Isn’t it weird how whenever a generation discovers something, they think they invented it? Back in the 1970s we discovered ecology, and invented Earth Day. Young adults today discovered recycling and invented the idea of being “green.” But it was our grandparents and great-grandparents, the young adults of the Depression and WWII who made reusing and recycling into a way of life. Of course, this was out of necessity, but many of this generation retained their thrifty ways throughout their lives, even after resources again became plentiful.
From the mid 1920s through the beginning of the 1960s, products bought in bulk were packaged in colorful sacks made from cotton. These sacks are collectively referred to as feedsacks, even though the most common products packaged in the sacks were flour and sugar.
Sack packaging first appeared in the 19th century, but those sacks were made from white or unbleached muslin. Even so, the sacks were saved and reused, or they were cut and sewn into clothing and household goods.
The printed and colored sacks came about as part of a clever marketing scheme. Someone at one of the many sack factories realized that they could sell more sacks if their sacks were somehow more desirable. The idea was that people would request printed sacks if they needed extra fabric to match a sack they already had.
The idea was successful and soon printed sacks were commonly used as packaging. Consumers loved them and soon many Americans were making everything from aprons to underwear from the bags. One 100 pound bag was large enough to make a simple blouse, but it took at least three bags to make a dress. The bag manufacturers even distributed booklets which gave suggestions for using the bags in different ways.
Women would trade bags with neighbors in order to get matching bags, or they would take a favored print with them as they went to the mill or store to hopefully find a match. Often the town bakery would sell the many bags it accumulated. And some of the same fabric used to make the sacks could often be bought by the yard from a local store, or could be ordered by mail.
Many people associate feedsacks with the Great Depression, and they certainly were used in a time when money and resources were tight. They were also very much in use during World War II, when clothing was rationed.
In 1945 my aunt, Ruth Underwood, made her wedding dress from feedsacks. There was no money to buy a dress, and fabric was still in short supply. The solution was to use what she had on hand – feedsacks.
All through the years that they were produced, feedsacks were saved and used. To have not saved them would have seemed extremely wasteful to a society that had not yet learned to generate the massive amounts of garbage that we do today.
In the late 1950s many mills were turning to less expensive paper sacks, and by the early 1960s, cloth sacks were pretty much a thing of the past. Considering how useful they are, it’s surprising that so many survive intact.
I’ve been to estate sales where there were dozens of beautiful sacks, washed and neatly folded. And I’m sure the 1930s housewife who saved them would be shocked to find the prices collectors and crafters are willing to pay for her “free” bags!
And speaking of recycling, I’ll be taking some of my old articles from my website, fuzzylizzie.com, and rewriting them for The Vintage Traveler over the next months. When I started fuzzylizzie.com in 2004 my idea was to write articles for a website that people could find and use. But blogging has evolved, it now makes more sense to put all my content here, and so the website is very neglected. Putting the articles here will allow me to better track their use, and that will help me determine which topics are of interest to the most users. So please bear with me if you have already read this, and the other content that will be add in the next few weeks.
12 responses to “Recycling Feedsacks into Fashion”
Nice examples–went and visited the link.
reminds me of a bag my ma sewed for me. these would make tougher bags.
My mother made many garments for me and my 3 sisters out of feed sacks and recently she told me about making us panties out of cloth sugar sacks, so that we had the word “sugar” written across our bottoms. I wish a pair of those panties had been saved, but most of our clothes either wore out or were passed on to younger cousins.
What a cute story! It really is too bad that none of them survived the years.
I love the feedsack examples you’ve included here. Such a colourful variety. It’s recycling at its best.
Bumgarner, Glyde, interview, Canton, NC, July, 1997.
Grindley, Judith Scoggin, Kiplinger, Joan Reed, and McClure, Jessie Grindley. Vintage Fabrics. Paducah, KY, 2006.
Kurella, Elizabeth. The Complete Guide to Vintage Textiles. Iola,WI: Krause Publications, 1999.
Sew Easy with Cotton Bags. Memphis, Tenn.: National Cotton Council, 1950.
Trestain, Eileen Jahnke, Dating Fabrics: A Color Guide 1800 – 1960. Paducah, KY: American Quilter’s Society, 1998.
Underwood, Ruth, interview, Marietta, GA, November 12, 2009
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