MINE: Vintage Trim & Notions

by Caitlin Kelch

This past week I’ve been tackling some familiar boxes in my basement re-organization project. They’re actually not even boxes. They are all sizes of clear, zippered bags that held comforters, pillowcases and the like from friends and family that I solicited over the years for my massive trim and ribbon collection. And yes, you could find me around the Christmas tree sorting the recyclables and stuffing zippered plastic bags in my loot bag.

With all of the trim and notions, one would think I was a master seamstress who could be found adding delicate lace trim to Cinderella-like gowns and preppy grosgrain to customize whiter-than-white Keds. This is not the case. I do have a few sewing machines, one in actual working order, but I rarely use it. The others I’ve taken apart to see exactly how the machines work.

Going through my bags upon bags of ribbons, zippers, trim and beyond, with my sewing machines staring me down in the background, it occurred to me that I’m not a maker — I’m a conceptor — although I’m pretty sure that’s not really a thing since I haven’t heard about a new Conceptor movement or read any “I See Finished Things In My Brain” headlines.

To me, it’s like a strange superpower that’s often difficult to explain to others. My sewing machine shows me how the beautiful dress is made and holds together. My trim directs me to the many moods and characters that the dress can become. When I line the elements up next to each other, they become an elegant equation with so many liberating variables. I see decision trees and outcomes frolicking in ruffles and rick rack.

So, much more importantly, I see me. I see how I think and what motivates me into action. I see that I am at my best when I have all of the ingredients laid out before me and my visions of how they can work together to become one fantastic whole. I smile at how seemingly incongruous elements can become intimate allies showing off each other in ways not possible if simply tacked onto a bottom hem as a standalone. I see stories rife with conflicts, but a happy ending where everyone gets at least a little piece of what they need to be their best.

For all my lofty thoughts, though, I’m still living above a basement filled with equations of elements and of parts.

I’m keeping the clear bags and my calendar is marked with a two-hour block each week to spend time fashioning the pieces together on a smooth piece of ironed fabric from that collection of mine.

It’s time for me to make the whole and the fantastic. —Caitlin

The colors in this color story, not to mention grosgrain and rick rack, are the hues of my imaginary world from childhood. I had a pantsuit in these shades of red and pink, complete with knee and elbow patches woven into the polyester. I absolutely adored it!
These colors were the actual colors of my childhood - tons of sunny orange and avocado green. The mid 1970's was a crazy time for color and one of the few times that brown took a place on the A-List. In my mind, I was softening the landscape of orange, brown and green with my awesome shades of maroon and pink!
This combination makes me think of a front porch sitting dress - something a favorite aunt would wear on the porch swing while telling stories about how she had to walk to school three miles in the snow!
Ah! My country club cotillion combo. So nice to make a good first impression when arriving at the ball. I'm pretty sure this combination includes magical sparkles and the scent of filling the air.
Clearly, Wrights cornered the market on hem tape and other trim! The classic packaging brightened up the utilitarian strips that were used to finish neck and arm holes on garments. They had me at these paper sleeves that covered the plastic placed over the tape, pinned to cardboard.
The wide decorative ribbon in this shot drives me crazy! It's (deliberately?) woven in soft focus and my eyes are always trying to adjust. I look at it often these days trying to figure out what it could have been used on and if anyone in the past suffered with the "focus" issue like I do!

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    • Wow Katie! This why it’s so great to put these things out there. One astute stranger can nail it! Thanks for putting in that context. And I’m excited that you bring ideas to life. We should both wear “Scientist” and “Engineer” t-shirts ;)


  • Thank you for sharing how your fabric and notions collection isn’t about making things, but about the stories they tell. I connect with this idea . . . and that wonderful yellow, orange, green, and blue swatch of flowery 1970s fabric! Those photos and your stories that go with them are fantastic.

    • Hi Rebecca!
      I wish you, Katie (above commenter) and I should have lunch ;) I really appreciate your comment. Just the mention of the word ‘connection’ makes me smile right now. Confronting all of my ‘stuff’ has left me feeling disconnected lately – combing through the past isn’t always unicorns and Popsicle. So thanks very much for your kind words. I’m smiling.


  • I really enjoyed your essay and photos, Caitlin. I too was a child of the (60’s and) 70’s, so I’m digging (nearly giving my age away here) the Avon box with the giraffe’s bright colors! We had plenty of burnt orange, avocado green, harvest gold and, of course, brown (chocolate brown? yum!) in our home décor.
    The pretty blue and white fabric in the third photo with the trims reminds me of the summery dresses my mom used to sew for herself – and for me too! We enjoyed sitting outside on our big ‘lemonade porch’, though sipping iced tea rather than lemonade. I still have several of her Wrights trim packages.
    I recently had to reorganize my stash of trims too. Boy it takes a while! Many I bought just because I liked them – not knowing exactly what I’m going to use them for. I’m still not sure if I’m more the ‘Scientist’ or the ‘Engineer’. I seem to go back and forth. Perhaps I’m a bit of both? No, more of the former because I do keep notebooks of design sketches – most that never seem to come to fruition. But it’s nice to dream that they all do! :)

  • I feel the same way about the beautiful colors in books and toys from my childhood! Something about that dark brown mixed with pops of brightness. It’s like they bring a fourth dimension of time to the present. So comforting. And so hard to get rid of! :) I also loved going with my mother to the fabric store and then spending an hour in the “notions” section looking at all the beautiful buttons. What a great post Caitlin, made me smile! :)

  • Conceptor — I like that! I completely understand your superpower, Caitlin. I possess it, too. Every so often I bring out my boxes of vintage fabric prints and trim collections just to admire. But it never ends there. The idea hamster comes to life in me and project ideas start to fly! I usually don’t make anything with my treasures. It’s the concepting that feeds my soul.

  • Ah! Caitlin I can so relate to your collector/conceptor idea! I agree that once you have groups of interesting elements, then the choices and decisions one makes to utilize the materials can stimulate creativity and the storytelling can flow. I admire your commitment to a two hour block of time each week to make it happen! I hope you’ll share those pieces in the future.

  • This delights me, maybe because my Mennonite background almost guarantees that I’m a collector of fabric scraps and trims and buttons! You’re obviously very artistic and imaginative, and it shows in the way you arranged everything for the photos. Have fun with your collection!

  • This is the first thing I’ve seen maybe ever about the whirl of possibility lurking in lengths of fabric and packages of trim. Its more than what can be made from them….its the imaginative explosion of memory and story that they evoke. The raw materials in this way are richer than the finished products. I’m another who remembers going with my mother to the fabric store, wandering between pattern books, fabric bolts and notions counter, imagining which combination would make the prettiest dress (and of course, the prettiest me). I loved the lengths of uncut, unsullied hope.

  • I am also someone who collects things to make something later. I definitely need that “I See Finished Things In My Brain” t-shirt. My grandmother was a seamstress and I have a big stash of her fabrics and threads and notions. Usually, I have so many ideas about what to sew with one particular fabric, and I can’t decide. If I choose one thing, the rest of the possibilities can never be realized.

  • So nice to hear there are others out there like me with stashes of buttons, trim, felt, etc. Every once in a while I too go down to the basement and go through my stash and imagine all the wonderful projects to make . . .but rarely do. What is it about these items that have such a strong bond to the past. It almost seems a shame to cut them up or sew them on something because then they turn into something else, no longer the loose ribbon or collection of buttons.

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