Vintage Sewing

Earlier this week I made a pit stop at my local thrift store after having lunch with some friends. I was trolling through some fabric there and then my eye caught something red, white and blue with the words Stacy Hair Canvas written on what looked to be a bolt. My heart started racing – in fact, I think I nearly had a mini heart attack. I started tugging at the bolt and low and behold I had found a bolt of hair canvas. And I mean the real thing too. Not only that, but then I found another one. It was a lighter weight than the first and quite a bit more fuzzy. In fact, I’ve never actually seen or felt any hair canvas quite like it. Both are in stellar condition and leave me with about 20 yards of the stuff when all is said and done.

For those of you who may not know, hair canvas or hymo (as I’ve seen it before) is a stabilizer/interfacing, used especially in tailoring, but can also be used in substitution of various other interfacings and in conjunction with boning. I used hair canvas in my seafoam silk Ginger, in fact. It’s typically a combination of goat hair, cotton and rayon and its something that I reach for all the time because I really like using sew-in interfacing/stabilizer as opposed to fusible. It usually comes in 3 different weights – light, medium & heavy – and it can actually be rather expensive as far as interfacings go. I’ve paid between $15 – $30 for a single yard. That’s quite a bit in comparison to the $2 – $5 per yard range of most interfacings. In addition, its something that I’ve seen as the stabilizer on the backs of many of my vintage patterns.

This is where I begin to wonder. I wonder every time I pick up a vintage pattern whether or not sewers really sewed with certain items. I have to admit, that when I find out that people sew, I do wonder if they ever go in search of things like hair canvas, spiral steel boning, silk organza, silk thread, etc. (like me, because I’m a nut)? I truly do wonder about this stuff and especially with vintage sewing. Having absolutely no real concrete knowledge of what a sewing store was like back in say, the 40s, 50s, 60s or even 70s, I really wonder if items like this hair canvas, for instance, was widely available. I hear that it was, but I really wonder if it was and if people really used it and/or even knew what it was.

There’s another clue on the bolt of hair canvas that I thought you might find interesting. There was an actual sales tag left on the Stacy Hair Canvas bolt. Apparently, this was sold from a shop called Robeson’s where it started out at $1.65 per yard and ended up being marked down to $0.83 per yard. Judging from this alone, this stuff has to be old (though still in pristine condition and perfectly usable). When was hair canvas ever that low in price? Originally this bolt had 30 yards on it too. I bought it with 9 yards left on the bolt. So I have to wonder if several sewers bought a few yards here and there and then one person bought the last of the bolt (maybe because it went on sale) and kept it until a destashing of some sort happened. I also admit that I try to piece puzzles like this together all the time when I’m at the thrift. You see, when I see that new vintage sewing patterns have arrived in the pattern section of the store, I start scouring other places too because I think what happens is people donate to thrift stores in lots they consider junk. For example, when I found the hair canvas, I also noticed that there were a few patterns from the 60s over in the pattern section that were ones I hadn’t seen before, plus there was a ton of fabric (scored a nice rayon challis too) that was new and I found the sad remains of a well loved sewing machine. I imagine that stuff like this usually comes from one person’s estate or the like. Just an observation, definitely nothing that I really know about for sure. Still it makes one wonder. A lot. Especially seeing as how someone – like me – was, is or has been somewhat consumed by the craft of sewing, enough to buy hair canvas on the bolt!

Now that I’ve rambled on and on, what do you make of all this? What do you think vintage sewers really sewed with? And do you believe that these finer items – like hair canvas – were as widely available as some say they were? Just a little vintage sewing food for thought.




35 thoughts on “Vintage Sewing

  1. I think… that you scored a great find,… that this stuff probably was widely available, but that people probably made-do with what supplies the had at home (i.e. re-using parts out of old un-mendable garments, and using double layers of thick muslin/calico in place of regular “modern” versions of interfacing). For some home sewers in the past surely the motivation was the financial savings to be had over store-bought clothing, therefore if they could rustle up a cheaper substitute for store-bought supplies, or even salvage say some old buttons/a zipper then that would have been the case?

