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When you think about it, quilt labels really are like postcards from the past. A quilt label connects us directly to the person, sometimes across the span of 150 years, who selected, cut, pieced, and quilted something so enduring that we can still appreciate it today. Quilts, like postcards, are something personal that lasts beyond the life of the originator: everything material from a person’s life might be gone but the quilts she made and the postcards she wrote remain lovingly tucked away in chests and desk drawers.
All of us have had the moment where we find a beautiful quilt in an attic trunk, an antique shop, or a thrift store and wonder where the quilt came form. Occasionally we luck out and the person who made the quilt also labeled it. We peer at the faded writing, trying to read the person’s name and the date just like we do with postcards. Wow! This quilt was made in 1883 by Eliza Smith. Immediately we want to know more about Eliza and we are connected to a woman who died long ago.
And now we realize why it is so important to label every quilt we make: it connects us to the future in ways we can’t even imagine today. I always tell quilts that in 200 years their quilt could be on a distant planet And the owner will want to know where the quilt came from just like we want to know more about Eliza.
If you are giving a quilt as a gift, wait until the person receives the quilt and snap a picture of them with it and add their picture along with who made the quilt, the city it was made in, the date and any other details that are pertinent. Or if you are finishing a quilt that someone else started (like the one in the photo), include a picture and some history about that person. We always wait to snap the photo of the baby for baby quilts we make and then we include the baby’s picture on the label along with the baby’s stats. When a quilt isn’t labeled like this, both the maker and the recipient risk becoming lost to history.
With today’s technology, it’s so easy to buy printable fabric from your local fabric store and create labels on your computer that can be transferred on to the fabric via your printer. Basically , when you are using printable fabric, the sky is the limit when it comes to the details you can add to the label. We usually use the standard Avery postcard template (no irony here!) in Word for our labels.
In the example label on this page, we included a picture of Nellie who created the original embroidered squares that her granddaughter Mary then had made into a completed heirloom quilt 60+ years later. Biographical information about the project are an important addition to the finished label.
So now when one of Nellie’s great-great-great-great-great-great grandchildren on Mars inherits this quilt, s/he will be connected across time and space to both Nellie and her granddaughter Mary. Just like a postcard from the past.
Feed sack fabrics hols a special place in the hearts of quilters, and that may be truest of all in Iowa. That’s because there are still plenty of sewists who remember the beautiful clothing, quilts, curtains, and dishtowels their mother’s created from humble bags that previously held everything from animal feed to sugar, flour, rice, and salt.
Feed sacks (also called cotton commodity bags, chicken linen, and other names) came on the scene in the mid-1800s: the perfection of lockstitch sewing machine in 1845, and a plethora of cheap cotton meant that goods that had previously been shipped in heavy wooden barrels could now be transported in bags. Early bag manufacturers printed company logos on the bags, and women turned around and scrubbed them with Fels Naptha soap, bleach, and lye so they’d have pristine fabric. In the 1920’s, manufacturers realized that women regularly reused the sacks and sought to increase their appeal by printing instructions for logo removal, apron patterns, cut-stuff-and-sew dolls, and embroidery designs right on the bag. Around 1937, companies began creating bags from dress prints and these fabrics are the ones tat quilters love and designers reproduce. Bags were printed in everything from sophisticated toiles and florals to juvenile prints and manly plaids – collector Pat Reid documented 18,000 different prints and colorways.
While feed sacks were much loved by farm wives, paper bags provided stiff competition. So the National Cotton Council and bag manufacturers dreamed up marketing campaigns to keep women loyal to cotton bags. In 1949, Mrs. Michelle Riffle from Shenandoah, Iowa, was awarded first prize – a brand-new Kaiser automobile – as the winner of the national Fowl Fashion Show. Contestants dressed their chickens, ducks, and turkeys in clothing stitched from chicken feed – Mrs. Riffles’ hen Suzie Q wore an 1830s-era French ensemble. In the mid-1950s, sewing contests with prizes that included trips to Hollywood drew an estimated 25,000 entrants. Younger stitchers were groomed for cotton bag loyalty through 4-H contests.
While feed sack fabric enthusiasts likely think about the quilts sewn with these recycled fabrics, in truth there were rural households where every piece of fabric was first a sack. Cotton bags lived on as potholders, bonnets, clothespin bags, aprons, shoe bags, and handkerchiefs. Phyllis Rosenwinkel grew up on a farm near Clarksville and remembers making a swing by stuffing a bag with hay and having her father tie it to a maple tree. She also made herself a hula shirt from a cotton sack that her mother dyed. Florence Stockman of Iowa City said her mother used feed sacks the way we might use plastic wrap – to warm rising bread dough and to keep flies off baked goods.
Except for a few small specialty manufacturers, dress print cotton bags ceased production around 1964. The fabric designs, however, continue to live on a modern designers recreate them or use them as the jumping off point for new fabrics. Feed sacks themselves are collectible and enthusiasts buy up scraps to create modern feed sack quilts. Nearly 50 years after the last feed sack rolled off the production line, the bag’s rich colors and charming prints, along with the memories they evoke, keep them at the forefront of fabric fashion.
by Linzee McCray
A freelance writer and the author of Feed Sacks: A Colourful History of a Frugal Fabric and Art Quilts of the Midwest.
Being only one of a few retail businesses in Tracy, Iowa, owner Fay Boyd and her husband Dean are very proud of their community. Active in volunteer work in their community, the Boyds shared the following about their community for visitors to the All Iowa Shop Hop:
” We are located just a few miles from historic Pella which was settled by the Dutch heritage and has much to offer to visitors. The big windmill from the Netherlands they can tour and the bakeries are a real treat when in this area, also the town here grew up because of the railroad and river traffic and the Bellefountaine cemetery is just outside of Tracy and many people go there to see where earlier relatives were buried at this time of year. My shop is located in a 100 year old home moved into Tracy from the
Bellefountaine area and was a home for the Methodist preachers for many years until we purchased it for our home . We are often told “I got married in your living room”. Red Rock Lake is quite near our town and many campers love this area as well as fishermen. Knoxville located 15 miles from Tracy is the home of the Knoxville raceway and has sprint car races every Saturday night from early April till October. We live in a small community with a big heart and love to have visitors to our area.
It is important to us that Every customer has a wonderful experience while in Tracy at our shop, from the entry in the door until they leave they are the Most important thing happening in our life at that time. We strive to be helpful and friendly to all so they will enjoy visiting us. Had a 92 year old gentleman visit yesterday who had never been in a quilt shop and had lived in this town many years ago and was amazed at the shop. It was like a history lesson about my town as I have lived here 70 years and we reminisced about people we had known and places that aren’t there any more while she looked around the shop and got her passport for the shop hop. I always enjoy the stories I hear from customers and they are amazed at the shop in little Tracy Iowa, I want them to enjoy the shop and return to see us again. I hope they will enjoy it enough to tell all their friends about their experience. ”