What fabric for 1950s dresses?

Stacey from Oregon wrote to me this week asking for some advice and I’m smart enough to know you guys are much smarter than me. Here’s her question:

I’m a home sewer and the secretary at my local elementary school would like me to sew her some fabulous 1950s style dresses made out of polished cotton or chintz in a floral pattern.

I found a few patterns that I can work with to create the look she wants (Butterick 5556, Butterick 5747 – both pictured), but I have been unsuccessful in finding fabric that is suitable – either it’s too heavy duty or meant for drapery.

Could I just make the dress out of a good cotton, and then take to a dry cleaners and have it extra starched?

Any suggestions would be appreciated!

I have good luck finding fabric at my local thrift stores, but I don’t know if that would apply in Oregon…

How do you find your fabric? What advice would you give Stacey?

• Meet the Author • Katherine


I'm the editor at WeSewRetro so don't hesitate to get in touch with any problems or questions. In addition to keeping the good ship WeSewRetro afloat, I do an amateurish but enthusiastic job of raising a daughter, teach university professors how to dominate a computer by day and study for a masters in literature at night. My daily coffee consumption would kill a small horse. I'm having a clandestine relationship with bias binding and my idea of hell is turning a spaghetti strap right side out.


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11 comments… add one

  • I think she’s looking for sateen. Probably a silk cotton blend would be best.

    Reply
  • Hi, I have made the second pattern in a cotton fabric (novelty with golfers all over it) and it made up beautifully – sorry I have no pictures. I also have the other pattern and I am a strong believer in “if you like it just go for it”. I know I am probably of no help whatsoever but good luck and I look forward to seeing the finished results.

    Reply
  • I’ve made the second pattern up in a taffeta and it turned out fabulous. If you find a nice weight fabric but you don’t think it will give the poof factor you want, consider adding a crinoline. My first crinoline was salvaged from a thrift store prom dress. I just cut out the lining with the tulle and added an elastic waist band.

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  • If she is in the Portland area, I suggest she go to Mill End. They claim there is “no bigger fabric display in America” so she should definitely be able to find the right stuff. I also like Fabric Depot and there are many of those around Oregon :)

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  • Other than the above suggestions, I would scan the local paper/online listings for estate sales in your area. Every once in a while, I hit the mother lode of fabric & notions from the estate of a home sewer or professional seamstress. The prices are also usually much cheaper!

    Reply
  • Spoonflower.com designs can be ordered in cotton sateen. For starters, enter “retro” or “fifties” in the search box.

    Reply
  • There are absolutely thrift stores all over Oregon, and, like anywhere, sometimes there is a spectacular selection, and sometimes nothing at all. I haven’t been to Scrap (Portland) yet, but it’s a thrift store dedicated to selling supplies to make stuff out of, including fabric. Fabric Depot in Portland is huge (1.5 acres), and does carry apparel fabric, including cotton/silk blended floral prints. The sheer gigantic-ness of that store means needing to have a filter to stay out of the quilting fabrics and away from the $120/yard silks; it can be overwhelming. Joann’s (multiple locations) and Hancock (Salem) stores have a hit and miss selection of apparel fabrics. Walmart is usually stocking poor quality quilting cottons or polyester knits/fleece anymore, at least the last time I looked. Then there’s always the on-line option. You won’t have the ability to feel the fabric first, but you can search/sort by fabrics or print. Fabric.com and fashionfabricsclub.com are two of my favorites for affordability and selection.

    Reply
  • Like Samantha, I immediately thought of cotton sateen, which I saw new bolts of in Hancock Fabrics the other day. It has the crisp body you want and is popular enough right now to find relatively easily. Pique is another good choice that should be hitting the stores for spring sewing. Some of the “linen look” fabrics are also appropriate for ’50s dresses – you want the shirt-weight ones, though, not the heavier bottom- or jacket-weight fabrics.

    If your local fabric store isn’t doing it for you, try the web. I’ve bought a fair amount from FashionFabricsClub.com and Fabric.com. If you don’t like the fabric, you can return it. They have a much better selection of apparel fabrics than most fabric stores do these days.

    Reply
  • I have made the second one in a poly taffeta and have made other 50s dresses in poly satin, linen, and silk faille. I’m working on one right now in a poly/acetate faille. I like to buy a lot of my fabrics on fabricmartfabrics.com. I can get very good quality designer fabrics for a fraction of what they would be elsewhere. The faille I’m working with now, is a Calvin Klein fabric and was only $1.00/yd! I agree with the previous commenters on using cotton sateen. A cotton twill would also work good, although it could potentially be too thick and stiff.

    Reply
  • Cotton sateen would be great, and if you want a linen look, I’ve seen some lovely synthetic linens lately – you get the look, and lovely drape, but no wrinkles. The weave is loose enough that it’s not hot to wear, and you could line with a light cotton blend fabric.

    Reply
  • Thank you EVERYONE for your great suggestions… I’m going to start looking into all the things that have been suggested this evening! Wonderful!

    Reply

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