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!