One of my most prized possessions in the world is my collection of feed sack quilts. My great grandmother and grandmother made them. When I was growing up, we had stacks of them in the linen closet, and they are what we had on our beds year round. In my opinion, feed sack quilts are the absolute perfect weight to sleep under. I know all of these quilts so well…I know the patterns and colors in all of them. Mostly my quilts were made with feed sacks, but there are keepsakes in there, too. Some of them are made with scraps of my mother’s and grandmother’s baby clothes, my great grandmother’s dresses, and my grandfather’s dress shirts.
There is something about seeing my sons under one of these quilts…knowing that they have kept five generations of my family warm is pretty incredible!
While clothing and quilts made from feed sacks bring to mind images of the hardship and frugality that characterized the Great Depression, in fact, feed sacks became popular as sewing material because of clever marketing on the part of feed and flour sack manufacturers.
Cotton sacks for storing and selling goods gradually replaced wooden barrels and metal tins between 1840 and 1890, because they were less expensive and easier to transport. Initially, these feed sacks(or “feed bags”) were made from heavy canvas, which farmers stamped with their brands and then reused. This changed in the late 1890s, when the textile mills of New England began weaving inexpensive cotton fabric for feed sacks. Barrels fell by the wayside as goods were shipped in bags, including flour, sugar, seed, animal feed, fertilizer, hams and sausages, and even ballots. Women quickly recognized that these new cotton feed sacks could be reused as linens, towels and quilting material.
At a time when many rural families had limited resources, these bags were considered nearly as valuable as the items they contained. Feed and flour company logos were printed with water-soluble inks and removed by an arduous combination of washing and soaking in concoctions that included lye, lard, Fels-Naptha soap and bleach. Thrifty women used the whitened textiles to stitch clothing, curtains, sheets, and towels. Getting the fabric to a pristine state was no easy task and there are stories of the wife who didn’t bother to remove the “self-rising” label from the flour sack she used to make her husband’s underwear, or the young girl who tripped and fell, revealing “Southern Best” stamped on her derriere.
Over time, manufacturers realized increasing the value of the bags could improve profits and started including instructions for removing labels right on the bags. Bags were stamped with stitching lines for reuse as roller towels and with embroidery patterns like the classic “Wash on Monday, Iron on Tuesday, Bake on Wednesday” series. Manufacturers hoped ambitious women would convince their husbands to buy additional feed in order to complete the entire set.
Once the feed sack manufacturers realized that women were reusing the cotton sacks as sewing material (and that women were starting to do most of the shopping), they saw an opportunity to promote their products by packaging them in colorful sacks. In the mid-1920s, mills started producing sacks in printed fabrics. More than 40 mills made fabric for bags in thousands of different patterns. Instead of printing directly on the sack, factories affixed their logos to easily removable paper labels. A typical women’s dress took three feed sacks; bragging that you were a two-feed sack girl was the equivalent of mentioning today that you wear size 2. Wives and daughters instructed husbands and fathers to buy feed in sacks with particular patterns so they could complete dresses. In addition to overall florals, patterns included border prints (perfect for pillowcases and curtains) and children’s favorites, like cowboys and animals. If the pattern sold well, it might be reproduced as yardage.
By the late 1930s, there were heated competitions between manufacturers to produce the most attractive designs. Manufacturers hired artists to design the prints, and some sacks even had preprinted patterns for appliqué and quilt squares. During the wartime era of the 1940s, feed sack sewing was deemed patriotic and prints with “V” for victory and Morse code appeared. Many “exotic” Mexican and tropical themed fabrics got their start as feed sacks and Mickey Mouse was popular in the 1950s. Plaids and stripes saw a more limited run and solid colors were available during the Depression.
Technological advances during World War II, however, meant that by 1948 more than half the items previously in cloth bags were sold in paper or plastic (cheaper to produce and considered more sanitary and rodent-proof). Cloth bags disappeared over the next 10 to 15 years, though some are still made made for Amish and Mennonite communities, small mills, and the tourist industry.
You can still purchase “feed sack” fabric, and some people still make new feed sack quilts from the new fabric. If you are lucky, you can find old feed sack quilts at antique stores, flea markets, and online!