    1. Saving zippers, buttons, snaps, hooks, and the like was exactly what folks did back then. I remember my grandmother’s old sewing machine… the one that ran without electricity & only had the straight stitch. I remember my grandmother pressing up & down on the pedal as she sewed her project. I especially remember the boxes of buttons that she had cut out from thrown out garments. There was also a section in her sewing box of zippers removed from old clothing.

  2. My man always laughs at the stories that I tell about my thrift store finds.

    Most recently I found a bunch of old patterns and fabric together in a bunch at the thrift store, along with a pile of completely untouched linen tea towels. The were really fine Irish linen with calendars from the years 1977, 78, 79…. etc. all tied together with a ribbon. I imagined that someone gave the first one to “Aunt Helen” (or whoever) one year, and then thought, “I should get her another one next year because she liked it so much” etc. …. until Aunt Helen passed away and someone clearing out her house found them saved like that, because she thought that they were too nice to use for everyday.

    That’s my story anyway, and I’m sticking to it.

  3. totally jealous of your find! gaaah the hair canvas i bought for my lady grey was $28/yard!

    i don’t know anyone who sewed back in earlier eras, but i would assume that stuff was widely available at shops that carried it (like back when department stores had fabric sections) and that people actually used it… otherwise, i doubt the instructions would continue suggesting to use specialty interfactings/techniques if they didn’t think people were following those directions. not to mention, people made their clothing to last much longer than we do in our throw-away culture today, so i’d like to think that they made every effort to make something nice that would wear as well as it looked. maybe not so much that they were using couture methods to construct their skirts, but just using fine materials & paying attention to detail and fit.

    of course, all this probably went out the window around the 70s, aka the era of intense polyester wear πŸ˜›

  4. What a great find! I’m not that lucky at the thrift store. I started sewing in the 60s and I don’t remember hair canvas, but I wasn’t looking for it since I was pretty young. I do remember that fabric, in general, was much more widely available with all department stores and even Woolworth’s carrying fabric. Interestingly, polyester was not easy to find and a mix with natural and polyester fibers was a great find since it meant much less ironing of the final garment. People took natural fibers for granted. I’m sounding like an old lady!

  5. Where did you find that? I went thrift store shopping the other day and only found a few fabric notions. That’s such a great find!

    Emily S.
    Fellow Salt Lake Sewer

  6. I started sewing in the early 60’s, and was taught to use sew in interfacing in my domestic science classes. I also took a tailoring class in the 70’s and was told to use sew in interfacing for the jacket I made. I had never heard of hair canvas until I came back to sewing in the last 4 years. I’ve just looked in my Vogue Sewing Book ed 1973, and it shows how to tailor a jacket using pad stitching etc, but there is no mention of hair canvas.
    I live in the UK and remember the poor quality of fabric available in the 60’s and 70’s. It’s much improved now, especially since crimplene fell out of favour.
    I really envy your find!

  7. There used to be a department store in Champaign, Illinois called Robeson’s. I think they had a small yard goods department; I vaguely remember looking at pattern catalogs there in the 1950’s, although I think we bought our fabrics at places with lower prices. No telling whether this was the same place, of course.
    I think your hair canvas bolts would have been more likely to have been the property of a tailor or professional seamstress, or possibly a sewing instructor. A home sewer doing a tailoring project would have bought only the amount needed for the project.
    I don’t remember silk organza being commonly sold in many places (maybe one would have gone to Robeson’s for this?), but silk thread was available at any well-stocked fabric store. I don’t know of anyone who kept the large fabric stashes that seem to be customary nowadays. Most people couldn’t afford it and didn’t have the storage space, and it was easy to buy what you needed when the need arose.

