Feedsacks: An Unlikely Fashion Movement

In the early 1800s, staples such as grain, flour, sugar and animal feed began to be shipped in canvas bags instead of in the boxes that were used previously. To the pioneer woman whose life was a daily challenge, this introduction of a new cloth into the home spurred a number of inventive home uses (e.g. dish towels, diapers, and more). Not too long after, these women, desperate for material to make clothes out of, jumped at this source of cloth. Suddenly, feedsacks were being used extensively for everything from doll clothes to school clothes. Realizing that the more attractive and colorful bags would sell more “feed,” manufacturers began printing elaborate patterns, themes and colors on the bags.

For decades, feedsack cloth remained a mainstay. When WWII overtook the lives of all Americans, cloth for fabric was in short supply due to its use in uniforms. Again, feedsack usage surged. It is estimated that over three and a half million women and children were wearing garments created from feedsacks during WWII.

With this surge in interest, the manufacturers ramped up their marketing again. There were 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.

Advances in paper manufacturing and the development of plastics changed shipping practices and ushered in the demise of feedsacks. For may of us as collectors though, feedsacks remain a tresured part of our lives. For me feedsacks have not only entered my private collection over the years, but have gone on to influence a number of items at Indygo Junction, including our Pieced Pincushions and a number of our Yo Yo patterns. As well, a vintage Mother Goose feedsack inspired our embroidery book, A Stitch In Time with Mother Goose, and a line of fabrics I did for Red Rooster.

As well, now that you know that I love feedsacks, if you take a look at the cover of my latest book, Vintage Notions, you’ll see that it’s composed from scanned samples of feedsacks from my collection as well. 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.

Who else loves feedsacks? I know you’re out there! In the Comments section, share a story with us relating to feedsacks and I’ll draw a winner June 1st to receive a copy of our Yo-Yo patterns and a copy of my embroidery book, A Stitch In Time with Mother Goose.

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

~ Amy

53 Responses to “Feedsacks: An Unlikely Fashion Movement”

  1. This cracks me up! My grandmother talks about her mom making making all of her children clothing out of feed sacks:) I guess because of that she is horrified at the thought of someone doing this just for the fun of it.

  2. My mom made all of my brothers’ shirts and my dresses from feed sacks. That was in the 50s! The biggest challenge was finding enough of the same pattern on multiple sacks!
    She also made the curtains, dresser skirt and dust ruffle for my room from feed sack fabric.
    🙂

  3. I still have the dish towels from my grandmom’s flour sacks, treasures!! I have a few feed sacks decorating my art studio. Thanks for your lovely story.

  4. I love the old feedsack information. My Mom talked about how valued they were in the 30’s. I have a couple of them that I bought at an auction, would love to find more.

  5. My grandma was a seamstress and remade clothes for me from old men’s suits, and she used feed sacks when cloth was short. She made quilts and anything she could, not wanting to waste anything. I inherited her waste not want not philosophy. Thanks for sharing.

  6. I have a few quilt tops that were my grandma’s(she died in ’72, in her 80’s) she raised 12 kids and reused much in quilts she made. I have been quilting myself for 17 yrs and love to junket and have found and bought feedsacks here & there. I, like many others wish they would go back to using feedsacks for our baking needs it would be great ecologically and also put men & women in jobs at fabric mills here in the USA instead of mostly overseas.

  7. My paternal grandfather, uncle, and great-uncle worked as engineers and managers for Bemis Brothers Bag Co. in Tennessee back in early 1900’s. One was actually in India, involved, I believe in jute production for bags.
    We got feedbags in lovely prints from these relatives, probably new or seconds. I don’t think they’d ever had feed in them. We used them for kitchen towels and I made doll clothes of them. A number of them ended up in patchwork quilts that my great-grandmother made and that I still own.
    I especially enjoyed Judy Frey’s comments.

  8. My story is similar to many others, my mother wore feedsack bloomers as a child, and likely made my diapers from them too. My first prizewinning embroidered tea towels were done on flour sack fabric. I won the top ribbon three years in a row, always on flour sack material, and I blanket stitched an edge using the string holes as a guide. Good memories, and I still have the towels with their ribbon attached!

