A Sampling of Sample Books: Organizing “The Stash”

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!

The Merchant Gentleman’s Coat

Historical Sew Fortnightly Challenge #1:
The __13 Challenge


My sexy circa 1713 man’s coat

I know I swore I wouldn’t post the challenges for the HSF here, but this is an exceptional case. The first challenge for this year-long saga of stretching my sewing skills involved celebrating a fashion from a year ending in __13 (e.g. 1913, 1413, etc.). Most folks would have done something pretty and simple, like Edwardian or Regency.

Me? I’m a glutton for punishment and men’s fashion.

So began the 1713 man’s coat.

Before I go on, I have a large confession to make: I have a horrible, irrational fear of the sewing machine. It’s not like I’ve never used one– I own one in fact– but I hate machine sewing and have since I was little. A whole dissertation could probably be written about whatever weird psychological phenomena prompted this distaste, but for now, just remember that I refuse to machine sew anything other than a straight line. This is an important factor in the insanity that follows.

So, I live in Carlsbad, NM, a town out in the middle of the Chihuahua desert. I am fortunate that, even though we are in podunk nowhere, I have access to a fabulous craft emporium chock full of the finest fabrics and patterns at deeply discounted prices.

So, I trooped into Walmart to find 1713 coat patterns and some cheap, suitable fabric. Many Walmarts have done away with their fabric sections, but thanks to a steady crafting community, our smarmy Walmart still dedicates a tiny corner to quilting cotton and the “China Specials” (those fabric bolts marked “contents unknown/variable” with the texture of a felted plastic bag). When I finally found time to get to this Subway-scented wonderland, it was a week into the challenge already, leaving me only a few hours after work each night to sew.  Fortunately, the Fates of Fashion were in a good mood that day, and I emerged from the polyester muddle with the only heavyweight natural fiber available in any sort of feasible color: 6 yards of brown cotton canvas duck ($5.49 cents a yard). Walmart was discerning and refined enough to furnish me with a historically accurate pattern as well:

Aw, yeah! Simplicity 4923.

I’m not joking about the historical accuracy, at least of the actual coat silhouette itself. Jack Sparrow wannabe aside, this pattern is actually good for achieving an early 18th century look as long as you don’t need something perfectly accurate, method-wise. In fact, I’m going to go back and buy the large size version so I can make one for my barrel-chested father. I chose to make an xsmall this time around because I wanted something smaller and therefore quicker to sew. Also, thanks to an excellent sports bra, I happen to fit in the Simplicity man’s xsmall and will provide evidence as soon as I find/make something other than jeans and t-shirt to wear underneath.

The sewing saga began Thursday night with the cutting of the pattern. The envelope back said the coat would take 5 7/8 yards of 45″ fabric to make a coat. My cotton duck was 60 inches wide, but I figured 6 yards wouldn’t hurt (room for mistakes). I ended up using only about 3 yards, so I have enough left over for another, if I choose. The directions and pattern pieces were all straightforward and easy to piece together, minus the darn interfacing which I cheaped out on and just used some more cotton duck, so it’s a little too bulky. However, the directions are mostly common sense, except the sleeves. I had to perform some serious sleeve voodoo on those things just to get them to line up properly!


An accurate, scientific portrayal of what occurs during sleeve voodoo.

So, did I mention I hate sewing machines? I felt rather accomplished pushing my needle in and out of the cloth over and over and over and over. I sewed 100% or this coat with my own hands and only stabbed myself once (with the back of the needle, of all things). I started out at about 10 stiches per inch on Friday, but by Sunday morning, I was booking it at something a little closer to 5 or 6. My mother walked by on Saturday night with a horribly concerned look on her face and offered to machine sew the monstrously, terribly, god-awfully long 84 inch strip of interfacing. But I was in too deep. I soldiered on. My irrational fear and pride at least keep me industrious to a fault.


The irony of the hole in my pants does not escape me…

My favorite part of the project was the 27 buttons. Walmart has almost no trims besides wired ribbons and plastic buttons, but I found one hanger of 3/4 inch brass buttons at a frugal 97 cents a pack!


Plus, they totally say “Le Bouton” which makes them French and fancy. Yeah.

The little brass buttons were inspired by this early 18th century  illustration of a military officer:

“Studies of Two Gentlemen” by Luca Carlevarijs, circa 1700-1710

I’m a sucker for gold and brown, plus buttons are fun, so sewing that long front row was satisfying. I ignored the pattern’s suggestion for paired-button placement and went for a dense, evenly-spaced line. Most civilian English and French coats from 1700-1720 had cloth- or thread-covered buttons all the way down the front, but the major inspiration for this coat in the first place was this illustration by the same artist:

“A Man Wearing a Yellow Coat” by Luca Carlevarijs, circa 1700-1710
In addition, there is a later coat made out of a linen/cotton fabric that helps me rationalize the cotton duck.

The buttons appear to stop just below the waist line at pocket-level, so that’s where I ended my buttons– a fortunate happenstance considering that I used up every single brass button in a 150 mile radius! The pocket flap design on the original Simplicity pattern is way too big, ungainly, and ill-placed (they are way too high and I recommend completely ignoring it and making your own), so I cut the shape to resemble this drawing’s pocket flaps and attached them in a more historically- and aesthetically-pleasing place: where the sleeves end.


I love late 17th and early 18th century men’s fashion! It’s fussy, but not so fancy that a modern man would feel threatened by it, yet it’s all so over-the-top with gargantuan, heavy wigs, buttons everywhere, and fluffy skirts (yes, gents, you too can enjoy the glory of a full-circle spin in this triple-godet, 134-inch hem coat).


134 inches of swirly, manly goodness.


Note: While you can’t see them thanks to me having to wrangle this man’s coat onto a very, very female dress form, this pattern has historically-appropriate angled shoulder seams that fall over the shoulder blades instead of sitting on top of the shoulder.
Also: obligatory cat hair.

Historical Sew Fornightly: Just the Facts!

Italian Man’s Coat, circa 1713
Fabric: Walmart Special Brown Cotton Duck
Pattern: Simplicity 4923 with modified pockets, man’s size xsmall (32″ chest)
Year: 1710-1730
Notions: 27 brass buttons, thread
How historically accurate is it? 65% total, but it’s 100% handstiched because I have a horrible, irrational fear of the sewing machine…
Hours to complete: 38 Hours
Total cost: $25 for fabric, $9 for buttons, $1.26 for thread
For more examples of non-pirate interpretations of Simplicity 4923:
18th Century Men’s Outfit” on Just Blame Jane (uses the breeches pattern that I am saving)
A Pattern is More Like a Guideline, Really…” on Sempstress (uses multiple modifications to create a variety of looks for the fab musical 1776. She makes a good notation about sizing, too!)
For more info on hand stitches, here’s a handy little guide: “Hand Stitching” (also includes tips for sewing with fur!)