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Kayte Terry

Feedsacks: A Tradition of Recycling and Repurposing

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Written on September 13, 2007 2:31 AM

Several years ago, I was scrolling through the vintage fabric selection on Ebay when a particular auction caught my eye: pounds of colorful scraps of patterned fabric called feedsacks. I got lost in the kaleidescope of fabrics for sale and immediately placed my bid. That first box was my introduction into feedsacks and I have never turned back.

Just a few patterns in my growing feedsack collection.

Although I had now become an official feedsack fan, I had no idea what the term actually meant so I did a little research and learned that the fabrics were actually from sacks of flour, sugar and animal feed. These feedsacks were recycled by generations of ingenious women who transformed this mundane consumer packaging into clothing, quilts, curtains and more.

I have always loved patterns and since feedsacks were popular for so long, a feedsack collection is akin to a catologue of pattern styles over many decades. From swirling Art Nouveau designs to more geometric deco motifs to the poodles and classic cars that populate 1950’s feedsacks, a feedsack collection is akin to a catologue of trends and design styles of the 20th century.

A brief feedsack history lesson: between 1840 and 1890, cotton feedsacks started to replace barrels as packaging for farm and food packaging. Initially these feedsacks were plain cotton except for the stamp of the logo of the company. Faced with a family to clothe, a home to make and very little money to spare, women of the time repurposed these cotton fabrics for their household needs. They often soaked the feedsacks in lye or bleach to get rid of the labels. This was difficult process and sometimes some of the label remained, resulting in some comical tales. In the article Feed Sack Quilt History: Feedsacks, Frugal and Fun, Judy Anne Johnson Breneman writes about a woman who was out walking with her beau and fell, revealing the words "southern best" on her undergarments!

By the 1920s, manufacturers caught on that women were re-using the feedsacks for their sewing projects and started printing patterns on the sacks. They also printed their labels on paper, making them easy for women to remove. By the thirties, feedsack mania hit an all time high: textile designers were hired by feedsack manufacturers, sacks were produced with pre-printed patterns for dolls, stuffed animals, appliqué and quilt blocks, and feedsacks were sold and traded by women looking to get the perfect print.

According to Janet of Primrose Design, there is a popular urban myth claiming that 15,000 feedsack patterns have been printed over the last couple of centuries. One of Janet's pet projects over the year has been to document as many of these patterns as she could get her hands on. You can her collection of patterns on her website. No one seems to know if there were indeed 15,000 feedsack patterns but consider this: at the height of feedsack production, there were thirty three mills producing the fabric and feedsacks continued to be popular into the 1960s. In other words, there is no shortage of feedsack patterns to choose from!

Today, modern crafters are reclaiming a little bit of these rich histories by using scraps of feedsacks in their work. Katie of Buttonpom finds feedsack fabrics “appealing because they remind me of my childhood. I remember my grandmother owning suitcases full of feedsack and we'd pick through the stacks to find a fabric that suited our current project. Recently my grandmother finally gave me a large stack of feedsack to use on my own and that is how I began to incorporate it into my work.”

Katie makes adorable accessories like this "Petite Handbag" with feedsack accents.

Kaite of Katinkapinka also learned about feedsacks from the women in her family. "I first learned about feedsacks (and the process of recycling them) through my mom," she explains. "When i was young she aquired a batch of quilts that had belonged to my great grandmother...they were all patchwork quilts and made from such tiny little squares, triangles and diamond shapes, each one a different color and pattern. I used to lay on my bed and marvel at all the different designs and my mom would point out her favorites and give me her best estimates for dating each little scrap based on their prints. She explained how most of them came from feedsacks which had been made into dresses and aprons that her mother and grandmother wore until they practically fell apart, then they were cut up for smaller clothes for the kids and finally made their way to the quilts. The backs of the quilts were made from the plain white cotton feedsacks with just the grain labels on them...faded almost completely out but you could still make out what they had been."