  9. My mom was the youngest of nine children born at the height of the depression. Her mother died when she was born and her older sisters raised her. My aunt told me that my grandmother kept a basket of mending by the stove. My aunt would look through it every so often to see if there was a new baby on the way. Her mother would stop making bloomers and dresses with the feed sacks and start hemming diapers. She said she felt like the queen of Sheba when she had her first pair of “store-bought bloomers”! My aunt raised 3 of her sisters, including my mom. She lived with us when I was growing up and took care of my daughters. She taught all of us to sew. She made each of us quilts from our favorite clothes. My daughters still have the doll clothes she made from my old maternity shirts. She recycled and reused everything and taught us the value of making do without ever making us feel like we were doing without. When my daughter was in the seventh grade, she and aunt Nellie spent the summer hitting garage sales and thrift stores. She started school with a custom wardrobe that she was thrilled to tell people cost $25. When asked by a friend if she hated wearing thrifted/homemade clothes, her reply came straight from something aunt Nellie said. “Anybody can walk into a store and buy clothes. You had to be really clever and creative to make or thrift your own clothes”.Thanks aunt Nell.

  10. When I was a child, my grandmother raised chickens and the feed for them came form Sears in colorful feed sacks. All of my clothing was sewn from the feed sacks and I couldn’t wait to see them when they came in . I still love to see the wonderful quilts and aprons etc. made from them. It really brings back memories of a gentler, simpler era.

  11. Growing up in Lancaster County, PA, in the 1950’s, has given me an appreciation for feedsack prints that has stayed with me. I remember my mom expaining to me where the prints originated, and she had one piece of a pretty flowered feedsack left, which she made into a set of baby-doll pajamas for me. We didn’t live on a farm, but near the Amish farms, and had friends who were farmers. One of my secret longings as a child was to live on a farm and run around barefoot in a feedsack dress!

    Some years ago an older friend of mine gave me a feedsack print she had saved, a pretty blue and pink floral print, and I still have it. It is so special to me, bringing back so many memories of my childhood, that I haven’t been able to decide on a worthy project for it.

  12. I remember feedsack material being used for my two sister and myself’s summer shorts and halter sets. They were made all alike and we looked like triplets. One particular fabric was orange and white. I thought we were so pretty. As typical of a little girl, twirling around and pulling out the edges of my shorts to curtsey, made it all the better. Good memories!!

  13. I too wish they still used feedsacks. That and giveaways in detergent boxes etc. Those were the good old days!

    I have some old feedsack fabric of my grandmothers. The new reproduction fabric are beautiful.

    I love your books!

  14. .Those were frugal times but the memories are good.

  15. I have a vague memory of my mother making an outfit for my sister and I out of some feedsacks she found somewhere, and telling us about how when she was little growing up during the Depression, many of her sister’s (and eventually her’s) dresses came from feedsacks. Those outfits are long gone, probably turned to rags over the years, but the memory lingers. I too wish they would bring back feedsacks. Of course, nowadays they would be considered “vintage” and would cost more money!

  16. Thank you for this wonderful article. I remember my mom sewing feedsack pinafores for me. I was always excited to see what she would sew from the new sacks!

  17. Having grown up in rural Iowa during the late 30’s and 40’s, colorful chicken feed sacks made up much of my wardrobe. My Mother was an excellent seamstress and my Dad appreciated her resoucefullness in using the bag fabrics. He would come into the house before going to town to purchase feed to see if there was a particular print we needed to finish out a dress. And the helper at the feed store would help him dig out the one he wanted even if it was at the bottom of a huge stack! Stencil painting on cloth became popular in the 40’s and Mom used flour sacks and paint to make curtains, tablecloths, aprons, pillows, dish towels – you name it! And she made my sister and me matching pinafores from the white sacks with a painted motif on the bib and the large pockets. My Aunt Mattie, who lived in town (no chickens) was not the seamstress Mom was, but she used sugar and flour sacks to make underwear for her girls. My cousin, Ruthie, was so embarrassed to wear that underwear with the obvious printed labels! I now have a small collection (about 125) of late 40’s and early 50’s chicken feed sacks. I treasure them and am loath to cut into them. However, I am using 30’s block patterns and am making a sampler quilt from some of them.

