Household Sewing · Vintage Sewing

Sew a Storage Solution

Long, slim fabric organizer hangs on the back of a door. Made of a beige cloth printed with red flowers and green leaves, it's a busy pattern, but functional.
Make a pocket for door storage.

Last winter I had a problem. I needed to sew a storage solution for cloth dinner napkins and other kitchen linens on their way to the washing machine.  

My washer and dryer are in the kitchen. This is exactly what I wanted when we moved to our house a few years ago, and it took a few houses to locate one with very accessible laundry. Unfortunately, that means that I have nowhere to store the normal soiled linens waiting to be laundered, like dish towels and dust cloths. 

I also needed a place to store a set of reusable “paper” towels. I love them. They are wonderful, easy to clean, and they work great for small projects like “oops! I just overwatered the cactus again. Grab me a paper towel, will you?” However, they are not easy to store. I solved that problem by sewing a storage solution called a door pocket. You can see the happy perpetual paper towels peeking from their pocket in the picture below.

Closeup of fabric door organizer showing wipe up cloths sticking out of the top pocket. A bottom set of two pockets is empty.
My cloth paper towel stash peeps at you from the top pocket.

Door Pockets in History

Door pockets have been around for a long time, well over 100 years. They became popular in the 1920s in small bungalows and apartments that afforded very little storage space. These homes usually provided a small pantry or cabinet door, and these became prime real estate for the door pocket storage rack.

Then the Great Depression hit and many people barely managed to eat, much less afford supplies for decorating. But they did have access to outgrown clothing and flour sacks. And flour sacks make wonderful door pocket organizers. They’re colorful, wash easily, and the happy prints brought a smile in the kitchen or wherever else they appeared. 

Plus, sometimes a shopper ended up with one or two mismatched flour sacks. Each sack when opened created one yard of fabric. What could you do with one yard of fabric? You can cut it up and create quilt blocks. Another alternative is to make an organizational or household helper like one of these door pockets.

Making Your Own

Illustration from the Thirties showing how to assemble a door pocket organizer.
Visual instructions for your door pocket

You can sew a storage solution like a door pocket to fit your own needs. Sure, you can purchase a fabric over the door shoe rack (where do you think that idea came from?) but everything doesn’t fit into a shoe-sized hole. The benefit to making your own is that the pockets fit the objects you need them to. 

Originally, the instructions for these items told you to sew bone rings at the top and bottom of the completed pocket set and then hook them onto the inside of your door. That assumes that we all have hardwood pantry doors, which since the 1960s at least, most of us do not. In the United States at least, room doors are often made from a wooden framing and wood veneer. Hooks will not hold in the very thin wood layer that forms the large flat part of the door. If anyone or anything poked a hole in one of your plywood veneer doors, you know exactly what I mean.

Modernizing the Instructions

Instead of the rings and hooks, I purchased some over the door hooks from Amazon. Something like this may be available from your local hardware store as well. I sewed thin strips of fabric into sturdy straps. I folded them and cut them into lengths suitable for over the door hooks. If I were to make another one I would make the top loops much longer. Over the door hooks only hang a couple inches below the top of the door, and I am quite short. Reaching the perpetual paper towels proves to be a challenge.

To make your own door pocket organizer, you will need a medium weight cotton fabric. The original diagram suggested chintz, which you can find in the drapery department of your local fabric store. It’s a shiny cotton, usually with flowers on it. 

When this design was originally published in the Thirties, fabric was sold in lengths that measured only 36 inches wide. Some fabrics, like woolens, were wider, but the majority of cottons appeared in the local store sewing departments at 36 inches. So a door organizer that measures 24 inches wide by 36 inches high would need 2 1/2 yards of fabric. If your fabric measures 41-43 inches wide, you will still probably need about 2 1/4 yards fabric. You may as well purchase the entire 2 1/2 yards and make a matching potholder from the leftovers. If your pocket will be less than 24 inches, you will end up with extra fabric. Or you can use it to make matching binding instead of buying prepackaged bias tape. Everything is cut as one layer; nothing is lined in this organizer.

