Discover Vintage America - JUNE 2017

For the love of wearable feed sacks

This month I have turned my Covering Quilts column over to a special guest writer, my mother, Georgia Starley, who has a deep fondness for 1930s and 1940s printed feed
sacks. . .

A variety of printed feed sacks including the "Gone With the Wind" print. (photos courtesy Georgia Starley)

I would like to tell you I have a profound love for fabric. Some might even call it an addiction. How long have I had this condition? I believe it started when I was big enough to lift the lid on an old tin trunk in my mother's room; I could have been three or four. The shelf or drawer had buttons, lace, old cards, rickrack, bone crochet hooks, and tiny bundles of scraps of fabric, and of course, little balls of string.

When I got big enough to lift the insert out of the trunk, I found two dolls, an old blue baby book, and the most incredible trim with blue glass beads on it. Well you get the picture.
But these finds just piqued my curiosity; they were not the cause of my addiction. It was the fabric, but not all the fabric. I hated to touch the taffeta - it gave me goose bumps. The fabrics I liked were the colorful floral prints. I was hooked. It was only years later that I found out they were flour or feed sacks. Did I wear feed sack clothing growing up? I don't know. All our dish towels were sacking. I carried my treasures in small sacks.

Twelve years ago, I found a whole group of people with my same addiction. I was bidding against some of them in auctions. Some of them write books about bags and sell small scraps for big bucks. We started meeting together and admitting to our addictions. Through these groups I began to learn and understand the history of textile bags.

 Another group of feed sacks. The two at right are from Utah.

From barrels to sacks

Up to the middle of the 1800s, products were transported in wooden barrels, kegs, boxes or tins. Cotton production, the opening of the West and the great expansion of American farmland prompted a new form of packaging for transporting goods. It is much easier to carry bags than boxes on the back of a horse.

Early bag measurements were based on the size of a barrel. The weights were in pounds: 196, 48 or 49, 24, or 12.  By the early 1900s, smaller size bag weights were common: six, four, and one-pound bags. In 1943, the U.S. War Production Board ordered bags to be in standard sizes of 100, 50, 25, 10, five, and two pounds. Checking bag weights can help you date or identify your bags.

These early bags were white, brown, or a solid color with name brands and contents printed on the front, along with instructions for removing the print. A patent application filed in 1924 changed the textile bag industry and the way we shopped for food for our families and farm animals. The application states that the sack should be "of a size suitable of being remade into clothing" and "with a substantially indelible or permanent pattern." These patterns are the root cause of my addiction!

Our moms were then more concerned about the color and print of the sack than they were its contents. Sacks can be dated by their designs. The movie "Gone With the Wind" was made in 1939 and a bag showing movie scenes was printed shortly after that.
Collecting note:

Printed feed sacks can easily be found for sale on-line, from quilt dealers, and at antique shops. Look for the chain stitch holes or company names or logos to determine if you have a real feed sack.

Sandra Starley is nationally certified quilt appraiser, quilt historian, and avid antique quilt collector. She travels throughout the U.S. presenting talks on antique quilt history, fabric dating classes and trunk shows as well as quilting classes. Learn more at Send your comments and quilt questions to

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