I can just picture the scene. It’s the late 19th century, and an America farmer arrives home on horseback, to be enthusiastically greeted by his wife. She wouldn't have been especially thrilled to see him home safe, nor would she have been eager to get the food supplies in to the house to start cooking. Instead, she would have been desperate to catch a glimpse of the latest designs on the printed cotton feed sacks attached to his weary horse. Her imagination probably ran wild with visions of a new dress, a dining table cover or a beautiful bedroom quilt, any of which she'd have been able to run up using the cotton from those sacks. I bet she'd have whipped them off that horse, and had them washed and pressed, before the farmer could so much as get his boots off!

Once upon a time, I was a committed 'new fabric' patchworker, constantly on the look out for the latest trends, the next set of co-ordinating fabrics. But, the first time I read about the history of feed sacks, I was so fascinated that I couldn't wait to find some 'golden oldies' in the flesh. Since then, it's fair to say I've become something of a feed sack maniac!

Purchasing Power

Feed sacks made their first appearance in the farmhouse kitchens of mid-west America in the 1840s. They contained basic foodstuffs, such as flour, sugar, salt, and grain for the animals, brought from the nearest town every few months. Previously, foodstuffs were packaged in boxes or barrels – fine if you were rich enough to have a horse-drawn wagon, but tricky for poorer farmers who might be lucky even to have a horse of their own. Although simple feed sacks that could be thrown over a horse and still leave room for the farmer were available, it was not until 1846, with the invention of the 'stitching machine' by one Mr Hurd of New York, that a really strong seam could be stitched into the sacks. This meant that they were then robust enough to take the weight of the foodstuffs. Originally, the feed sacks came in canvas and were printed with the suppliers' mill name. Once empty, the farmer would return them to the supplier to be refilled. This all began to change in the late 1800's, when cheaper printed cotton became available. The poor farmer's wife had been making do and mending as best as she could with little new fabric supplies. Local towns rarely stocked more than the very basics, and Mrs Farmer would have needed a good deal of money to send away for expensive materials - money she simply didn't have.

Manufacturer's "Cotton On"

It wasn't long before the feed sack manufacturers realised that, in the sacks themselves, they had a wonderful sales tool: get their designs right, and Mrs Farmer would insist that her husband bought them not just for his transportation purposes, but for her creative ones too. Soon, designers were being specifically brought in to make the prints more interesting. The sacks' printed labels of the past were now replaced with paper labels for easy removal. Designs included everything from florals to scenes from everyday life. Later, templates for cloth dolls were printed onto the sacks, ready to be cut out. Pillowcase and curtain designs were printed with pretty borders. The thrifty housewife, then, was able to make everything from hand towels to quilts, using her feed sacks – plus all her family's clothes. It took an average of three sacks to make a woman's dress – a nifty sales ploy to insure the farmer brought more sacks than he probably needed. There are many recorded occasions when a wife or eldest daughter insisted on going to town with the man of the house solely so she could choose a pattern from the sacks of foodstuffs on display. The prints were constantly changing, so fashionconscious customers had to keep buying to keep up. Even at the height of feed sack fashion, though, recycling was crucial. There are many tales of housewives getting together to swap fabrics, particularly if several different prints were needed for a quilt. But invariably a feed sack fabric would have seen duty as a dress or curtain before the thought of a quilt was even considered.

The Decline and Fall

Feed sacks continued to grab the attention of women during the Depression and World War II. In the 1950s, though, cheaper paper sacks became available, and thus the gradual decline for these bright, beautiful and functional fabrics began. The start of the 1960s saw sack manufacturers trying to tempt customers back with cartoon-printed fabrics, from Buck Rogers to Cinderella. There was even a television advertising campaign intended to prick the conscience of the American housewife, but it failed to generate a significant upsurge in sales. Today it is only the Amish who still use cotton sacks for their dry goods.

Back in Vogue

Lately, patchwork and quilting has taken a new interest in fabrics of the past, and voila, feed sacks are back in fashion - their old-world prints in soft beguiling colours are once more gracing quilts and appliques. The fabrics, worn and well washed, are soft to our fingers, and, if occasionally they are a little too worn and frayed, we do not mind as it only adds to their story. I've been collecting antique feed sack quilts and fabrics for some time now and, although today's choice is rather limited, with most fabric sold as pre-cut squares, there are some real gems to be had out there. The quilts have the charm and character of a weathered face: not perfect, but certainly interesting. They serve as a reminder, not only of the past, but of the fact that, today, many patchworkers could be re-using fabrics from old clothes, curtains and covers. It's time to resist the lure of the new, bright and fashionable fabrics that tempt us in every shop, catalogue and suppliers' exhibition. I vote that, to earn our 'stripes', all committed patchworkers should have to make at least one quilt using recycled fabrics!

For further information, or to buy feed sacks, you need to look to the USA for supplies. The internet is a great international resource, with many feed sack websites:

First Published in Popular Patchwork Volume 13 Issue 9 - September 2005