You will need

To make your own door organizer, you will need:

  • about 2 1/2 yards of fabric. This is a great project for leftovers. All the pieces don’t have to match.
  • 8 – 9 yards bias tape binding. You can make your own from spare fabric, see below.
  • over the door hangers. Here’s a set I found on Amazon. You may be able to find some closer to home. You will want to make sure that the door hanger width matches the width of your door.

First, you calculate

The only one who knows exactly how to make your door storage pocket is you. You know how wide your doors are, how long a space you have for hanging something, and what you need to store. If you look at the illustration of the construction, and then at mine at the top, you’ll see that they don’t look much alike. My pantry door was only eighteen inches wide. There was no way I could fit a 24-inch organizer on the back of it. 

Once you figure out how wide your pocket can be, grab a spare sheet of paper and sketch what you want the pockets to look like. My whole reason for making a door pocket was so that I could have a large bottom pocket like the illustration. I needed that to hold my cloth napkins. I also made a large pocket in the top to hold my reusable paper towels. 

Your upper pockets will be eight inches deep. A large pocket might be 12 inches to 18 inches deep. 

Each pocket will have a box pleat in the middle to give you room to actually store something in it. If you don’t know how to make box pleats, here’s a tutorial: How to Make Box Pleats.

When you measure for the pockets, take the width of your finished item (24) plus 1 inch for each 1-inch pleat per pocket: 24 + 4 (1-inch pocket pleats for four pockets) = 28 inches for each strip. (It’s much easier if you cut them a couple inches longer so you have some material to play with. You can always trim it even later.)

For a 2-inch pleat in a larger pocket, add 2 extra inches to your width (24 width + 2 inch pleat = 26 inches long). 

Assemble the organizer

Trim each pocket top with bias tape. It will act as a top hem and strengthen it at the same time.

Then attach your pockets one layer at a time. Since you will have two to three inches between pocket layers you can start at the bottom. Attach the bottom pocket by basting along the sides and bottom. Remember to pin your pleat into place before you stitch the bottom edge.

Take your next pocket strip. Fold in your box pleats and pin them into place. Determine where you want the pocket to sit. Mark the bottom edge of the pocket by pinning the two sides of your backing piece. Turn the pocket upside down, with the bias tape towards the bottom and the wrong side of the fabric facing you. Move the pocket up so that the edge is 1/2 inch over the marked pins. Sew along that line, and fold up. You now have a 1/2-inch seam on the bottom and your pocket base sits exactly where you wanted it to sit. Your pocket will be about 7 1/2- 7 3/4 inches tall.

Reinforce the seam you just sewed by sewing again 1/8 inch above the seam line to hold everything in place.

Then sew two seams close together between each pocket, as you see in the illustration. Baste or sew the sides of the pocket to the backing.

Repeat with your other pockets, all the way up. Leave a space between the new pocket and the one below it so that you can insert and remove items easily.

When you are finished, baste the sides of your pockets to the backing and then apply bias tape all the way around. At the top, cut a 9-inch strip of bias tape, and sew it along the open long side to create a strap. Cut your strap into three 3-inch pieces and fold them in half. 

Pin each folded strap upside down to the front of the top edge of your organizer. The raw edges of the strap should meet the top raw edges of your backing. 

Then apply the bias tape across the top, catching the loop ends as you go. After you’re finished, fold the loops up and sew over them a couple times to strengthen them so they won’t pull out.

Make your own binding

You don’t have to purchase pre-made bias tape. You can make your own. Or you can use straight strips as binding.

Here’s a YouTube video on How to Create Your Own Bias Tape.

To use straight binding strips, cut long strips of fabric straight on the grain that measure about 1 1/2 inches wide. Two of them should be a bit longer than your backing sides, two a couple inches longer than your top and bottom, and several long enough to sew along the top of your pockets before you attach them.

