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Grain & Feed Sacks Begin as Utilitarian Tools but Soon Become Basis for Fashion

by Lynda Kolski (11/05/12).

A variety of European grain sacks with different stripe patterns. The designs were originally used to help farmers tell whose sacks belonged to whom. Now, these sacks are being used as fabric for furniture upholstery, among other things.

American feed sacks were produced in brightly colored prints to appeal to the farmers’ wives, who would recycle them into clothing and household items.

It’s not unusual for a customer to walk up to my display of European grain sacks and exclaim, “My grandmother made dresses or clothes from these!” Well, probably not, unless your grandmother lived on a farm in Hungary. They have confused American feed sacks with European grain sacks, which are very trendy right now. While they may sound alike, they are literally worlds apart.

European grain sacks are enjoying huge popularity these days. They date to the early 1900s and were used by farmers throughout Eastern Europe, France and Belgium to haul and store grain. Typically, they are a coarse off-white or ecru color with a red or blue stripes running vertically down the sack. Sometimes, they have initials or monograms. Today, they are sought after for use as upholstery, pillows, window seat covers, bolsters and runners. Although they exude a very country or informal look, formal furniture, such as a wing chair, upholstered in grain sack material set in front of a window framed in toile curtains, looks fabulous.

Made from flax and hemp, European grain sacks were woven on the farms and made by hand. The flax was grown and soaked or retted in local streams. Retting caused the flax stems to rot, leaving the linen fibers inside. These fibers were woven into long strips of fabric, usually about 20-22 inches wide and 8-10 feet long. The length of the material was folded in half and hand stitched up the sides. The fabric is heavy and coarse, similar to burlap, but a much tighter weave. Intended to haul heavy loads of grain, the fiber is quite durable and wears like iron, making it perfect for today’s upholstery or seat cushion needs.

The combination of stripes and initials on the grain sacks identified the farm it came from. The farmer would take his load of grain and sacks to the mill, the mill would mill the grain, and fill his sacks. When the farmer came back to pick it up, he could identify his grain by its sack.

European grain sacks are often found with red or blue vertical stripes and initials.

European grain sacks make great pillows and bolsters.

Grain sacks with red and blue stripes are the most common. Black, green, beige, tan or purple stripes are more unusual and often priced higher. In good condition, grain sacks average $65-85 each. A more unusual color stripe adds $25 or $30 to the price. Some of the home stores are selling reproductions of this fabric. One way to determine if a fabric is original is to look at the weave. Authentic grain sacks were woven by hand, so the weave will not be as perfect and even as machine\-woven fabric. If there is a lot of fabric or pillows made out of the same exact fabric, with no variations or irregularities, chances are it is not hand-woven, but mass-produced machine made fabric.

Close-up of the grain sack shows the initials, which are usually added by cross-stitch.

European grain sacks are typically about 48 inches long.

Sometimes you will find a grain sack that has a pour spout and the original tie still attached.

 

European grain sacks are significantly heavier and thicker than their American counterparts. Feed sacks in America came into use in the mid-19th century. Manufacturers had been packaging feed and grain products in wooden barrels and metal containers, which were heavy and cumbersome to transport for the farmer. After the invention of the sewing machine in the 1840s, the feed sack became a viable way to package goods. The sewing machine made it possible to sew strong seams that could stand up to the rigors of a 100-pound bag of feed being carried and hauled by the farmer. Feed sacks were lighter and easier to transport than tins or barrels, and provided cheaper retail packaging for the manufacturer. Although homespun linen had been used by farmers for storage, the hand-sewn seams were not sturdy enough for the heavy use required in a retail environment. The first feed sacks were made of a heavy cotton canvas, usually plain white.

Soon farmers’ wives began to realize the cotton fabric from the feed sacks had many utilitarian uses around the home. It could be made into aprons, backing for quilts, bedding and towels. When the manufacturers caught on to this, they shifted their production to colorful printed fabrics that would have broader appeal to women. This successful marketing strategy paid off, and soon feed sacks became the source of fabric for clothes as well as household linens. Some of the patterns can be seen below.

The brightly colored and printed feed sacks were used primarily for dry goods, such as flour, sugar and salt. These feed sacks had a tighter weave than those used for animal feeds, making them ideal for clothing fabric. Manufacturers began using paper labels that could be easily removed without harming the fabric, leaving it free of advertising. Once their life as a packaging material was done, the feed sacks were recycled into clothing and household linens. Many of the most collectible quilts from the early 1900s are made from feed sack material.

When the seams are opened, the average feed sack measures about 36 by 44 inches, providing roughly a yard of fabric. It took an average of three bags to make a ladies’ dress, often motivating a farmer to bring home more than he needed at a particular time so that his wife had the necessary amount of fabric for her project. There are lots of stories of the wife accompanying the farmer to the store to pick out the fabric she liked from the store’s selection of sacks. Smart manufacturers changed the patterns often so there was always a new design or pattern to attract the ladies’ eye.

On many vintage feed sacks that have been opened, you can still see the holes left from the original seam where it was sewn together as in this close-up

By the 1940s, feed sack material was being produced in dozens of textile mills across the U.S. Bemis Brothers of Minneapolis was one of the largest producers of cloth bags for dry goods and feed. According to one estimate, by 1940, as many as three million people were wearing clothing made from feed sacks. Eventually, border prints were developed and became available. These provided an ideal fabric for pillowcases or curtains. Solid colors were also available. Some manufacturers made bags with preprinted patterns for dolls and aprons. Feed sacks were offered with popular themes, such as Disney characters, Davy Crockett or Gone with the Wind. These are some of the most collectible feed sacks today. Novelty prints, such as gardening, cowboys or animals, are also popular.

By 1950, paper had replaced cotton as a cheaper, more sanitary alternative for packaging. Today, as vintage feed sacks have grown in popularity, fabric companies are reproducing many of the early feed sack patterns and designs in yardage for sewing.

The original feed sack material is still sought after by collectors, quilters and sewers. Condition is always key when valuing a feed sack. Collectors can often find vintage feed sacks in good condition for less than $20. Unusual patterns or colors can add to the price. Animals and novelty prints are always very collectible, and therefore command a higher price.

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Lynda Kolski is a Worthologist who specializes in vintage textiles.

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One Response to “Grain & Feed Sacks Begin as Utilitarian Tools but Soon Become Basis for Fashion”

  1. Lois says:

    Hi there,
    I’m wondering if you can help me locate flour sack material that is made in the USA.
    I am not looking for flour sack towels made in the USA–but the actual cloth.

    Thanks,
    Lois

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