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Feed Sack Fabric

The History of Using Feed Sacks to Make Clothing, Quilts, and More

by Beth Cooper

We have all seen the 1930s reproduction fabric in the quilt shops but did you know the history behind these fabrics?  

Prior to 1840, wheat, flour, grains, and seeds were all packaged in barrels, boxes, and tins.  This was not ideal and between 1840 and 1890 cloth sacks or bags replaced other methods of storage.  The cloth sacks were initially made of canvas and were reusable.  A farmer could bring his canvas bag straight to the mill to be refilled.  In the late 1800s, the mills began weaving inexpensive cotton fabric.  This was what was soon used for all feed sacks.  They were plain white sacks and came in several sizes.  A brand name was usually printed on one side of the bag.  It wasn’t unusual for the labels to be circular as they were previously used on the top of barrels.  It didn’t take long for women to realize that they could reuse these fabric bags for various needs around the home.  

The manufacturers were a little slower in catching on to the bags being reused and made into other items.  Eventually, they did indeed catch on and realized that this was a great marketing opportunity for their brands.  The feed sacks went from solid white to solid colors at first.  But then they began producing the feed sacks in prints.  This was around 1925, shortly before the Great Depression.  By the late 1930s the manufacturing companies were in competition with each other to produce the prettiest and most desirable prints.  Women were buying the products for their packaging, not for the quality of the item inside of it.  This was great marketing for the manufacturers.  They continued to sell their feed, sugar, flour, rice, etc in fabric sacks that were perfect for dresses, aprons, pajamas, pillowcases, quilt blocks, and more.  

A girl near Morganza, Louisiana, wearing a dress made from reused flour sacks in 1938. Photographer Russell Lee (1903–1986) traveled the country documenting American life for the Farm Security Administration beginning in 1936. Courtesy of the Farm Security Administration: Office of War Information Photograph Collection, Library of Congress

Using printed feed sacks for sewing began before the Great Depression but lasted until well after WWII.  During the 1940s, women were encouraged to conserve resources and it was their patriotic duty to reuse their feed sacks.  One feed sack could easily make a child’s dress or shirt and on average, it would take three identical feed sacks to make a woman’s dress.  Pattern companies at this time published patterns specifically to use with feed sacks.

For more information on the history of feed sacks, check out The Colourful History of a Frugal Fabric: Feed Sacks by Linzee Kull McCray.

How do you recognize feed sack fabric today?  Labels were easily removed so many sacks are not still labeled.  A course weave could be an indicator, but that style of fabric was also sold by the bolt.  The best indicator on a piece of fabric that it did indeed come from a feed sack is a line of holes from the stitching that once held the sack together.

Note the holes along the right side from the stitches that once held the Feed Sack together.

Lucky for today’s quilters, it is quite easy to find reproduction feedsack fabric from the 1920s, 30s, and 40s.  Many fabric manufacturers have several lines of it and most quilt shops carry it.  Click here to explore the possibilities.  There are so many cute patterns featuring these fabrics.  But aren’t you glad that you don’t have to use up ten pounds of flour, deconstruct the bag, wash it, and then make the quilt?  Thank goodness for quilt shops!

Sources:  ME Quilt Shop/Buchanan County Historical Society, OkanArts, and Piecework Magazine.

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Marjorie Lipsey
1 year ago

My school dresses were made from feed sacks. Dad bought cow and hog feed, Mom picked out the bags. She made everything every thing except Dad’s overhauls.

Colleen Baldwin
Colleen Baldwin
9 months ago

My mom who would have been 100 this year, said my Grandma Baylor made all there dresses from feed sack fabric. She said they were beautiful patterns and everyone wore them back in the 20’s, 30’s, and so on. Look what we’ve lost. And such an economical way to have clothes. Sewing is a lost art and thank God there are still some youngsters that are into sewing and fashion designing.