You sew straight binding onto a piece of fabric just like you would bias tape. Sew 1/4 inch seam on the back and press or fold 1/4 inch hem down the long loose edge. Then fold the fabric from the back to the front and sew down along the folded edge, covering all the loose edges. When you attach the last two pieces, usually the top and bottom because they are shorter, fold the two ends in to match the width of your fabric before attaching the binding to your project. This will create a smooth hem on both ends.

Show Off Your Work

Drop a comment and show how it came out. If you made this project, are you interested in making it again? Once you make one, any others will go much faster. Like lots of home decorating projects, the most difficult project is the first one.

If you enjoyed this project and you have some fabric left over, you might also like making a Patchwork Fan Potholder from leftover scraps.

History · The Creative Corner · Vintage Needlework

Vintage Embroidery Threads: A Thread for Every Use

Various embroidery threads arranged on a table. Colors include red, pink green, and several shades of blue.
Left to right: DMC six strand embroidery floss; Anchor six strand embroidery floss; DMC coton a broder; YLI pure silk embroidery floss on top, DMC pearl cotton size 8 on bottom; vintage Wonder Art Perlene pearl cotton.

When I opened my grandmother-in-law’s stash of threads, I was amazed. Colors and types of vintage embroidery threads spilled out of the bags and boxes, left over from seventy years of embroidery. The vintage workbasket held more possibilities than you find in today’s 400 skeins of DMC floss, and Grandmother’s was no exception. In the early to mid twentieth century, needleworker had several companies from which to choose. Need six-strand embroidery floss? You could use DMC, or Bucilla, or Royal Society. What if you didn’t want to use six strand cotton embroidery floss? What then?

Half a black and white catalog page from the 1930s. Various types of embroidery and crochet threads are described with prices.
Early 1930s Frederick Herrschner catalog advertising various embroidery, crochet, and tatting threads.

Then you chose from many different thread types and a host of manufacturers. Silk embroidery floss. Imitation art silk floss, made from rayon. Pearl (perl) cotton. Wool three-strand embroidery yarns. Coton a broder, also known as broder cotton. This was a single strand of thread, available in several sizes and many colors up to about 2010. Size 16 was equivalent to two strands of embroidery floss.

Art embroidery

A bevy of bluebirds decorate household linens from 1915. Table runner, whisk broom holder, laundry bag, pillow cover, and more all feature  embroidered bluebirds.
Bluebirds in art embroidery

Embroidery used to be called Art Needlework when it was created for beauty’s sake. The person who made the family clothing always used a sewing needle. But when that needle worker used colored silks or cottons, and used the needle like a paintbrush, the work turned into art. Bluebirds sailed across household linens. Pine trees stood lonely and alone on hillsides. Flowers bloomed on everything from under linens to table runners. The vintage embroidery threads brought them to life.

Once needleworkers began to work with colors in embroidery they seldom looked back. You can see that by the current selection of modern cross stitch patterns.

The companies that released the threads also created patterns to work with them. After all, what good is a brilliant blue thread if you have nothing do use it for? Readers purchased patterns through the newspaper and monthly housekeeping or needlework magazines. They also found projects and threads from their friendly Frederick Herrschner mail order catalog, or through a flyer from their local dime store. By the 1930s it seemed that everyone was into the pattern or project by mail scheme, and needleworkers bought kits and supplies in droves.

Getting ready to begin

If the design didn’t come already stamped on fabric, the worker needed to transfer it. Then came thread selection time. Unless you planned to reproduce a lifelike flower in embroidery silks, or you worked from a prepackaged kit, colors remained up to the worker. Usually a pattern offered suggestions like brown, light blue, or dark pink. Which shades you pulled and how you incorporated the colors together was your choice. Between four or five cotton embroidery thread companies you might have ten or more shades of dark pink. This gave the worker a lot of leeway in color choice.

Often the project featured whatever threads I have on hand. An avid needleworker might have a small box of silk threads, a larger bag of cottons (or several bags of cottons), and some pearl cotton. These could be mixed into a work to create contrast, texture, and shine.