    Lana from Illinois

    1. Robeson’s did have a tailoring department. I puchased quite a few of their supplies when they closed out the store. I would imagine this bolt came from Robeson’s, as I have some of their supplies and it has the same kind of tag with the same print. I can remember my mother buying hair canvas in small amounts because you just reused whatever you already had. Just my 2 cents worth. lol

  8. I think these things are so fascinating. I think about vintage sewists a lot. Did they follow instructions to the T any more or less than modern day sewists? I figure there were as many categories of people who sewed back then as there are now, from those who were experts and really truly knew their craft to those who kind of hacked their way through the process (where I think I fit in right now, lol). Sometimes I get frustrated with my sewing skills and I think about how much easier it must have been for the home sewist back in the day who knew so much more. But then I remember some of the vintage clothing I have bought over the years that was obviously sewn at home. They are not all perfect! Hem treatments that aren’t all that even, weird seams, uneven hand-stitching, strange things going on where the collar was attached, no interfacing where I would expect it, etc. And it makes me feel a lot better. πŸ™‚

  9. Well, look at that! I never knew I had my own interfacing company. πŸ™‚ When my husband’s grandmother died, the family gave me a bunch of her old sewing supplies and I still haven’t figured out what half of it is. The gadgets from days gone by were definitely very different from what I’m used to.

  10. Sunni! I’m new-ish to your blog and am wondering: WHERE THE HECK CAN I FIND A THRIFT STORE THAT SOUNDS AS GOOD AS THIS!?
    I live in Northern Virginia and there are a few okay thrift stores near enough for me to stop by them regularly– make that a couple (one Goodwill and a small community-owned shop), and I search high and low for sewing patterns and fabric at these places and all I’ve come up with are a sad assortment of mostly broken buttons/notions and a couple of horrible 1990s children’s clothing patterns.
    I’m insanely jealous of your awesome finds.

  11. Absolutely hair canvas was carried in every fabric stores or departments. It was a staple just as much as thread and zippers. It is not just useful in tailoring but general sewing depending on the style, hats, purses, backing flower or embellishments that could be moved from item to item. And Stacy was the brand, don’t recall seeing any other.

    As to Lana’s comment on stashes….oh yes! stashes even then, at least in my house. I caught the bug from my mom who caught it from Grandma. There is no cure as far as I know. (Although I haven’t looked for a cure and do not intend to!)

  12. Such a wonderful thrift store find! I too wonder all kinds of crazy questions when I find sewing related things at thrift stores and estate sales. I I always wonder what pattern fabric was intended for and when I find a pattern I always curious about what the original owners finished object looked like. I agree, I think lots of sewing stuff comes from estates when people just assume no one sews anymore and that it is worthless. It’s certainly not worthless to me!

  13. My grandmother was a HUGE seamstress in the 60’s and 70’s, but she did it because they were dirt poor. I’d really doubt she used hair canvas. But, man, she could WORK some polyblend. πŸ˜‰

  14. I bought some online before and have been hoarding it for one project I have yet to make. Found it at my local fabric shop this week at $12.98/yard and picked up 1/2 yard of it for some waistbands.

    I bought vilene tape online after seeing it in so many of my Burda magazine patterns, but decided that one wasn’t a must have going further.

    If I can find the notions required, I’ll get it, otherwise I substitute.

  15. What a find! The hair canvas around here goes for about $14/m, but it’s not very wide at all. I usually wait for the half-price sales, though. My favorite use so far has been as a bias facing for a circle skirt hem—lots of body!

    A lot of the vintage notions I’ve found at my local thrift seem to have been sold in Montreal… I have a feeling they must’ve come from one large stash that’s being slowly disseminated.

    I did a blog interview with my mom about sewing in our area when she was growing up (50s and 60s). It was pretty rough and strongly frugal. I don’t imagine there was much use of hair canvas. πŸ˜‰

  16. To echo a common sentiment here… I’m Jealous! Not only of your haul, but also of the superiority of thrift stores over in the US!! Sigh… Despite regular haunting of our charity shops here in the UK I don’t think I’ll ever turn up such a stellar find!

    I love your me-made outfits too – so cute and pretty whilst being grown up and polished!

  17. I love trying to work out where some vintage pieces came from. I was recently in a charity shop in Cambridge UK which had at least 50 patterns most bought in the same town and most already cut. The earlier ones (60s) seem to be slightly smaller than the later (70s-80s)so I’m guessing that they all belonged to the same seamstress who also hated to sew the same pattern twice given the range of patterns in the box.

