Visit our Online Flea Market!

April 8, 2015

You decide that you need a new outfit for a special occasion.

Scenario 1:  You drive to the mall, browse through several shops and try on several
pieces before you decide on one. You pay, the clerk bags it and you take it home. 

Scenario 2:  You go online, browse through several websites you've ordered
from before and you find an outfit you like.  You click 'add to basket', go to
checkout, pay for it and it's delivered to your door step in 5 days.

If you had lived 200 years ago, procuring a special dress would have been
a completely different process and would have taken several months.

You see, off-the-rack retail clothing is a late 19th century phenomenon.
Up until then all clothing was either home made or constructed by a 
professional seamstress.  And the process began with sample books.

A mid-19th century dress silk sample book is pictured above.  It
contains assorted swatches of printed brocades, blacks, failles, and
other fabrics.  The 150 page book with fragile binding recently sold
for almost $1,000.00.

After procuring an appointment with a seamstress the client
looked through sketch books for the style of dress she wanted
and then browsed through fabric sample books to pick out the
material from which the dress would be made.

Below is a dress fabric sample book from the late 19th century:

Sample and price book of silks woven
at Saint-Etienne, France, ca 1770-1810

A sample book was often used by companies for many years or
as long as the fabrics were in production.  Sample books are quite
rare and especially hard to find in good condition.

This French textiles sample book dates from 1860-70
and sits in The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

A British reverend's daughter named Barbara Johnson (1738-1825)
kept a meticulous diary throughout her life (from age 8 to well into
her 80s) of the fabrics she used and details of the garments she made
with them.  The diary is now a part of the Victoria & Albert Museum
collection.  It was reproduced in the 1980s and published under the title
A Lady of Fashion: Barbara Johnson's Album of Styles and Fabrics:

A page from a French textile sample book, 1863:

Book of lace samples from the J. Borgey and
LeClerc Company, Lyon, France, 1800

De la fabrique d'etoffes (1842)

Needlework instruction book with fold-out samples from The Female
Model School, Kildare Place, Dublin, Ireland, 1833-37

19th century ribbon sample books, Musee d'Art et d'Industrie,
Saint-Etienne, France

These four sample books are from the
Merton Abbey Dye Book, 1882-91


The sample books, below, were created by
James Leman, born in London in 1688:
Leman began his fabric designing apprenticeship at the age
of 14 and assumed the family's weaving business in 1712.
These sample books are in the Victoria and Albert Museum.

As much as we dread circling the mall parking lot, we're immensely
lucky to be born in a time when clothing is affordable and
plentiful.  But the sample books really are cool, aren't they?


  1. I'm guessing wallpaper books are an extension of these books, or maybe a forerunner? This is a really interesting post, I have a vague recollection of seeing something like one of these books as a child in a haberdashery shop - probably just for display.


  2. I would love to come across a sample book at a price that I could afford, In my dreams I suppose.

  3. They are really great! Makes me want to make one of my own with scraps of vintage fabric or fabrics I have used throughout my home:)
    ~Debra xxx
    Capers of the vintage vixens