Prior to 1925, they were notoriously fugitive. Most, if not all, of the real poison green fabric has been destroyed. I wouldn’t want any of it, regardless.
Natural indigo dye has existed for at least 6,000 years and was highly prized. While raised primarily in Asia, it was discovered Pre-Revolutionary War, that South Carolina also had the resources for raising indigo. I’d like to add this was discovered by a woman – 16 year-old Eliza Lucas. While this plant was different than the one grown in Asia, it still produced the blue dye coveted by Europeans. It was such a cash crop, when Benjamin Franklin sailed to France to procure their help in fighting the British, he took along 35 barrels of it to sell and help finance the war.
Of all the dyes – even Poison Green – indigo has the darkest history. The plants which produce indigo have to be treated with various chemicals (depending on which indigo plant is used) and the byproduct of chemical reaction is carbon monoxide, making the process extremely hazardous. This coupled with the fact growing indigo is extremely labor intensive (it takes literally thousands of plants to produce a small amount of indigo), made it a crop expensive to grow regardless of where it was raised. For many countries, including our own, this meant slave labor was key to its success.
In 1865, work began on producing a synthetic indigo and by 1880 a fairly stable dye was formulated. It was also much less expensive to make than traditional indigos. However, the byproduct was still carbon monoxide when mixed with water. There was a great deal of experimentation with liquids other than water – urine, for example. The stale urine used contained ammonia. The only byproduct of ammonia was zinc. Anerobic bacterial liquids were also tried with varying results. Eventually the molecule which produced the blue we’re used to now, isatin, was isolated. When this occurred, synthetic dyes became readily available – and they were cheap. So cheap that in 1873, when a couple of guys named Jacob W. Davis and Levi Strauss introduced a heavy-duty work pant for gold miners, they dyed them with this new indigo dye.
Now about antique quilts or possible antique indigo blue fabric. What I’m about to write are broad generalities. To read about specifics on this dye and fabric, I would point you to Barbara Brackman. She is the expert in this field, and her website is : https://civilwarquilts.blogspot.com/
Indigo blue is a very stable color – so no fugitives to worry about here. And it reigned supreme until 1840-1850 when Prussian Blues gained favor with dress and quilt makers.
Many of the indigo fabrics had small white or light blue dots or figures on them. Thousands and thousands of yards of indigo fabric were produced. And this is what makes indigo quilts a bit tricky to date. Because there was so much indigo fabric in the market, quilters and dressmakers purchased a great deal of the fabric. So much so, the indigo cloth could have sat in a stash for years
not like any of us know anything at all about that….before it was put in a quilt. So, to accurately date an indigo quilt, you have to look at the surrounding fabric, the quilting pattern, and possibly the blocks used.
Can you find antique indigo fabric? Yes. To be sure it’s the real deal and not the reproduction, look at the wrong side of the fabric. The dye should have completely saturated the back of the cloth. If it doesn’t, chances are it’s a reproduction.
Now let’s chat a little about Reproduction Fabric. Today’s cloth manufacturers have done a wonderful job matching dye colors and patterns used in antique fabric without the hazards some of the original textiles produced. And it’s super easy to find nearly any type of Reproduction Fabric you want. I know quilters tend to gravitate to Revolutionary War, Civil War, and 1930’s Feedsacks, but costumers need fabric from all eras. I’m happy it’s as easy to find Edwardian Fabric Reproduction as it is Feedsack Prints. I think it’s wonderful I can make a quilt with modern colors and prints and then turn around and use Reproduction Fabrics in the next one. As quilters, we are truly blessed to have such wonderful varieties of material.
As far as acquiring Reproduction Fabrics, I do think it’s important to know your time era – what type of Reproduction Fabric are you drawn to? For me, it’s the Feedsack Reproductions. I love the 1925-1950 palette. I tend to cultivate those Reproductions as well as the real feedsacks themselves. These take up about one-third of my stash. I keep these fabrics together in one place, sorted by colors. I’ve studied this time period and generally have a good idea about what is a good reproduction and what isn’t. I also like Civil War fabric, but not as much as the Feedsacks. I have a smaller stash of these (it honestly fits into a small, plastic bin) and it’s also kept separate from my general stash. My advice is to know your time period well. Know what prints and colors are authentic. Purchase Reproduction Fabric from manufacturers who make quality and authentic prints. My favorite website to purchase any Reproduction Fabric is Two Bees. https://www.twobeesfabric.com/
Quality product, fast shipping, great service. They are awesome.
Now, how to use them in a quilt? This depends entirely on what the purpose of the quilt is. If I’m making a copy of an antique quilt, I stick solely to the Reproduction Fabric of that time period. This just lends itself to an authentic look. However, if this isn’t the case, I’ll use them just as I would any other stash. For instance, look at this Fall quilt hanging now in my entrance way:
This quilt has Civil War Reproduction Fabric, as well as fabric pulled from my general stash. I made this quilt as part of my Fall decorations, not as a replica of a Civil War quilt, so it really didn’t matter what fabric I used.
Find your time period and study it before purchasing fabric. Be sure the material correctly reflects the era it’s supposed to represent. You may find you have a real love affair with Reproduction prints and they become what you are as a quilter. It’s happened to quilters such as Kim Diehl and Judy Rothamel. The main thing is to find the fabric you love and then have fun making the quilts!
Until Next Week, Quilt On!
Love and Stitches,
Sherri and Sam