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Finding Retro Fabric the Modern Way

Old prints can give your home a new look, if you know where to find them.

I used to believe that interior painting was the coup de grace for turning a newly bought house into a home. (I know home sales are so depressed that this "newly bought house" now seems entirely theoretical. Stick with me anyway.)

This was before my wife Lorraine and I repainted nearly every room in our newly bought home.

Or rather, had repainted, as diehard readers of this column know that we paid professionals to do the job.

Vibrant new colors brightened where once had been old-lady wallpaper, breathing fresh air into a doily-like domicile. Then came the realization: The curtains need to go. And those pillows no longer work, either.

Our house is an 1860 Victorian, but like many these days, our design sense dates from the 1960s, and indeed the types of pieces in our groovy furniture collection -- a hodgepodge of opportunistic and impulsive purchases from Craigslist, eBay and the odd antiques shop -- can usually be found under search terms like "Eames era," "midcentury modern," "retro" and "vintage."

While I have become rather accomplished in turning up furniture finds, the task of uncovering complementary retro fabric had two words written all over it: Google search, which is to say, square one.

Thankfully, Lorraine and I had a better, more refined starting point: her sister, Denise, who may have been the first New York City girl to wear a cowboy hat before that whole thing got played out. In short, the kind of uber-cool, one-step-ahead lady who could narrow matters down for us.

Pattern Plays

As it turned out, "narrow" only referred to finding the best online sites for original and reproduction retro fabrics, because most of these virtual outlets have a carpal-tunnel-inducing breadth from which to click and choose.


Repro Depot, which offers 32 subcategories under fabrics, from pre-1900s to the '60s and '70s, animals to western. We naturally gravitated toward the '60s and '70s section, where there were 140 offerings.

Repro Depot's vast collection of reproductions is impressive. Sadly, the fabric we had liked for the home office curtains weeks earlier had sold out in the interim; as with all investments -- and wrinkled fabrics -- you need to strike while the iron is hot.

After an hour of obsessive searching, we consoled ourselves by purchasing eight yards of "Ducks on a Pond - Blue" from the animals section for the soon-to-be nursery, at $14.95 a yard. It's a thin line between retro and kitschy, but we think our baby boy will be pleased.

It's important to note, retro fabric is rarely cheap, especially the original article. Authenticity comes at a price.


FinnStyle, a single yard from noted designer Marimekko can set you back $104. Given that we needed 13 yards for three living room curtains, we had to pass. (You could argue that we were saving by acting as our own interior decorators, but this argument still couldn't outflank our bank balance.)

Some sites offer sample swatches of a desired fabric for as little as $2, which is a reasonable approach for people with patience, or plagued by indecision. We, however, forged ahead with final purchases right away. A wise man once wrote that a fabric deferred is a pillow denied, or something to that effect.

The next stop is a cyberspace visit to

J & O Fabric Center, which is physically located in Pennsauken, N.J. J & O offers a wealth of fabrics from a foursome of midcentury icons: Alexander Girard, Charles and Ray Eames, George Nelson and Verner Panton. It's killer stuff, and at $104-$107 a yard, too rich for our blood, even as we panted after it.

Still, with a little digging, we found under the retro decorative fabric section, a duck cloth titled "

Mondo Circles: Lime" that will soon become my office curtains. "This fabric looks right out of the Jetsons cartoons ... perfect for anyone who loves collecting retro and vintage furniture," read the description. Sold (at $17.98 per yard, times three yards, plus shipping and handling).

If I've learned anything from online shopping, it's try eBay, too.

Why it took me so long to search the auction king for fabrics, I can't say. Maybe it just feels like cheating, like buying wine at a supermarket or rooting against the underdog. Yet we weren't complaining after winning at bargain prices two auctions for great bolts of fabric. Search various combinations of "fabric," "retro," "Eames," "Panton" and "midcentury" and you're bound to see something that appeals.

Denise had three other e-tail suggestions:

Melina Made,

Amy Butler and

Retro Online, all of which had cool stuff that we couldn't quite make work for our needs or budget. (If only the stuff were sold in 1960s dollars!)

Luckily, we have another online browser in the family even more obsessive than me: Lorraine and Denise's mom, Adrienne.

She shrieked when she stumbled upon what she swears is the exact fabric from her living room curtains in the '70s. Finding the fabric "

Sunrise" was no less impressive than finding the

Make Me! Web site. It was a steal at $8 a yard, and good thing, given that we needed 13 yards of the stuff to make new living-room curtains.

As for turning all this fabric into the finished article, that's another story.

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Evan Rothman is a freelance writer living in Staatsburg, N.Y., and senior writer for

Golfweek. His work has appeared in The New York Times, Sports Illustrated, Esquire, Men's Journal and other leading publications.