Upcycling is not a new concept on the farm, and as early as the 1800s farm women were stitching décor and clothing from feedsacks. Today, collectors are eager to bag these vintage feedsack fabrics.
Upcycling is a very old concept. One of my favorite examples is thrifty farm women stitching decor and even clothing from feedsacks.
Flour, sugar and animal feed were once shipped mostly in hard-to-transport wooden barrels. But Elias Howe’s lock-stitching sewing machine finally made seams strong enough for bags to hold up to 100 pounds, so from the 1880s to the 1940s, cloth ruled.
That delighted resourceful farm wives! They’d carefully unravel and roll up the cotton thread that had stitched the bag shut, to reuse for crocheting. Then they’d cut apart the white sacks, bleach out inked labels and dye, stitch and embroider this free fabric into everything from petticoats to dish towels to diapers, depending partly on the weave.
Today, vintage feedsack fabric collectors prize the visible remains of a mill logo on a quilt backing or other item as proof of the object’s age. Not all logos were inked on; later manufacturers moved to glued-on paper labels that women soaked off.
Collectors also look for a line of holes from the chain-stitching across the top of the bag that sewed it shut, although this part of the bag was sometimes cut off in making a garment or household item. Manufacturers, seeing a promotional opportunity, began making the bags with vivid colors and designs printed on one side, sometimes with sewing patterns printed right on the bag. More than 40 mills produced fabrics in thousands of prints, some by popular designers.
Eager to save the 30 cents or so per yard that store fabric cost, especially during the Depression, women asked their men for specific feedsacks, sometimes sending them back to the store if they returned with the wrong print. Bags came in different sizes, but the average width was about 36 inches, with a length of 40 to 46 inches. It took two or three identical sacks to make a woman’s dress.
Lively prints—not just florals, but also patriotic, nursery, movie and even comic book motifs—were also stitched into toys, pillowcases, curtains, pajamas and tablecloths. Quilters, of course, were big fans.
From the 1920s on, demand spread beyond farm wives. In the 1940s, it was estimated that 3 million women and children, at all income levels, were wearing clothing fashioned from feedsacks.
The cloth bags fell from favor in the late ’40s, when new technology brought in paper and plastic containers, cheaper and more food-safe. Still, vintage designs have been reproduced for sale today in fabric stores. And feedsack collectors remain passionate about finding not just the sacks themselves, but examples of items women made from fabric once written off as waste.
—Barbara J. Eash (Country Woman Magazine’s Antiques Expert)