Bye bye threads

A red hank of embroidery thread, a green spool of thread, a red spool of thread, and a green hank of embroidery thread clustered together on a table.
Coton a Broder vs. Sulky Cotton Petites

Most of these vintage embroidery threads exist no longer. Some, like Corticelli and Richardson silks, are simply gone. Corticelli silks and Richardson silk mills both ceased operation in 1932. By this time companies like Bucilla introduced their synthetic art silk, often made from rayon. These threads didn’t really feel like silk, but they were shiny and inexpensive for embroidering. They too are gone, although Bucilla remains as a subsidiary of Plaid Enterprises, and embroidery kits continue to appear under the Bucilla name.

As I mentioned before, most of the coton a broder threads were discontinued in the 2010’s, at least in the U.S. It looks like this thread (also called broder special or brilliant cutwork and embroidery thread) is still being produced in limited colors by both DMC and Anchor. However, getting any of this to the U.S. can be a difficult matter. You may have to special order it from Europe if you want some. This is NOT the same as the thread called Floche. Floche is far more expensive and not as sturdy.

Good news

All is not dreary news, however. Some threads, like cotton embroidery floss and pearl cotton, still exist. You can find substitutes for many others, even though you may not find them at your local craft store. You might need to poke around a bit on the Internet to find them.

Here are some options:

  • Six strand embroidery floss: DMC, Anchor, Sullivan’s, Madeira.
  • Coton a broder/ broder special: You may be able to locate white, ecru, black in the U.S. As a substitute look at Sulky Petites, size 12. It’s thinner than the size 16 coton a broder, but it will give you the same experience of one strand that equals two strands of embroidery floss.
  • Pearl cotton: still exists. Look for DMC. Some chains have house brands in limited colors.
  • Silks: Shiny silks in the U.S. have largely been replaced by threads like DMC’s shiny satin, which is 100% rayon. For a traditional embroidery silk from France, look for Au Ver a Soie’s Alger thread.
  • Silks: Although they are not all shiny, companies have produced 100% silk embroidery threads within the past 20 years or so. Some options: Treenway Silks, Caron Waterlilies (silk variegated), Kreinik Silk Mori, Rainbow Gallery’s Splendor.
  • Stranded wools: Appleton wools have existed since 1835 in the UK and they still provide wool yarns to the needlepoint market. These work wonderfully for embroidery. Once I came across some instructions from the 1850s calling for “5 shades of apple green wool.” Who makes five shades of apple green? Appleton wools does. Their leaf green selections fit my project perfectly.

Be creative… have fun!

Regardless what threads you use, I hope you enjoy the process. Picking out various threads, choosing or drawing a pattern, beginning a project… these are exciting times. Incorporate one or two of these old-time threads into your next project, and see how you like it. You never know. You may be hooked.

Household Sewing · Vintage Ways

Bags for Every Use

Simple drawstring bag with a small cross stitch design on the front and a fringed bottom.
This bag could be used for a day out, sewing, or lace.

How many bags can one person use? Well, in a vintage world without pockets –– unless you happen to be wearing an apron –– quite a few bags, actually. You need a knitting bag, a travel workbag, a sewing bag, an evening purse (for those nights you go out), and a day purse. Most of these need to be updated every year or two as the fashions change. Oh! Don’t forget the storage bags, the travel bags, the organization bags…

For someone who enjoys making bags, the 1910s through the 1950s is a world of creativity waiting to happen. Every needlework magazine offered the latest in bags for this use or that one. Individual crochet booklets offered bags. Once in a while, a company published a booklet containing instructions for bags for nearly every use imaginable.

Vintage bags organized life

In a vintage household, a bag was a sign of organization. Items that needed their own places found themselves nestled into bags or containers specifically made for them. The most obvious example of this in the vintage home was the string holder which hung in the kitchen or pantry.

Have you ever tried to keep a ball of string from unraveling until you used the last of it? Regardless whether it’s thin or thick, slick or rough, string tends to unwind. And it often unwinds in large bunches, a layer at a time. Let’s say you’re in a hurry, you need some string, you open that kitchen drawer and… it’s everywhere. Somehow the string got caught in the ice pick and several layers lie strewn about the top of the drawer. You can’t even see the cut end to pull it. And you are in a hurry. You were on your way out the door to a meeting, and planned to take this package with you….

