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.