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Made to Measure: Rare and Collectable Swatch Books

  • Sep 27, 2013

Like great beauty, some of our books excel in that touch of the unexpected. These are books that shroud themselves in mystery by the very nature of their unrevealing bindings, humble dust jackets, and deceptive titles, complex map-folding or head-scratching subject matter. And yet, these are some of the very books that people should investigate. Many of our customers get overwhelmed when they are in our gallery and walk right past them when they visit us in New York. It’s understandable, with so many books in the room. It’s like walking right past your best friend in Grand Central Station.


Okay then. So here is my chance to introduce you to cool books that stare at you from the shelves…hiding in plain sight, like a tiger in the jungle. First up: swatch books.


Great Civilizations have been built on silk, cotton and other woven materials. Their manufacture and distribution has changed nations, created and destroyed Empires. The color of the dyes and the patterns of cloth have historically been used to distinguish friend from foe, clan member from invader. The type, use, style and color of a fabric worn by indigenous populations are an unspoken record of their cultural history.


Swatch Books were used (and are still used) by salespeople to quickly showcase the fabric and style choices available to a consumer. Material culture always being highly competitive, the design styles in some of the very best sample books from the great textile houses of the world can be artistically glorious and highly collectible.


Examples from a 19th-century book of Japanese Kimono fabric samples.


The fluttering of an exquisite silk kimono might just change the mind of the Emperor.


The fabrics of Nattier made the 1960s colorfully hip and Polaroid friendly. These are swatches from an exhaustive multi-volume set of fabric samples created by Nattier for high-fashion designers such as Yves Saint Laurent and Coco Chanel.


What ends on a runway model begins with a Swatch Book.


The beginning of the 20th century saw a boom in men’s tailoring as the Victorian Age ended and the fashionable Edwardian Age began. The crisply drawn advertising art in Swatch Books from the turn of the century heavily stress modernity.


M. Born and Company (Chicago): Fall and Winter Catalogue, 1900-1901


Fabric samples from the M. Born Swatch Book showcase an impressive array of wool. It’s Chicago, after all.


Swatch Books offer a unique perspective of history through the changing modes of style and custom.


The advertising message in this circa-1920 Swatch Book from Royal Tailor is that a gentleman must own a suit or a tuxedo or he will get nowhere with the ladies. I guess the lady is supposed to be impressed, but I doubt that was always the case.


After the Second World War, with the roles of the sexes beginning to dramatically shift, both men and women could now be included in the tailored suit market.


Salesman’s Sample Case from JC Field and Son (1959), complete with styles, colors and fabric swatches. (Vintage super cool attitude not included.)


Swatch Books are by their very nature ephemeral. The sample swatches are often found missing, so the most collectable Swatch Books will have all, or most, samples intact. Desirable Swatch Books dating back through the centuries will still have surprisingly bright fabrics and artfully genius patterns. Fabric Swatch Books have the distinction of being…well…a sample of history. There – it had to be said.


Angel is a bookseller at the Madison Avenue gallery. She remembers receiving a Bachelor’s Degree from Rutgers University a long time ago and her Master of Fine Arts from Brooklyn College almost as long ago, but finds working with rare books more educational. She reads, writes, and gardens in Jersey City and she is always looking forward to a new favorite book. Recent favorites include Jack Kerouac’s On the Road and Oliver Sacks’ Hallucinations.

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One Response to “Made to Measure: Rare and Collectable Swatch Books”

  • shannon olson says:

    any idea how to date the boxes? I have one with no swatch books unfortunately but the box has a green ad piece in the back.