  18. My mother was born in 1931 and was the youngest of 7 children. She often spoke of the clothing my grandmother made for her and her sisters out of feedsacks and what great fabric it was.
    There is a grain mill at Oxford, KS that still sells feedsacks. I’ve purchased of them and they are lovely! (Unfortunately, they’re reproduction.)

  19. I love feedsacks, as well! I buy feedsack aprons and quilts whenever I find them (and can afford them). I’ve never found an unused feedsack that I could afford, though. It’s fun just to have the practical homegoods that those thrifty housewives made out of them. Thanks for the history!

  20. Hollins Wender June 17, 2011 at 1:04 pm

    I love love love feedsacks because they bring back such wonderful memories. When I was a little girl we lived on a farm and the wives in that area would pick a material they particularly like and everyone would save that material for that person. My mother made my little sister and me several really cute little ‘feedsack’ dresses. Oh, How I wish I had saved them.

  21. I love and collect feed sack reproductions. So cheery and fun to quilt!

  22. Nettie McMullen June 17, 2011 at 11:52 am

    I have worn Broom Stick skirts as a child that my Grandma made me,She made her own patterns also I loved them. They are really neat.

  23. My mom always took me to the feed store with her, so I could pick out the sack that I wanted for my new dress. I still have one that has never been used.

  24. I have a quilt that my step grandmother made me from the material that was my grandmothers, I love it, and it has so many of the feedsack material in it. One of my treasures I will always cherish. One its material I remember my grandmother having and two it was made by a woman who came into our lives and didn’t want me to forget who my grandma was.

  25. If you live in western Kansas, eastern Colorado or southwest Nebraska there is a flour mill at Wauneta, NE that still sacks their excellent flour in printed cloth bags. You absolutely can NOT buy the sacks from the mill without product but they sell flour & bran in 5, 25, & 50# bags. If you travel to the mill you can pick your own out of the stack. I have no idea if they would ship.

  26. Wow, thanks for the history lesson! I have always loved the feed sack, my Gram told me about them as I was growing up, so the they have always had a warm spot in my heart! I have some in my stash but ….it is so hard for me to CUT in to them!

  27. There are a few other men that have an interest in sewing for themselves, and many others. With my six children, I had plenty of reason to experience the fun (to me) of fixing or making clothes.

  28. I do hands-on presentations at schools about the role of textiles in the life of families in the early American west. I bring samples of wool and cotton and demonstrate the process these fibers had to go through to make one garment for a child at that time. When we get to feedsacks, we talk about how the building of mills in the early 1800’s in the East allowed Americans to finally be able to buy fabric because of reduced cost. Feedsacks were one of the byproducts of the opening of those mills. They were also very useful to the men of the Goldrush who were often using horses to transport their goods instead of wagons. The kids find it amusing that someone would wear clothing made of feed or flour sacks.

    Many of the ladies in my quilting group still remember having clothing made of feedsacks as children. And, no, they did not live in the Old West or the Goldrush.

  29. I do hands-on presentations at schools about the role of textiles in the life of families in the early American west. I bring samples of wool and cotton and demonstrate the process these fibers had to go through to make one garment for a child at that time. When we get to feedsacks, we talk about how the building of mills in the early 1800’s in the East allowed Americans to finally be able to buy fabric because of reduced cost. Feedsacks were one of the byproducts of the opening of those mills. They were also very useful to the men of the Goldrush who were often using horses to transport their goods instead of wagons. The kids find it amusing that someone would wear clothing made of feed or flour sacks.

    Many of the ladies in my quilting group still remember having clothing made of feedsacks as children.

  30. Wanda Nesloney June 17, 2011 at 9:49 am

    I just love feedsack material as well. I have not been able to purchase any but I am lucky enough to have a few quilts my grandmother made from feedsacks. She grew up on a farm and continued to live on a farm most of her life in East Texas. She was able to point out different prints in the quilts that were oiginally shirts my father wore when he was young. When I would stay with my grandmother during the summer she first introduced me to quilting as well as churnning butter and making bread. I still remember how the kitchen smelled when we were making bread. Thanks for the lovely story on feedsack material it brought back wonderful memories.

