Is that a vintage bandana?

lot of vintage bandanas in a laundry basket

Dating vintage bandanas accurately isn’t easy. Like other ephemera, they were meant to be used until worn out and then disposed of. They weren’t status symbols or art in past decades so there’s not tons of actual information about them. I’ve gleaned the info offered here by decades of observation (my husband of 40+ years has always carried a bandana handkerchief in his pocket… guess who bought or found them them for him?)

I’ve been collecting & selling bandanas for about 10 years and am still a newbie in the field compared to other collectors. There are no guides and few consistent clues that I’ve been able to figure out. If you’re lucky enough to find an old Elephant brand bandana, you can make guesses about it’s age depending on the trunk being up or down.  More about that later. About a year ago I had an A-HA moment that I’m gonna share with you now. Does your bandana say RN or WPL in front of a  number at one of the corners? You can use that as a clue to help figure out how old it is (or isn’t

WPL numbers were issued from 1940-1959  RN numbers issued from1952 and later

vintage bandana with WPL number
vintage bandana with RN and elephant brand logo

Bandanas and other textiles began to be marked with WPL & RN (both were/are registered numbers issued by the FTC) in beginning in 1941. So a bandana marked with either a WPL or RN can’t be older than 1941, the year the US began issuing those numbers. 

The RN numbers began to be issued in 1952, making RN numbers 13960, 13961 & 13962 potentially as old as 1952. Numbers greater than 13970 were issued after 1959.

RN- To quote IKWEWE, a vintage textile authority, “WPL numbers were issued from 1941 through 1959 under the Wool Products Labeling Act of 1939. WPL numbers begin at 00101 and end at 13669. All numbers issued subsequently are RN numbers. RN numbers were issued under the Fur Products Labeling Act from 1952 through 1959. These numbers start at 00101 and continue to 04086. Beginning in 1959, all numbers issued are RN under the combined act and commence with 13670.” Apologies to the original author- I tried to link to your original article on the eBay boards but the link doesn’t work anymore. 

Just because an item has a WPL doesn’t mean that the item is that old. It just means that the company producing the item was issued the number after 1941.

If you notice, most vintage Elephant brand bandanas don’t have RN’s or WPL numbers. But while doing research on this brand I discovered a RN on an Elephant brand paper label online… looks like either 19360 or 19380. That may mean the company that owned rights to the original Elephant brand had finally obtained a RN from the USPTO and was now marking the number on their products.  And I recently found this newer-but-still-vintage Elephant bandana marked 13962. 


WPL 423 is the Levi’s code, registered under the Wool Products Labeling act.

WPL 9939- registered to Victor Handal & Bros- the tan bandana several photos back shows this. I’ll add a better picture when I have one.

Wait! What about those 3 and 4 digit WPL’s? I think they were originally issued with either a 0 or 00 ahead of those numbers, and the companies chose to drop them when printing textiles. Makes sense, right?

Hem finish

double-selvedge-bandana copy.jpg
vintage blue bandana with overcast hem
narrow-machine-turned-hem.jpg

A double selvedge bandana is generally quite old OR not from the US. That’s because the fabric was woven on an extremely narrow loom. What's a selvedge? It's the woven edge of the fabric. Not cut and hemmed it’s a ‘finished but raw edge. Actually most vintage/antique fabric in general is narrower than what’s available today. 36” wide or less for cotton, rayon and silk was the norm well into the late 50s-early 60s.

 

Bandanas that have narrow turned hems are usually (but not always) older than ones with machine overcast edges. Those overcast edges were being done on bandanas, scarves and handkerchiefs as early as the 1950s. 

White dots along the edge

registration dots on edge of vintage bandana

The white dots seen along the edge near one sewn hem on some vintage bandanas were printed as cutting lines. Originally weaving looms were quite narrow. I’ve had some antique cottons (pre-1900) and silks that measured 18”- 22” wide.That’s why some antique bandanas or scarves have 2 woven edges or selvedges. So an antique bandana or handkerchief could easily be 22” wide with 2 sewn hems. Remember that these were originally meant as handkerchiefs and not expected to be worn on a person’s head. 

 

Eventually wider looms were built, weaving fabric from 32” to 36” wide and later from 44” to 48” wide. This would still allow for 2 handkerchiefs to be cut side by side from one length of fabric, each with a selvedge or woven edge. The white dots were an easy way to see cutting lines to separate each bandana without measuring first. Two bandanas would fit onto one width of fabric. Some  fabric like this was sold to home consumers to sew their own bandanas at home. I’ve had a few pieces myself, and used it. Those narrow hems are a pain to sew with a regular machine unless you have a special attachment for this task.

