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What is Retro Fabric?

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  • Written By: Candace Goforth Desantis
  • Edited By: C. Wilborn
  • Last Modified Date: 15 November 2016
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Retro fabric refers to textiles in designs that evoke a bygone era. The word retro, typically referring to styles from the 1920s through the 1980s, comes from the Latin prefix, retro, which translates to "backward" or "past times." While the term may literally mean "old-fashioned," the connotation of the retro style is a return to trendiness.

This type of fabric may be constructed from fibers ranging from silk, lace, and velvet to cotton, wool, and linen. It can also be made of the manufactured fiber rayon or synthetic fibers, such as polyester and nylon. This material is recognizable as the bold and colorful chintz of the 1940s and 1950s, the eye-popping psychedelic swirls of 1960s and 1970s, or the neon colors of the 1980s.

Retro fabric is at the center of a larger retro design movement, in which homes and fashion are given vintage treatment so as to appear to have been transported from prior decades. Demand for retro fabric, and retro fashion in general, follows the enduring popularity of nostalgia. With retro decorating, consumers seek to surround themselves with objects that evoke their own youth or what may be perceived to be simpler, happier times.

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Vintage fabric often is used for do-it-yourself retro home interiors, including chair upholstery, bed linens, tablecloths, or wall hangings. For example, curtains crafted from vintage floral rayon could bring authenticity to 1940s-style d├ęcor, while throw pillows made of handkerchief-print cotton from the 1960s might add a unique touch to a child's cowboy-themed bedroom. Material used to cover chairs in the kitchen can also be made into matching placemats. While in the bathroom, retro fabric can be used to cover tissue boxes or stitched to the edges of neutral towels.

This fabric also is used with vintage buttons and other notions to create retro fashion, whether for preppie-inspired, animal-pattern prints for a 1980s-era shirtdress or a 1960s-inspired sear-sucker suit. Making clothing from retro fabric may be a more cost-effective and efficient option for fans of vintage clothing. This is especially true given the challenge of finding rare out-of-era items in a certain size.

Retro fabric can be vintage or reproduction, made of material manufactured to look vintage. Both types of material are available in large bolts and remnants through specialty textile retailers. For those willing to cut apart existing garments and recycle, smaller quantities can be obtained through second-hand merchandise dealers and vintage clothiers. Thrift-shopping enthusiasts find that garage sales, estate sales, and used-clothing stores are an inexpensive source for retro fabric.

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