  31. My sister (who grew up in the Great Depression) found some feedsacks at a yard sale. These were being sold for a pittance and knowing the value, purchased the whole lot. Being the generous person she is, divided the spoils with me. What a sister. I do remember one Christmas when money was unusally tight, my sister-in-law made me two F/S dresses as a gift. Great memories.

  32. Jessica Manchester June 17, 2011 at 8:50 am

    I was born July 1, 1973 and I went home from the hospital in an adorable outfit my grandmother made for me from flowered feed sacks. I still have it today and I love it dearly.

  33. Hi Amy!
    So glad to read your blog about feedsacks. I have been a collector for many years and have a vast amount! Being drawn to the colors and prints I HAD to do something with them. Since the amount of each print or pattern is limited, I figured a line of infant wear, bonnets and soft toys for baby! See Rougewear on my site: http://www.hankyblanky.com. You even published my pattern for Moody Milly and Moody Max Bean dolls who are wearing feedsack cloth. Everything I make is inspired by vintage samples I find at the flea markets. I love your sensibility! Keep up the great work.

  34. I married in to a long time family farm family. When I learned about feedsacks and quilting, I also learned that there were no pretty feedsacks remaining here. 🙁

    I bought a small quilt at an auction that I think is made from feedsack fabric. But the border fabric was newer and doesn’t fit. I’d like to replace it but have a hard time finding feedsack fabrics. I’m thinking I’ll just have to use reproduction fabrics.

  35. Arlene J. Atwood June 17, 2011 at 8:39 am

    Ah, memories. I remember my Mom made almost all of my sister’s and my clothes from feedsacks. Unfortunatly, nothing remains of the feedsacks or items made from them.
    I do have a photo of my sister and myself as children wearing matching dresses made from a silk parachute.
    My Mom made all of our clothes made from whatever fabric her friends would give her.

  36. Lee Ann Bailey June 17, 2011 at 8:19 am

    My husband’s grandmother, Granny Liz, passed away at the age of 92. When my eldest daughter was 18 months old, Granny Liz gave me some fabric from her stash to make a dress for my daughter. Not being savvy enough to recognize that it was a feed sack, I proceeded to cut it up and make a dress. It was only later that I realized, with the series of needleholes down the edge of the fabric, that the material was a feed sack. I could kick myself that I didn’t realize what a gift Granny Liz had given me!

  37. I sure wish manufactures would come back with them. i had halloween costumes, clown, out of them. It would be fun collecting them!

  38. I too love feedsacks! I have several of my grandmothers and great aunts and have them hanging in my kitchen. I use them to place in my baskets when taking food to church or other functions. The faded colors are just beautiful!

  39. I remember as a child having clothes made from feedsacks. The first apron I made was from a feedsack and I also made a few other things from feedsacks. There were 7 of us kids (3 girls and 4 boys) and I remember fussing with my sisters about who would get which sack. My mom saved them all, even the white ones and I still have a few of those. Whenever I see the reproduction prints, it brings back so many memories of my mom who went to Glory in 2002 and of my childhood.

  40. nancy sanders May 21, 2011 at 1:25 pm

    I spent a lot of time with my grandmother as a little girl. She was never one to let idle hands last for long, so as a 3 or 4 yr old I was drying dishes for her. I really felt all grown up when she made me my own dish towel made from a feed sack. In fact I still have the towel in my chest of cherished things. What a great memory of standing in her kitchen being grandma’s little helper.

  41. I live way, way out in western Kansas on the Colorado border – Pioneer country! Out here the ethic is definitely to use up what you have. I still see at yard sales things for sale made from feed sacks. And believe me, I always buy them!!! I enjoyed your article. :o)

  42. I love the feedsack repros! I was at a antique mall one day and sw aome actual feedsacks. Hubby thought I had lost my mind when I told him I wanted to buy them and cut them up for a quilt. Then I looked at the price tag…WAY too much for me! 🙂 At lease I can say I have seen real ones! My step mom has a sugar sack, but they aren’t as colorful or neat as the real ones!

