A Sampling of Sample Books: Organizing “The Stash”

January 21, 2013

Sample Books

I don’t really have a unfinished sewing project suitable for challenge #2 of HSF, but I do have a new year’s resolution to work on. Even though I’m not the best seamstress, I hoard fabric as though there is a shortage. Not only are there too many beautiful fabrics out there to count, they are also infinitely handy. I’ve wrapped packages, repaired rips, lengthened skirts, made all sorts of pillows for impromptu guests, wadded fabric up to pad certain *ahem* areas that didn’t quite fill out as they should, and tacked up raw yardage in many a dorm or apartment that wouldn’t allow screws in the walls for curtain rods. All this fabric collecting means that my closet is filled with scraps, samples, remnants, and miles of random fabric, much of which I have lost track of. As fun as it is to go treasure hunting through the pile, sometimes I wish I was organized enough to know what fabrics I have in what quantities. Oh, the frustration of finding the perfect stashed fabric only to run one half-yard short!

It appears modern clothing designers have been having the same fabric-shortage problem, too.

You can bin, label, and stack fabric to keep it tidy, but what about creating an easy-to-access list so you don’t have to fling open the closet doors and rifle through storage tubs just to see if you have 5 yards of chartreuse taffeta? Computer databases offer one way to organize your collection, but even with pictures, computers can’t always capture the true nature of fabric, which is very tactile.

I bought this fabric from online. It’s actually more blue than the picture and heavier than it looks (if a fabric can “look heavy”).

Enter the sample book! Long before computers, people relied on swatch and sample books to organize and buy fabric.

Fabric Sample Book, circa 1763-1764

Swatches are exceptionally useful since you can touch them them and view the coloring in different lighting (which is very important for some fabrics, like the shifty faux silk above). Sample books also make referencing really easy. It’s much easier to flip through book pages than diving into the bulk of the collection, especially if you are a seamtress or tailor who serves clients not quite as passionate about fabrics as yourself!

Fabric Sample page, circa 1763

Sample books have been around for a very long time. Most began popping up in the 18th century when fabric weaving was becoming more commercial. Sample books really took off during the Victorian era when the industrial revolution hit and bigger, more complex gowns came back into fashion again. Prints and woven patterns were often grouped by fabric type, color, or style so comparisons could be made directly between fabrics. Even with spiffy little drawings and thorough descriptions, it’s hard to judge a fabric by an antique catalog print!

The conundrum of trying to prove this point by showing you pictures of sample books is rather amusing, but at least the effect of  their bright colors compared to the black and white print of early catalogs is undeniable!

Geometric Sample Book, circa 1855
Check out that Einstein wave pattern one. Who would have thought such a Star Trek worthy print would be 150 years old? Someone needs to Steampunk this, pronto!

Cotton Samples Book, circa 1850-1915

Silk Dress Samples Book, circa 1890-1900

Tie Silk Sample Book, early 20th century

Not all sample books were for fabric alone. Early sample books were more like sampler books, documenting an individual artisan’s skills and wares, like this embroidery book full of monochrome embroidery designs that would have been applied to the shirts, chemises, cuffs, and collars of the wealthy:

Embroidery Sample Book, early 17th century

A more unusual sample book this sentimental hair-token book made by Ann Elizabeth Brubaker:

1854 hair

Hair Keepsake Book, circa 1854

This example is a cross between a sample book and an album. Elizabeth filled the pages with fancily woven and shaped locks of hair from her friends and family, a common pastime in 19th century Europe and America just like scrapbooking is today.

I decided to start a sample book for my fabric stash after I vowed to clear out clutter for my New Year’s resolution. I bought a plain-page, leather bound journal from Hobby Lobby for $8 to use as my base book.


The elastic band is really handy because the fabric samples add plenty of thickness to the book, so it needs a little help staying shut. It’s about 10 inches long, so it’s small enough that I can carry it around to the fabric store to match things (Yes, I am that obsessive of a collector. Still working on the actual “finish the project” part, though).


