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I thoroughly enjoyed writing last week’s history piece on mother-of-pearl buttons. So much so that I thought I would write another vintage/history post this week on the always glamorous topic of …wait for it…feedsacks.

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In the early 1800s, due to an advancement in the quality of the materials and their construction, the manufacturers of staples such as grain, flour, sugar and animal feed transitioned from shipping in boxes and tins to, instead, cotton canvas bags. With the introduction of this new cloth into the home, thrifty women everywhere began to reuse the cloth for a variety of home uses – dish towels, diapers, and more. The bags began to become popular for clothing items as well. Realizing this recycling trend was here to stay, the manufacturers began to print their cloth bags – or feedsacks – in a variety of patterns and colors, assuming that they could sell more feed and seed if their feedsacks were desired by more women than their competitor’s.

Over time, the popularity of the feedsack as clothing fabric increased beyond anyone’s wildest expectations, fueled by both ingenuity and scarcity. By the time WWII dominated the lives of Americans, and cloth for fabric was in short supply due to its use in the construction of uniforms, it was estimated that over three and a half million women and children were wearing garments created from feedsacks.

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As you can imagine, with this volume of use, the manufacturers began to compete with each other to provide the most useful and attractive feedsacks. Some printed sewing patterns right on the feedsacks while others printed beautiful, and sometimes elaborate themes and patterns. There were even entire books published showing fashionable designs, which sacks to use for what purpose and even pattern layouts (see the “Bag of Tricks” example). For collectors today, many of these feedsack-related items are extremely desired.

Naturally, as technology facilitated the adoption of feedsacks initially, it also hurried its eventual demise. After WWII, the advancement of paper manufacturing, and eventually the development of plastics, made it significantly cheaper to package staples in alternative packages and the use of feedsacks ended.

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As many of you know, I am an avid – sometimes obsessive – collector of a variety of vintage items. Over the years, a number of wonderful feedsack samples have ended up in my collection. Subsequently, these feedsack designs ended up influencing a number of items at indygo Junction, including our Pieced Pincushions and a number of our Yo Yo patterns (see them here and here). A vintage Mother Goose feedsack inspired, not only our embroidery book, A Stitch In Time with Mother Goose, but also a line of fabrics I did for Red Rooster.

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Recently, when I was designing my latest book, Vintage Notions, the designers and I came up with the idea of scanning my collection for use as decorative borders throughout the book (see the samples above). As well, if you look at the cover of the book, you’ll see that it’s composed from samples of feedsacks from my collection as well (see above). This worked out so beautifully and added, not just a colorful touch, but a historical link to an important part of this country’s history and development of fabrics for fashion.

What about you? Have you ever made anything out of feedsacks (they’re still obtainable on eBay)? If you’ve ever looked through that trunk of pictures in your attic, have you ever found pictures of your mother of grandmother wearing dresses made from flowery feedsack patterns of the time?

Thank you all again for letting me share my love of all things vintage.

~ Amy

Amy Barickman is the founder and owner of Indygo Junction, The Vintage Workshop and AmyBarckman.com. She is a leader in the sewing, needle arts and retail crafting industry having sold more than two-million sewing patterns and published 80 books sold throughout the world. Her recent endeavor is the book “Amy Barickman’s Vintage Notions: An Inspirational Guide to Needlework, Cooking, Sewing, Fashion and Fun”, is already on its third printing since its release in September of 2010. Other best-selling titles include: “Indygo Junction’s Button Ware” and, most recently, “Hankie Style”.

13 Comments

  • 597d73429ca0e90a2260ca4b792ad68d92ca4fd5_large

    Mar 23, 2011, 07.01 AMby katherinedaida

    I too have regularly noticed calico and other patterned fabric flour sacks in the larger discount food stores here in the Seattle area. I have been doing a lot more home cooking with the economy doing so badly, so I may be doing a little flour sack sewing myself!

  • Missing

    Mar 22, 2011, 09.03 PMby noblefeller

    Growing up in rural Ohio, I remember my grandpa and great-aunt talking about clothes their mom made for them from feedsacks. Much like the author, they told me that there were a wide variety of patterned fabrics available including calicos, checks and other patterns suitable for dresses or shirts. Keep in mind, I am only 33, so the patterned cloth feedsacks were still being recycled for clothing in the 1920-30s and even 40s.

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    Mar 21, 2011, 08.18 AMby loulourosa

    I never heard about this. But what a good idea! I have to ask my mother if bags like that were available here in Belgium. As my grandma had six children she had to dress and feed during and after WWII, I’m sure this would have been a welcome extra. What I do know, is that old clothes where re-used, and made into another garment. The leftovers or rags where ‘plucked’ to fill pillows or dolls. Wouldn’t it be a good idea if food was packed like that today, instead of all this useless plastic.

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    Mar 20, 2011, 03.29 AMby ghost

    Making garments from feed sacks was also practiced in post WWII Germany. My Mother still has a lovely little blouse that she wore on her first day of school. It is white and embroidered all over with little blue flowers. One wouldn’t know that it was recycled from sack fabric unless they were told. I like to imagine that she might of been the most stylish little girl in class that day.

  • Poe_large

    Mar 18, 2011, 04.39 PMby ladykatza

    I did know this! Even as late as the 1980’s in rural areas you could get big flour sacks that were made of printed cotton at the co-op stores. My mother collected them and made a flour-sack quilt. It hasn’t been backed and bound yet, but I still have the top portion of it.

    And Mom and Dad are much older than most parents of people in my age group (mid-30s) so they both remember the “Make and Mend” and “make-do” cultures of the 30’s and 40’s. I have some old pictures of them in flour-sack clothing I’ll have to dig up.

  • Burda_023_large

    Mar 18, 2011, 02.23 AMby runningwithscissors1

    I never knew this before. Too bad they aren’t still made today. I will have to look into these.

  • Missing

    Mar 17, 2011, 10.46 PMby wardrobelady

    They were used in Australia I know but i doubt there were ever pretty patterns on them. A friend of mine said her mother used to make their panties out of flour sacks when they were children as they lived on a farm and money was very tight. This was in the first decade after WW2.

  • Steph_large

    Mar 17, 2011, 10.30 PMby toknowistolove

    Wasn’t there already an article on this? Interesting though

    1 Reply
    • Poe_large

      Mar 18, 2011, 04.41 PMby ladykatza

      Colette Patterns did an article about it. This one had a bit more reference material linked.

  • Snowdrops_005_large

    Mar 17, 2011, 03.49 PMby sewknitful

    Those are such pretty prints. Isn’t it great that they started out with such a practical use and got to be turned into an article of lovely clothing!

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    Mar 17, 2011, 12.43 PMby stuffit-1

    Very interesting – I also never heard of something like that in Austria…a shame ;)

  • Portia_large

    Mar 16, 2011, 07.32 PMby missp-2

    Fascinating. Never heard of this here in th UK. Px

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    Mar 16, 2011, 06.58 PMby Anita Merrill

    I was in the store the other day and noticed that there was corn flour/meal available in adorable floral print fabric sacks, so they’re still available even today. I had to talk myself out of getting a bag on the reasoning that I never use corn flour/meal, much less would use 10-20 lbs. of the stuff.

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