  43. Patricia Blair May 20, 2011 at 10:03 am

    I too love feed sacks. When I was in high school, flour and feed sack dresses, jumpers, and vests were the rage. Really! All the fabric stores carried sacking – the selection was pretty wide – and vintage-looking garments were seen just about everywhere. Sacking is sort of like macaroni and cheese: comfort fabric.

  44. My mother grew up during the Depression, the youngest of ten children.She never knew her father for he had died just six weeks before she was born. Grandma believed in “use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without” and so my mother wore bloomers made from flour sacks. Although she was quite a tomboy when she was small, liking to play skin-the-cat or hanging upside down from tree branches, back then little girls wore dresses. She was always self-conscious of the advertising stamped on her bloomers and so glad when it faded.

    My mother-in-law shared some of her printed feed sacks with me when I was a new bride. My very first attempt at quilting was to make a completely hand-stitched potholder (which I promptly scorched in a cooking calamity) from carefully cut out remnants of various prints.

    A few years later found me diligently bent over my Singer sewing machine stitching pinafores for two small daughters from that handed down stash. During the early 1970’s money was tight when my husband was laid off from his job and as a stay-at-home mom I quickly learned the meaning of “use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without”.

    It was also during this time that I discovered embroidery work nicely satisfied my desire for creativity. Embroidery skeins were just ten cents each, and I was the happy recipient of my mother-in-law’s collection of embroidery transfers (carefully pulled from the center of Workbasket magazine) which then stamped beautifully on neatly pressed flour sack.

    As time marched on, I creatively used remnants of feed sack material to make hand-hemmed napkins which softened and faded with use. I even bought a large wicker basket and lined it with a particularly lovely piece of feed sack which I painstakingly edged with hand-cut, hand-made coordinating bias edging.

    And now, here it is years later and I am a grandma, no longer needing to sew clothing for economical purposes but still finding uses for the remaining pieces of feed sack. My latest project is to embroider a vintage design on a flour sack, finishing it by stitching on a pretty border of printed feed sack. Carefully ironed, it will hang in my kitchen, a visual reminder of the delight I find in homemaking.

    And, I muse, this might be a good summer to teach two small granddaughters how to embroider…

    When I pick up a piece of feed sack material, running it through my hands, noting the tell-tale row of holes left where the stitched string was pulled away, I think of the woman who pulled that string. How did she use the contents of that bag? Did she scatter feed to the chickens? Did she mix up a nutritious meal for her hungry family? Or perhaps anxiously wait for that particular print so she would have enough for a sewing project? Whatever the reason, she was “making do” with what she had…and no doubt even saved the string.

    What a heritage.

  45. I have 2 quilts that my great aunt made and both have feed sack material in them. One is a butterfly applique and the other is Grandmother’s flower garden. I love them both.

  46. Hi, Amy:

    I remember my Grandmother Ross having dish towels she had made out of feed sacks. Not sure of how long ago she had made them. I was 13 and stayed at their home in northern Michigan for a month………..that was 1950, and she cooked on a wood stove, did loads of canning, and those wonderful dish towels. Great memories.

    Gwen

  47. Amy,
    I run a reproduction group on flickr. Check it out. http://www.flickr.com/groups/30s_and_40s_vintage_reproduction_fabric/
    Sometimes it doesn’t work to sew with vintage items, so why not work with the new. Thanks for posting about this lovely story. Did you see etsy’s blog post about it too? Great minds think alike. Best regards.
    A

  48. I wish they still used feed sacks, with this economy they could be used now just like back in the olden days.
    Next time I am in a flea market I will be sure to try and find one of these.

  49. Judy Bellville May 19, 2011 at 5:07 pm

    I also love feed sacks. I have them decorating my kitchen, printed one’s on my walls and plain one’s as curtains. I can’t wait for the new collection of fabric to be debuted.

  50. I love all of the old feedsack prints – they are so charming & I adore all of the patchwork and yoyo quilts made from them as well.
    I have a set of napkins listed on ESTY right now made from feed sack – so cute!
    http://www.etsy.com/shop/hattiemae

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