Wabash, Hickory, and Liberty Oh My – A Guide to Workwear Stripes
Stripes. Few patterns are simultaneously so simple and so evocative. Whether it be Calvin’s iconic striped t-shirt or old-fashioned prison uniforms; stripes have the power to conjure all manner of characters and careers in our mind’s eye.
The many varietals of stripes can run the gamut from boardroom executive to railroad conductor to escaped convict. Cartoon children and goofy movie prisoners aside (like Laurel and Hardy in 1931’s “Pardon Us” above), stripes are as varied as they have been historically popular, and in today’s article, we’ll lay out some of the most classic designs.
To a modern eye, a wabash might seem overly formal – like a pinstripe – but in reality, this fabric was, alongside denim, worn almost exclusively as workwear. Forty years before the first pair of Levi’s jeans were made, J.L. Stiefl & Sons of West Virginia were making their “Indigo Wabash Stripe.” Before Stiefl began making this fabric, the tribes of the Wabash Confederacy had made a name for making intricate, decorative patterns and selling these to white workmen, thus establishing the connection between the beautiful, hard-wearing garments and the Wabash peoples.
Wabash fabrics were once made by block-printing the pattern with a “resist” and then dyeing the entire piece of fabric, but modern manufacturers use discharge printing, to bleach out the signature patterns in an already woven fabric.
Hickory stripes, like wabash, were made for hard work. Most famously circulated by Lee, this heavyweight seersucker fabric had many of the same virtues as denim. The fabric was tough, but breathable, and the pattern obscured stains. It was no small wonder that this tough-wearing material (as tough as hickory) was mobilized as the de facto uniform of America’s railway workers.
If, during your childhood, you were ever given one of those wooden train whistles, you might have received a hickory engineer cap at the same time. Legend has it that these caps were originally made for engineers by their wives from cheap pillow ticking, but at some point, they were made from the stronger, but similarly striped hickory material.
The above pattern is a contemporary of the famous hickory stripe, given the far more patriotic name of “Liberty Stripes.” You may find Liberty striped workwear in your vintage clothing searches and you can identify it by its slightly more dizzying pattern. The stripes are smaller and closer together, but liberty striped materials share many of the main strengths of hickory, namely strength and breathability.
Ticking’s primary purpose (at least historically) was to hold the down stuffing inside furniture. But as was mentioned in the hickory section, ticking often found itself used to make cheap clothing at home. Ticking stripes have two smaller white stripes within each larger colored stripe, giving considerable depth to the fabric. While ticking looks good, it doesn’t make the best clothing, due to its extremely tightly-woven nature. The whole point of ticking is to prevent down feathers from bursting out of cushions or mattresses or pillows, which means when used as clothing, it’s not especially breathable.
Ticking is a good stripe to know, especially when looking through vintage clothing. You could find a totally unique, handmade piece made from furniture during lean times.