It seems incredibly difficult to imagine fashioning a garment from a feed sack. Or a flour sack.
We’re familiar with re-purposing, re-imagining, re-cycling. It’s fashionable, desirable… even hip.
Our grandparents and great-grandparents were way ahead of us.
Life on American farms in the 1920s and 1930s was unimaginably difficult. Families learned to be frugal, make do with what they had. To be creative with their resources, pass down goods, stretch budgets, and fix what was broken. To waste… nothing.
“Necessity is the mother of invention…”
An English proverb popularity attributed to Benjamin Franklin,
Jonathan Swift and Sir Walter Raleigh
Flour sacks and feed sacks were manufactured in the early 1800s of a stiff canvas fabric, suitable only for re-use. But with the invention of the “stitching machine” in 1848, seams could be double-stitched and were deemed strong enough to contain grain using a homespun cotton linen. In the late 1800s, North East mills began weaving fabric for this use.
When the Great Depression of the 1930s struck, rural women began emptying feed sacks and reusing the cotton for family needs, most especially clothing, but also dishcloths, curtains, nightwear, diapers, etc. At that time, most of the flour sacks were made from a simple white cotton, very often with the flour mill name or logo inked onto the side. It was an arduous task to remove the ink and make the fabric usable.
By the 1940s, flour mills began to take notice of how women were recycling their sacks. Savvy, they began manufacturing brightly colored, printed cotton material to package their products. They rightly believed women would select a flour brand marketed with the most beautiful fabric.
As America became involved in World War II, cotton fabric for civilian use became scarce. Re-purposing these bags for clothing needs became a necessity, encouraged by the U.S. Government.
My mother remembers having a flour sack apron made especially for her. I wish I had a photograph of her in that apron.
Times and necessities have changed. Flour no longer comes packaged in beautiful, printed cotton fabric. Wrappings are branded pieces of paper or plastic, a utilitarian template reminiscent of the 1920s.
Backstory of 1930s Necessity
While in recent years, our economy has had its challenges; people in need have more resources than every before. Industries and charities have filled some of those gaps. Individuals and churches and civic organizations have also rightly stepped up to provide needed help.
By 1933, in the height of the Depression, 25-percent of the labor force was unemployed. And those unemployed were responsible for feeding about 30 million family members. A paradox arose. For while “the destitute ate their meals at garbage cans, American farmers still produced surpluses of crops and livestock,” reports Gale Group. Farmers also suffered as prices for their agricultural severly dropped as the ability to pay decreased.
Food was destroyed while people starved. In 1933, Franklin D. Roosevelt began crafting legislation that would give relief to both the hungry and the farmers. In 1939, the Food Stamp program was birthed. “Approximately four million people participated in this experimental program while it existed. Industrial mobilization in preparation for World War II (1939–1945), however, soon brought full employment as well as the elimination of food surpluses. As a result, the food stamp program was canceled,” says Gale Group.
We no longer need flour sack dresses. Although I’m reminded of my favorite “Gunne Sax” dresses. A middle school and then high school student as we entered the 1980s, it was my all-time favorite, jump-up-and-down, I-need-it, I’m so excited dress! While they were not made of feed sacks, their early origins gave a nod to the era. “Gunne Sax was known for nostalgic ‘granny dresses’ and soon the look expanded into prairie dresses and Victorian and Edwardian inspired designs in the 1970s and into the early 1980s.”
It’s important not to distance ourselves too far from our history. A not-too-distant history. An era of American industriousness, self-reliance, and ingenuity in the face of extreme hardship. As an American people, I hope we never, ever lose our ability to remember, to create, to re-use, re-purpose… and re-new. I hope we’re always as resourceful as our grandparents and great grandparents.
Today, feed sacks have reinvented themselves once again. Although it’s been around for a few years, its popularity linked with the neo-farmhouse movement continues to inspire our generation. Popular television like HGTV’s Fixer-Upper has mastered the art of the look. And I am still enamored with its simple yet rustic lines.
Here are some stylishly chic ways to DIY your own feed sack “ish” look.
Feed Sack Ideas
In the kitchen…
As a bag…
As an apron…
As a shower curtain…
As table runners…
And even… clothes.
Are you ready to create a grain or flour sack DIY?
Here is a great resource at Etsy for grain sack fabrics. Antique Linen Store.