Keep the string handy

You can see the problem. Thus, one of the most oft-used bags in a kitchen was the string bag. Sometimes it looked like a tomato hanging from a hook. Other times it looked like a puffy round ball of fabric. At all times, though, a thin string of some kind hung from an opening in the bottom of the bag. You pulled the string, it unwound inside the bag, and you cut off whatever you needed to use. The rest of it waited in the bag until next time.

And why did everyone need a ball of string or twine in the kitchen? Because before 1930, Scotch/cellophane tape did not exist. There was no tape. The only tape that existed was for medical use. Everyone else used string. Need to truss a chicken? Cut some string. Tying a roast for dinner? Use the string. Need to get that package ready for the mail? Grab the string. (This, by the way, is why the U.S. Postal Service still states that they cannot accept packages tied with string for mailing. Because for many years, they did! You can find that in this list of packaging suggestions from the USPS.)

Keeping a ball of general purpose string handy is still a good idea. Several times a year I find myself poking through my yarn stash, in search of some inexpensive cotton string or yarn that I can use to tie or measure something. And to keep it neat, I can make a string holder for the pantry.

Organize that linen closet!

If you really had your act together in 1925-1945, your linen closet held a selection of specially made bags. Some held sheets and pillow cases. Others held your best tablecloths. Opening your linen closet door, you could take immediate stock of what was available and what you needed. Your linen closet might even hold a closed bag for soiled laundry of some kind.

Keep your crafting separate

Do you tat lace? Then you need a small bag that hangs from your wrist so that your lacemaking thread remains untangled –– and stays with you instead of rolling across the floor. You also need a small bag to keep your tatting shuttles and other implements safe. In that bag goes your current project.

If you knit, you need a knitting bag. Or two. Or more. Some knitters are One Project At A Time knitters, but most knitters I know have two to three projects going on a time. Often they are a quickly made project, an intermediate length project and something large like an afghan or a detailed cardigan that takes many hours of work. Mixing these together in one knitting bag is not wise. All those knitting needles start talking together while you aren’t looking, and before you know it you have a knitting mutiny on your hands.

Seriously, though, keeping projects separate means that they remain clean. They also survive with fewer poked holes in them. I don’t know what those knitting needles do in there, but I inevitably find a stray needle poking through my current project if I have more than one per knitting bag.

Crocheters need bags too. Even though it uses yarn just like knitting, a crochet project works best by itself in its own organization bag. For one thing, crochet can get bulky as the project grows.

Today many crafters grab a large ziplock bag to create a “project bag” with yarn or thread, needles or shuttle. Then they are ready to go. These individual crafting bags predated the plastic ziplock bag and fulfill the same function. Truly, they were bags for every use.

Sewing on the go

Although makers use their sewing machines a lot, keeping a sewing bag close at hand can be quite useful. A few vintage lovers find themselves making garments and items completely by hand. Others (myself included) prefer handworked buttonholes to machine buttonholes. (The fact that I can’t seem to get a buttonholer attachment to work with any of my vintage machines doesn’t help either, but I digress…)

Mending used to be never-ending in the vintage household. Someone always needed a replaced button, lengthened dresses or pants, darned socks. The clever worker kept a mending bag just for these items, with a darning egg, matching threads, strong threads for attaching buttons, and other such necessities. That way, when ten spare minutes presented themselves, they could grab the bag, open it up, and complete a quick project.

Other people kept a sewing bag specifically for pickup work. This included small handmade gifts, embroidery projects for spare moments, and that placemat project you wanted to start last year. Items you can pick up, spend half an hour on, and put back down until next time.

So when you see those lists of bag projects from vintage years, keep in mind that the vintage worker kept bags for every use under the sun. If you’re looking for an easy project to carry in a bag, these Outline Stitch squares go together to make up a small quilt.