Modern vs Antique Fabric Textiles

Instructor: Stephanie Przybylek

Stephanie has taught studio art and art history classes to audiences of all ages. She holds a master's degree in Art History.

Have you ever found an old dress or rug in an antique store and wondered about its age? Are old and new fabrics really different? In this lesson, we'll explore antique versus modern textiles.

What Qualifies As Antique?

Humans have made textiles for thousands of years. The earliest known examples date to the Stone Age. The first cottons and linens were made in places like India and Egypt around 5000 BC. Today, textile companies and individuals all over the world make many kinds of fabrics in an infinite array of colors and designs. But how can you tell what's antique and what's modern?

First, let's define antique. Technically, an antique is something that is at least 100 years or older, according to customs laws. When you see words like vintage or retro, they might be descriptive, but they're used more for marketing than as a true indicator of age. They don't signal that something is antique.

Differences in Modern and Antique Textiles

To compare modern and antique fabrics, you have to examine them. You can't tell the difference by looking at photographs. Feel them, run your fingers across their surface. Use a magnifying glass to see details of their fibers and patterns.

Antique textiles are typically made from natural fibers and materials, things like animal fur, cotton, wool, silk, or linen. The first synthetic, or man-made and non-natural, textile fibers were invented at the end of the nineteenth century and began to be regularly used in fabrics in the 1920s.

Then there are textiles made from nylon and polyester. Those are twentieth century fibers. If the fabric has identifying tags or labels, words like rayon, acetate, Dacron and Orlon (the latter two names are brands), it signals that the fabric is modern. If you see the words 'permanent press,' it also means modern, because those finishes came about in the 1960s. Some of the newest fabrics include space-age materials like spandex, carbon filament textiles and fibers with electronics embedded in them. Those are certainly never found in antiques!

Look closely. Can you see a weave pattern? Some experts can look at how a textile is woven and tell you exactly when it was made and where it came from. If you're examining a dress, does it have stitches that suggest in was hand-sewn? Are they uniform in size and shape, or do they vary? Even the best seamstress will produce stitches that aren't as perfect and uniform as those done by machine.

Specific parts of the world were known for certain textiles, like China for silks or Holland, especially Leiden, for a dense woven fabric called broadcloth. Broadcloth gained its name from how it was made - broad sections of cloth were woven on looms and then hammered in warm soapy water, which shrunk the fabric and made it stronger. In the 1780s, mechanical looms driven by steam power allowed companies to make textiles in greater quantities. When examined closely, such fabrics aren't going to look the same, although to an untrained eye it might not be easy to tell them apart.

Differences in Patterns and Decorations on Fabric

Another way modern and antique fabrics differ is through decoration. As with most fashions and fads, fabric designs change over time. If you have fabric with a printed pattern on it, you can look at sample books from different time periods. Scholars have researched the history of fabric patterns and created guides you can find in books and online.

When you look at the design, is it woven into the fabric or printed on it? If printed, is the design a simple repeated shape? Block printing, in which a person uses a carved wooden or metal stamp to decorate a textile surface by hand, is a very old technique. Is the design intricate and repeated in longer sections? Roller cylinder printing, in which designs are stamped onto the fabric as the roller passes over it, was invented in the eighteenth century. Screen-printing, the method used to put the design on the T-shirt you might be wearing, wasn't used on fabric until the 20th century. Today, digital printing on textiles can produce fanciful and intricate patterns not possible in the past.

To unlock this lesson you must be a Member.
Create your account

Register to view this lesson

Are you a student or a teacher?

Unlock Your Education

See for yourself why 30 million people use

Become a member and start learning now.
Become a Member  Back
What teachers are saying about
Try it risk-free for 30 days

Earning College Credit

Did you know… We have over 200 college courses that prepare you to earn credit by exam that is accepted by over 1,500 colleges and universities. You can test out of the first two years of college and save thousands off your degree. Anyone can earn credit-by-exam regardless of age or education level.

To learn more, visit our Earning Credit Page

Transferring credit to the school of your choice

Not sure what college you want to attend yet? has thousands of articles about every imaginable degree, area of study and career path that can help you find the school that's right for you.

Create an account to start this course today
Try it risk-free for 30 days!
Create an account