  18. What a fantastic find–I would have been having a mini heart attack too! lol. Judging by the mention of things like hair canvas in some of my vintage sewing manuals, I would suspect that more accomplished home seamstresses would have been aware of it. Especially since a wide variety of “modern” interfacing (Pellon and such) didn’t become available until the 50s and 60s.

  19. What a fabulous find! I order it from I use it in diaper bags, messenger bags & totes! It’s very hard to find in fabric stores! You are sooo lucky!!

  20. What a great find for vintage! The best find I got at a thrift store was a large bag of candlewicking thread…lots of colors included with the traditional white and ecru. Thrift stores are a lot of hit-or-miss, so they just keep sucking you back. And I go. πŸ™‚

  21. I go thrift shopping any opportunity I get. Tho I tend less to find sewing supplies these days, I do find plenty of linens, embroideries/handwork, and clothes that easily end up being supplies as they work their way into being something else. Its a lot of fun!!! πŸ™‚

  22. What a great find!

    I was wondering – how do *you* clean items you’ve partially interfaced with hair canvas? I’m planning to interface the waistband on some linen pants with it, but I hate the thought of the pants becoming dry-clean only. I did prep the canvas with a hot soak and then a steam pressing…would you feel okay hand washing the finished pants?

    1. Yes I would, especially since you’ve pre-laundered the canvas that way. I definitely think that a hand wash will be just fine or at least that is what I would do.

  23. Wow. I am so envious of your find. My mother and her mother and the rest of the family sewed. Mother was an expert at sewing (even had the degree). According to her, hair canvas is the thing to use for interfacing in a traditional (wool) suit jacket. The hair canvas would be pad stitched in place by hand. Pad stitching and steaming the wool to get the correct fit takes a lot of time and some expertise to do correctly. Even in the 60’s it was more likely for a man to purchase his suit than for his wife to make him one. Traditional suit jackets came into vague once again for women in the early 80’s and hair canvas could be found at outlets like Joanne Fabrics at that time, though I usually had to get help from staff to find the right bolt. What I noticed is that most home sewer’s wanted to use the iron-in interfacing, not hair canvas due to the time it takes pad stitch. The iron-in interfaced jackets didn’t last like the those interfaced with hair canvas. Dry cleaning ruined them.
    Because wool suiting and hair canvas were expensive, mother would study the pattern layouts and determine if there were a more efficient layout (use less cloth) so that she would purchase the absolute minimum amount of yardage to make the suit. All scraps were saved for patches or reweaving if needed. I have not seen anyone do this in years – most sewer’s (including myself) buy the amount that the envelope lists. Because the absolute minimum amount of yardage was purchased and the scraps were used for patching or reweaving, not much would be left in anyone’s stash.
    I sure wish the thrift shops around here would sell donated fabrics. Instead, it’s baled with unsaleable clothes and rags and sold to make paper.

    1. Kim,

      I too graduated with a B.S. in Home Economics (1976) and spent several semesters learning to tailor jackets, coats, etc with hair canvas (pad stitching and steaming the wool often left my fingertips burnt &/or bloody & it is hard to sewing hand sew with bandages) however, this skill has helped me immensely.
      How? When purchasing ready made, I know what to look for in expensive clothing (Is it worth the big bucks?) and when I buy a vintage suit/coat – easier to take apart and reassemble because you get to know the layers in collars, arm scythe, hem, etc.

      I still have several jackets made in early 80’s that have held up well and soon will be coming back in style – not that I can fit into them anymore…but my daughter and later her daughter will.

  24. I’ve been on the hunt for hair canvas for a while now with no success! My latest project needs some and two of the sewing stores I’ve been to either don’t have it, or their employees don’t know what it is. I’m hitting up a smaller (but more experienced staff) place tonight hoping that they will have it. Great find!

  25. anychance you have any hair canvas left, i need the heavier one as i am making a bag, i need 1.50 meters and how much would it ost.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s