Wash fast or colorfast

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red fast color elephant brand bandana
aeo-fast-colors-bandana.jpg

Fast Color, Color Fast, Colorfast or Wash Fast- 'fast' refers to the stability of the dye. Early dyes weren’t always 'stable' meaning that the finished product colors could bleed or run, turning a load of laundry pink or blue. I assume it was a big problem to have been mentioned so often as a selling point. I'm showing the modern orange A&F bandana because they show speeding or FAST rabbit. I'm assuming that's a joke because as I mentioned before, FAST refers to the color, not the speed, lol :-)  As a heads up I should tell you that modern textiles aren’t always colorfast either so you might not want to toss that brand new dark red bandana in with a load of whites for a few washings. You could 'set the color' but that's a topic for a different page. 

Bandana colors and fabric

antique turkey red ironweave bandana

Red or blue were traditional bandana colors. Some antique red bandanas were dyed using what was called turkey red color. (which has nothing to do with a turkey). If you want to learn about Turkey Red, I suggest you do a search; it was a nasty process that’ll make you happy they invented a new improved dye..

 

The cotton fabric that was used on authentic vintage bandanas has a different ‘hand’ or feel than modern replicas (tho some small-batch new bandannas are quite lovely). Older cotton often had smaller (finer) threads in a tight weave which was very supple. Maybe that's because of decades of laundering but I don't think so. Modern bandana (and other) cotton fibers feel more 'clunky' or heavy to the touch. Original bandana cotton fabric was Cambric or Broadcloth, finer weaves than muslin. Polyester/cotton blend bandanas became common in the late 70s and are still available today tho most modern bandanas are cotton. 

How were vintage bandanas printed?

How were vintage bandanas printed? Yours was probably printed with 1 of 3 techniques. Briefly- 

  • Wood block printing is an ancient technique using a piece of wood (or block) that has the desired image carved higher than the rest of the wood. This raised area has ink applied and is then stamped onto fabric or paper. Multiple colors could be applied on one stamp, making a colorful finished product. This technique is common on Indian and other ‘Eastern’ textiles but used worldwide. Still it wasn’t likely to have been used on your red or blue 20th century bandana. 

  • Screen print- I like this ancient technique for its simplicity. A silk or similar piece of tightly woven fabric is stretched tight on a 4-side frame. Using a traditional rice flour paste or modern chemical, the image area you DON’T want to print (reverse) is blocked out, leaving the patterned area open for ink to flow thru when applied with a squeegee or flat tool.

  • Discharge print- discharge printing, where the fabric is first dyed the finished color. A thickened bleaching solution is then applied for the design using a silk screen or free hand. After waiting an appropriate time, the discharge solution is washed away, leaving the original fabric color (white). The fabric is then treated to neutralize the bleach (so it doesn’t remain active and potentially eat thru the fabric), rinsed and washed. Screen printing can be used to create a 2 or more color bandana but multiple screens are time consuming on a large commercial scale.

  • Roller printing- These machines were invented in the late 1770s. They continued to be perfected to become widely used in textile industry in the 1800s and are still used today. I’m not a textile professional and only know a little about this. Roller printing involves a cylinder-shaped rotating metal tube (rather like a rolling pin, lol) etched or otherwise made to retain a raised or textured image. Textile ink is applied to this roller that rotates or rolls in place in the machine, along with other rollers etched with different color parts of the same image. The fabric is then pulled thru the machine while in contact with the inked image, leaving the colored ink behind. Each roller does it's part, creating a printed colorful image on the fabric. This is probably is how your vintage bandana was printed. And this is a good time to remind my readers that I’m NOT an expert on textiles but have become a serious GEEK about vintage bandanas :-0 

What's my point?

Aside from realizing that I obsessively over-think stuff, I think there were just a few, maybe 4-5, different textile companies/converters that wove & printed bandanas for various brands using those brand’s own RN’s or their own RN’s as necessary. Maybe some other bandana companies existed briefly but that’s one for a different sleuth to agonize over, not me. 

If you’re a beginning bandana collector, seeing the RN or WPL number OR an Elephant brand bandana with the trunk pointing up or down are the most important and easiest to see clues for deciding HOW vintage that so-called vintage or antique bandanna really might be. I’ve seen many bandanas listed with claims of their being from the 1920s thru 40s that, after doing extensive research, I now know to be wrong. These bandanas usually have a hefty price tag. I guess the bottom line is if you love it, buy it but be aware of what you're buying. 

I actually have much more geekery & pix to share but am I’m getting off my soapbox now. There'll be an update here eventually but for now- thanks for listening!  :-)