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Feedsacks, Fabulous Feedsacks posted: 1/23/2003
by Beverly Vollaire Ferro Printable Page
Category: History Method: All
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We still have them, and they are a little bit of American history. They are found at flea markets, garage sales and antique shops. They're beautiful and in great demand. We, as quilters, still use them for quilts, pillows, tea towels, curtains and chair covers. What are these strange and wonderful fabrics? The term feedsack often refers to a variety of cloth bags used to package dry goods from as early as the mid 1800's.


In those days, when they went to the store, they didn't buy a loaf of bread; instead, they bought 100 lbs of flour. This is where the flour manufacturers used their genius to attract the women to buy their particular brand of grain by placing it in a beautifully designed 100% cotton cloth flour bag that we have come to call a feedsack. These sacks, also known as "chicken linen" were used for clothing, quilt, and curtains and even under wear!

Keep in mind that different grains were put in coarser bags so it was quite challenging to make under garments. Some grains used coarser Osnaberg bags, cotton sheeting held sugars, salt, flour because they had a higher thread count to keep from re-sifting, and later, print cloth with the highest thread count were used for dress goods. The dress goods are as nice or nicer than the fabrics we sell today. They were strong and they were sewn with a double lock stitch and some bags had wash out instructions stamped on them for making an apron.

Feedsack Example

My mother, to this day, uses bleached feedsacks to dry her dishes. She says they make the best dishtowels. So I grew up with them. My mother made me feedsack doll quilts that I have today displayed on a small wood-turned quilt rack. My grandmother made my mom a doll quilt using the sample scraps taken from the Sears catalog! Remember that? I have collected salesman's sample sheets of feedsacks in different colors that I purchased from an old Mill. I have heard plenty of stories where ladies made Osnaberg under wear with the name "Gold Pride" was written across their bum! Ouch!

A little history: The wooden barrel was used 200 hundred years ago for staples such as flour, rice, corn meal, sugar, seeds and fertilizers. The flour manufacturers were the largest user of these barrels. The largest barrel weighed 196 lbs. One half barrel weighed 98 lbs, etc. One half barrel of grain sold for $.40 in 1809. There was no standard of measurement until the War Production Board in 1943 made the standard of 100, 50, 25, 10, 5 and 2-pound weights. So if you find a bag stamped at 98 lbs, you'll know you have an older bag. These barrels were cumbersome and difficult to transport but they were less expensive than a cloth bag.

Feedsack Example

When the cloth bags were first introduced, they were not popular with the manufacturers because they were expensive. The benefits, however, of using cloth bags were that they could be thrown over the back of a horse, easier to transport, weigh 100 lbs and be able to be dropped 20 feet without breaking. So, you see how strong these cotton bags are! It wasn't until the 1880's and later that the bags became really popular.

During the depression, women were frugal with everything. People were very poor and could not afford material (we now call it fabric) so these feedsacks became extremely useful. Sewers knew that 3 one hundred pound bags would make a dress. Often they would trade among themselves to get three of the same pattern for their particular project. Out of this time, we have many scrap quilts made from feedsacks. The bright colors were thought to lift the spirits. One customer told me that he remembered that time as being very poor. Not unhappy, just poor. They survived by going to a restaurant, asking for a cup of hot water, adding catsup to the water to make soup and the crackers were free. That is how they survived.

In the 1950's McCall's pattern company had contests on how to use the feedsacks to make beautiful garments. In 1962, fifty million feedsacks were manufactured and sold not just for economy but because they were so attractive and desirable.

In the late 1940's, the cotton and paper industries battled for position. The cotton bag cost $.10-$.36 to produce and the paper sack cost .03 - .06 cents to produce for the same size bag! What would you do as a manufacturer? The cloth feedsacks were with us until the early 1960's then the paper bag won out completely.

Feedsack Example

Today museums, quilters and antique dealers collect them. Some people collect feedsacks as reminders of their childhood. Some collectors use them to restore old quilts. Quilters from around the world enjoy them. They are being exported to Japan by the train carload so we should enjoy then while we can. They're fun and they're still around and it's not too late to start your very own feedsack collection. Enjoy them. They're beautiful and still make wonderful quilts!

Old Made Quilts started in 1995 and we began by selling vintage feedsacks, fabrics and antique quilts. We were lucky to be called to bid on a large supply of feedsacks that belonged to the Props department of the Fried Green Tomatoes movie crew. Apparently, their prop people had secured feedsacks while filming in Georgia and upon completion, the warehouse went up for auction and we were lucky enough to purchase these fine textiles. The "Fried Green Tomatoes" crew used feedsacks in the kitchen scene in their restaurant. They were under the counter and you had to look for them in the movie. At least they were authentic. They had planned to use more but didn't and the prop people got carried away in looking for them and ended up with too many left over so we are all now the winners!

Bev Vollaire Ferro
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