The Oilcloth Backpack

On my gifts wish list for the 2011 holiday season, I had included an oilcloth backpack. Keep in mind, I had no idea if such a thing existed but I had decided that I wanted one. Since I knew about oilcloth and had other items made from it, I decided that a backpack must be available, too. Thanks to the power of the Internet and search engines such as Google, it took me simply a matter of minutes to locate a dreamy, pink patterned oilcloth backpack from a company in Georgia.

my original gift request
The pink with blue floral oilcloth backpack. Photo Mary Jane Bags website.

Besides it being a mouthful to describe, this bag embodied several of my favorite design elements. First, was the color pink; next was the pretty blue floral pattern on it. And last but essential, of course, was that it was made of oilcloth. I have had a love affair with oilcloth ever since a dear friend of mine introduced me to it when she gave me some sample pieces about 20 years or so ago. I immediately realized where they had come from since the name of the company, Oilcloth International, was stamped on the back of each sample piece. I wasted no time in contacting the company to order more since the sample pieces were only about a foot square each.

When I contacted the owner, Cardie Molina, I found out that Oilcloth International is not a retailer but a wholesale importer of the product. Oilcloth is no longer made in the US but in Mexico. Although Oilcloth International is not a retailer, Cardie kindly agreed to send me some yardage of a few different designs. I was in oilcloth heaven. 

oilcloth blog samples
A delicious array of oilcloth colors and patterns as well as items that I have both bought or made myself using oilcloth.

Over the years, I used the cloth to line shelves, cover footstools, decorate pocketbooks, and have great fun playing with my various colors and patterns of cloth. I also purchased some oilcloth items that included a purple book bag and a large red tablecloth.

It was not until I decided that I could not live without an oilcloth backpack that I really started thinking much about oilcloth again. Once I started doing research on the Internet and discovered the number of companies that either sell products made from it or sell the oilcloth itself (whether it is retail or wholesale) that I became both enthusiastic and very curious about its history.

According to this link, History of Oil Cloth Tablecloths, on the website,, “Oil cloths were first created for use on the floors of eighteenth century English homes as rugs. They were also used as coverings for leaky roofs. Artisans stretched sheets of linen cloth on a frame and through a sizing process the cloth was prepared to be painted. This was the point where the oilcloths came to life and were transformed. Various designs evolved as artisans experimented with this new utilitarian artform. After the design was painted onto the cloth, it was sealed with coats of linseed oil.

“This artform traveled across the Atlantic Ocean to America, where it was used to grace the floors of Colonial homes. Eventually, as the textile industry grew, the floorcloths were replaced with yarn rugs and the oilcloths eventually found their way onto tables.” The article continues with ‘Modern Oil Cloth’.

“While the traditional linseed oil cloth is no longer produced, the modern versions are just as serviceable, and in most cases, the tablecloth is a better quality product. Today’s oilcloth is made out of vinyl that is printed with various colorful designs. The vinyl is then adhered to a cotton mesh backing to give it support and form. Some of the backings used are flannel cotton, very similar to the kind used on vintage tablecloths. Some fabrics use PVC (Poly Vinyl Chloride) for the top side of the fabric and a mixture of polyester and cotton mesh for the backing.”

Oilcloth was made in the US from early colonial times into at least the middle of the 20th century. All that remains of its making are a few references. These were provided by Carlie Molina. According to the book, Jamestown Colony to the Revolution, 1607 to 1775, there is an old oilcloth in the collection of the Mercer Museum, affiliated with the Bucks County Historical Society in Doylestown, PA. No picture of an oilcloth could be found of it but may other fascinating domestic colonial items are on permanent exhibit.

the cover of the Columbus Coated Fabric Corporation Catalog
The Columbus Coated Fabric Corporation Catalog from the homepage of Oilcloth International

The more recent references are the Columbus Coated Fabric Corporation, the definitive domestic source for oilcloth up until at least the middle of the 20th century. The two references to that company are some cast iron fabric cutting machines on encyclopedic sites like worthpedia and etsy as well as the cover of their catalog which Oilcloth International uses on their website home page.

Today, oilcloth is made in Mexico. It is still durable, waterproof and comes in a myriad of irresistible colors and patterns. There are also still companies back across the Atlantic in England and France, where one can purchase all kinds of items that are as hard to resist as the cloth itself.

To get back to my backpack, I ordered it in early December so I was surprised as Christmas approached that it did not appear. Actually, I started to hope that it would not arrive since I had decided that I no longer wanted pink with a blue floral pattern (at least not until the summer) and that something more subdued, like a black and white design, would be better for winter wear.

By the time Christmas weekend came, there still was no backpack. So the day after Christmas, I called the company inquiring what had become of my much wished for gift. I left a message alerting them that if it had not already gone out, that I wanted to change my backpack order.

On Monday, I got a call from Suzanne Coffey, the owner of Mary Jane Bags, apologizing profusely. She told me that they had run out of the pink pattern fabric temporarily. Every time she looked at my order, she said that she felt so guilty that my holiday had been ruined because my gift did not arrive on time.

black and white gingham oilcloth backpack
My black and white gingham backpack with polka dot straps and inside. Click on the link below to order one just like it.

I told her that the situation turned out to be quite the opposite. I had decided after I had placed my order that I wanted a different pattern. Actually, ‘it was meant to be’ that there had been a delay. Had the pink bag come, I would either have had to return it for a winter wear pattern or held onto the pink one until the summer and also ordered another one I could use now. When my bag arrived, it was perfect. It is black and white gingham on the outside and white with black polka dots on the inside. In addition, Suzanne had included a matching cosmetics case as a gift for me. Needless to say, I was and am thrilled. I wear my holiday dream gift just about everyday.

From a simple oilcloth backpack order came a story filled with its history as well as color and detail to delight anyone who has a liking for oilcloth even a fraction as much as I do. In fact, here is an direct link to purchase the very same bag that I got. I am sure you will love it, too.

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