Antique sample books glued the samples down and were more permanent, making them great references for modern costumers. That’s one way to make a sample book, but I use mine for organizational purposes, so my book has to reflect what I actually own. Otherwise, I’d end up getting excited over a swatch only to feel the burn of disappointment, which my new sample book should help prevent. Since I’m not a big department store with a steady, huge amount of one fabric that will last forever, I mounted my samples with loops of scotch tape so I can move them around to see if they match things or remove a sample that I’ve used up. I make labels on cardstock and tape them in the same way so as the stash changes, my labels can change, too, without damaging the pages.


If it’s relatively flat, it can be put into a book. Even some trims and ribbons can benefit from being “booked.” Bear in mind, however, that whatever you add to the pages will bulk up the thickness of the book. A sample book may get thick enough it gets tough to close. If your stash is even more prodigious than mine, it may be wise to take the organization a step further and create separate books in categories that match the personality of your stash like “Silks” or “5 yards+” or “Williamsburg Projects” or “WALMART.”

(my whole stash would pretty much fit that last category)

Happy Crafting!

11 Responses to “A Sampling of Sample Books: Organizing “The Stash””

  1. Great idea about using a book. I started a project like this last year, where I used index cards and store them in a envelope. The information I have on the card is a stapled sample of the fabric, the width and length and the fabric type.

  2. Caroline Says:

    I love this idea!! In an effort to organize, I recently started saving pictures and notes about each of my fabrics in a Pinterest board. It’s not nearly as cool as having swatches you can touch, though.

    I also have a “want” board on Pinterest where I save fabrics I want to get. I have noticed this really helped me cut down on fabric shopping, since I’m, of course, totally addicted. Somehow it’s almost as satisfying…

  3. Alison Says:

    I started a “fabric project book” last year in a discarded notebook. It has been woefully neglected, but helpful despite my poor stewardship. I included a swatch, fiber content and available yardage as well as its origins (Gift from mom, Fabric.com, Hobby Lobby, Etc.) and the year I acquired it. The downfall of this plan was the decision to include details of the planned project/ idea for using the fabric. After filling it 1/3 of the way with awkward sketches, I admitted defeat and “lost” it under a stack of books.

    It did give me an enviable sense of superiority whilst shopping in the fabric store, though.

  4. Anna Worden Bauersmith Says:

    I love that you are doing a sample book. The leather book with the elastic will be great. My first swatch book was pre-bound. Then I decided to go to a binder version. This let me use pre-printed swatch cards that I could sew the fabric swatch to. (I may not be able to always find glue or tape, but I always know where needle and thread are.)
    This year, with the great unpacking, I am going digital, creating an electronic swatch book with project information attached. While this eliminated the tactile aspect, it increases the likelihood of getting done. Plus, it lets me catalog the smaller pieces for sewing cases without cutting into them.
    I would love to have a fabric app for my phone for when I’m out shopping. But, the best I’ve found are fat-quarter apps for quilting. So, if I can save my swatch book as a pdf, I can access it online.
    Happy cataloging!

  5. Caitlin Says:

    I love all your examples of historical sample books, that’s something I have never seen before. It’s really very inspiring and makes me want to create one of my own (I’m kinda a fabric hoarder). And I love your idea of making everything removable so that it’s easy to change things around as the stash changes.
    I know myself though and I know i just wouldn’t be good about maintaining it long term. But I think I will create a sample book so that I can record all the fabric I have collected and used over the years (yes i have saved fabric swatches of all my old fabric even if i used it all up and didnt keep the end result, fabric hoarder) as more like a historical fabric journal rather then an up to date inventory log.
    Thanks do much for sharing your great research and great idea!!!!

  6. The ‘Hairy Sample Book’ was creepy! The fabric ones look much better!

  7. I liked seeing the old books too. I’d suggest using a small binder with card stock with holes punched, then it’s easy to move pages around, take a few with you etc. OR just use a loose ring that opens and put card stock pages on it. Using a book with fixed pages might be limiting. I like the idea of a folder you can just put the pages in, one of those plastic folders with separate slots in it would be ideal.
    I have no time to categorize all my fabric, sold a ton of it because I’m moving but still have many many bins! Even taking a snip of all and putting into little envelopes would be a start for me. I was just thinking of organizing patterns of what I sewed with samples of fabric with them from the garments.
    Thanks for the post!

  8. Dierdra Says:

    Great idea! I’m going to have to steal this idea, but I’ll use glue dots instead of tape. They’re pretty ‘movable’ as well.

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