The evolution of feedsacks from packaging to fabric to quilt or dress also appeals to the DIY ethic of recycling, re-using and repurposing. Jennifer of JCasa loves to repurpose "old quilts, especially those that are too time-worn for use in their current form. it is so cool to think of the different purposes these fabrics have served over time and how i can create new pieces to extend their lives even further."
Jennifer's adorable list-takers are made with a mix of feedsacks and solid linen and can hold a legal pad, business cars, pen and pencil or whatever else you need to get through the day and stay organized. You can find all sorts of adorbale organziers, puches and home accessories in her shop.

Though recycling is often important to crafters of today, this approach to feedsacks is obviously not new! What's most fascinating to me is that feedsacks have always been part of a tradition of recycling. We could definitely learn a few things from these crafters of yore: in the past, women were resoueceful and made what they needed with materials they already had. Using feedsacks "reminds us of a simpler time when nothing was taken for granted and every bit of every little thing had a purpose and was used up 'til there was nothing left," says Kaite. "It was the true beginnings of our modern day upcycling."

Kaite was extremely lucky to find a large enough piece of feedsack to make this sweet wrap skirt. Back in the day, women traded fabrics to get the yardage they needed for a project. Clothing was pieced together from a couple different feedsacks of the same pattern.

Are you ready to jump into the feedsack frenzy? You can find feedsacks on Ebay or at flea markets and antique sales in varying sizes. Most are small scraps that were probably on their way to becoming a quilt. You may think that these scraps are too small to be of much use but feedsack fabrics look wonderful as a patchwork. You can easily make small crafts such as pincushions and eye pillows or simply use them as an accent with solid colored fabrics. If you really want to go wild, make a quilt! A modern style quilt with vintage fabrics would really be divine.

If you would like more information on the history of feedsacks, check out the following articles. I used them as a guide for my abreviated feedsack history lesson.
Feedsacks!by Kris Driessen
Feed Sack Quilt History: Feedsacks, Frugal and Fun by Judy Anne Johnson Breneman
Feedbags: Rags to by Joan Kiplinger

Or ask your mom, your grandmother or the nice older lady who lives in your building about their feedsack projects. The best way to learn about the craft traditions of our past is to learn from a person who lived them. The DIY community owes so much to these resourceful ladies of the past and it is so important that their stories, their techniques and their crafty wisdom live on for many generations to come.

comment by Nancy Flynn on September 27, 2007 4:43 PM:

What a fabulous story! I've only been able to find feedsack reproductions, the real thing is so much more vibrant and beautiful. I love how katie mixes such modern shapes with the vintage prints.

comment by West Coast Crafty on October 6, 2007 11:50 PM:

Kayte, I love your article! Gorgeous photos and such great history, too.

comment by Athos on October 19, 2007 5:29 PM:

Great work, Kayte - very inspiring story. You'll send me to ebay with those photos!

comment by Pouch on November 27, 2007 1:39 PM:

interesting article, always wondered what 'feedsack' meant :)

comment by craftycozycold on February 2, 2008 2:21 AM:

I just bought a vintage dress from an antique mall and the tag read "1940's feedsack dress"- now I know what it means!

comment by pennycarnival on August 10, 2008 6:30 PM:

I'm a journalist and wrote an article on this topic a few months ago for my local newspaper. The museum here was trying to find old clothes made from flour sacks, since our town has a long flour history.
For the story I also interviewed Arlene McComas, who writes the blog www.heartrockshome.com. Arlene acquired hundreds of old flour sacks several years ago and makes all sorts of things with them--bags, aprons, etc. She uses every bit of them, down to the scraps and the thread. (One thing she makes with the scraps are clothes for little clothespin dolls.)
A photo of one of Arlene's bags is included in this post I wrote here:

Thanks for the great post!

comment by beverlyz on September 26, 2008 4:42 AM:

My mom made dresses for me when I was a little girl from feed sacks.

comment by bocietsy on March 20, 2009 9:34 PM:

Memories! My Grandmother made quilts and dresses from these too. I still have some of the fabric. I made some little stuffed cats from some of it and gave one to each of my cousins to remember her by.