Retro Fabric Designer | Helen Snell with 20th Century Cloth

Image courtesy of 20th Century Cloth

Kona Bambusa Fabric, 20th Century Cloth

Retro dresses are something to be treasured and enjoyed. While we love the fit and style of a more tailored 50s dress or the jazz age movements of a 1930s gown, it’s often the personality of the fabric that draws us in.

We are not alone in this appreciation of a fun-filled print and had the amazing opportunity to speak with Helen Snell of 20th Century Cloth. She designs and produces new fabrics inspired by the optimism and glory of days past. Join us as we learn more about her process, influences, and expert tips.

meet our shop owner

Helen with 20th Century Cloth

20th Century Cloth
London, England

I had been having trouble finding fabric designs to use when making my clothes, so I decided I should combine my skills as a print designer with my passion for the 50s and create a retro inspired range of fabrics. It all sort of made sense!

Learn more about Helen’s work and find your inspiration on Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest.

Retro Fabric Designer | Helen Snell with 20th Century Cloth

Helen’s background is in textile design and her work can be seen in high-end boutiques throughout the UK as well as at international retailers such as Banana Republic, Pendleton, and Esprit. While working on a large scale brought its own satisfaction, she soon found herself inspired by more detailed side projects. Making unique pieces reignited her love for developing special items and that satisfaction was soon influenced by another passion – retro. Armed with a love of rockabilly (and a red 1957 Chevy), Helen embarked on a new adventure: her own line of vintage-inspired fabric.

The design process is organic and additive (keeping with the spirit of the retro age she is channeling). Helen starts with a sketch and finalizes the concept by hand with paint brush or pen. By scanning the artwork she is able to capture the irregularities and brush strokes of each line. (Grab a retro dress and closely examine the print – you’ll see the human touch in these patterns and that level of detail is what you’ll find at 20th Century Cloth.) Lastly, she will dial in the color palette and define the repeat using digital software. All of her fabrics are produced in the UK so each item can be inspected first-hand, translating to a high level of craftsmanship and quality.

Image courtesy of 20th Century Cloth

Atomic Blonde, by 20th Century Cloth

We asked what her favorite print from the current collection is (a tough question as we could see ourselves wearing all of them!) and Atomic Blonde remains dear to her heart. As Helen describes, “that particular print took a lot of time to get right. I fiddled with it for ages changing colors, adding bits and taking them away again. It was only when I added the white texture to the background of the boomerang shape that it started to work for me.” Each print gets this degree of thought dedicated to it; it’s nice to know that as vintage enthusiasts, we could create a new dress without losing that retro essence.

Influential vintage textile designers

Helen credits the 1950s as her most influential resource. The optimism and freedom of that time, especially after the restrictive 1940s, felt like a new beginning. From designers to housewives, people were excited to explore and enjoy. As she notes, “I really don’t think there has been another period in history where the design has been so amazing, so new and completely unlike anything that had gone before.” There are several influential vintage textile designers and artists that Helen enjoys: Lucienne Day, Jacqueline Groag, Henry Moore, Graham Sutherland, and Marian Mahler (to name a few).

Image courtesy of 20th Century Cloth

Helen working to create more beauty

Mid-century textile designers had an overabundance of influences and a relative lack of restrictions. Enthusiasm was alive and thriving during this time, as Helen noted, and a lot of social-cultural events combined to form this positive era. There were advancements in technology, science, and medicine (remember this is the age of the astronaut heroes); people were hungry for bold colors to escape the drab tones of war times (you’ll see all manner of unique color combinations: mustard with light gray was a popular theme); and modern artistic movements became more extreme and stylized. While these designs were originally limited to the home furnishing realm, housewives found them so inviting that these fabrics were often converted to dress applications. Before long fashion firms were following suit.

Lucienne Day created one of the most iconic fabrics of the 1950s, using another well-loved theme from this time: highly stylized floral prints that included seed heads, twigs, etc. Her creation, called Calyx, was named for the part of the flower that protects the growing bud. Upon its debut at the 1951 Festival of Britain, it received numerous awards and inspired countless designers.

How to take care of retro fabrics

When it comes to taking care of Helen’s fabric she notes that while they are washing machine-friendly, to ensure stunning colors it is best to hand wash them. Please refer to fellow vintage expert Ann Walter’s advice on taking care of retro fabrics.

Additionally, as you handle retro fabrics be sure to wash your hands first and try to work with it in a clean, smoke-free environment. Keep in mind that, over time, light can fade or harm most vintage materials. So try to store everything in a spot free from an abundance of sunlight or even lamp light. These fabrics were made to be quality investment pieces and you’ll find them to be just that with proper care.

Cause A Frockus would like to thank their tremendous resources: Helen Snell with 20th Century Cloth, “Tips, Tools, and Techniques: To Care For Antiques, Collectibles, and Other Treasures” by Georgia Kemp Caraway, “20th Century Design: The definitive illustrated sourcebook” by Judith Miller, and Wikipedia.

For our readers: do you enjoy creating your own vintage dresses and looks? If so, do you have any sewing and crafting tips to share with the community? We love Kona Bambusa and Helen loves Atomic Blonde… what’s your favorite from the collection?

Replies for “Retro Fabric Designer | Helen Snell with 20th Century Cloth

  • Georgia Kemp Caraway

    Thanks so much for mentioning my book, Tips Tools & Techniques in your informative site. The book is still available through UNT Press or by emailing me.

    • Betty Jo Post author

      Hi Georgia,

      You are more than welcome – we greatly enjoy your book and encourage our readers to purchase their own copy!

      Cheers and may the vintage be with you!


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