Hello friends! In addition to sewing, one of my (Chloe) main interests is fashion history. I spend a lot of my free time reading about fashion history, watching videos about fashion history, listening to podcasts about fashion history…you get the picture. I find it so fascinating! The way in which people outfit themselves reveals so much about their culture and lifestyle, and there is so much rich detail to be found when you study what people wear. Of course, fashion history and sewing are very closely related, and fashion history and sewing history often overlap in very interesting ways. Ergo, we are starting a new blog series where I am going to write about different fashion and sewing history moments that I find particularly captivating and important, so that we can spread the knowledge and the fun! Today we are going to discuss the flour sack dress of the early 20th century.
Because we’re talking about history here, all sewing history moment blog posts will be written based on research from scholarly sources, such as peer-reviewed articles, books, journals, etc. I will always list the sources I used in a bibliography at the bottom of the post, in case you want to do some further reading!
Without further ado, our first sewing history moment will be focusing on an innovative and resourceful way in which 20th-century North American women outfitted their families- sewing garments out of flour and feed sacks.
Times were turbulent for the significant majority of Canadians and Americans in the first half of the 20th century, especially during the Great Depression that followed the infamous stock market crash of 1929. While some women were able to afford the newest fashions, most women (especially those in more rural areas) had to make do with what little they could afford, and recycle what they had. As early as the late 1800’s, flour and animal feed began to be sold in rough fabric sacks rather than wooden barrels. These bags were often recycled into rags and towels. By the 1910’s, some goods like flour and sugar were packaged in lighter, softer cotton sacks, and poorer women creatively recycled these cotton sacks into things like undergarments, bed sheets and curtains.
This sort of recycling, however, could risk giving away a family’s financial status, so these women put a lot of effort into hiding the fact that they were using cotton sacks by soaking off company logos, and adding sewing notions like buttons and rick-rack to their creations.
In the 1930’s, the Great Depression began to have a widespread impact on North Americans, and more and more women had to save as much money as possible when it came to household expenses. Feed sacks began to be more widely utilized to make clothing, in addition to rags, towels, etc. The companies manufacturing these goods took notice of this increasingly popular trend; making their sacks easier to creatively recycle was not only helpful to the North American housewife, but it was a genius marketing move, in that it encouraged people to buy their products. For example, in 1936, the Staley Milling Co. in Kansas City, Missouri, started offering ‘Tint-sax’, feed sacks that were made out of garment quality cotton, available in eleven different pastel shades. Other companies manufactured sacks that were printed with cute patterns, or stamped their logos onto the sacks using easily removable ink and instructions on how to soak the logo off.
The actual construction of these feed sacks was altered for easy recyclability as well. Often, feed sacks were assembled using a chain stitch across the bottom, so that the stitching could be removed easily and quickly. Some companies even printed little patterns on their sacks, for things like dolls and doll clothes. As the 1930’s progressed, this wide utilization of feed sacks was no longer considered an embarrassing mark of poverty, but a sign of resourcefulness during a time of hardship. Women all across the U.S and Canada sewed dresses for themselves, clothes for their children, blankets and quilts, dolls, and more using these sacks- in turn, some pattern companies even began producing patterns specifically designed to be used with feed sacks.
Women were incredibly creative with the garments they made out of these sacks; they engineered fashionable collars, added button details and piping, and found all sorts of ways to make their feed sack projects look as smart as possible. Their creations are a testament to the ingenuity of the North American home sewist during times of hardship. Women continued to sew garments out of feed sacks through the 1930’s until World War 2, when production of cotton feed sacks was largely converted to paper bags to conserve cotton for the war effort. After the war, feed sack industry leaders took measures to revitalize interest in feed sack sewing by partnering with Simplicity and McCalls to promote purchase of feed sacks through specialty patterns. They also sponsored fashion shows and design competitions, and hired renowned textile designers to make sure their feed sacks were printed with the most fashionable and preferred prints. In this way, rural housewives and farm wives were having an influence on high end fashion! By the early 1950’s, though, the use of cotton feed sacks for garments declined once again, in part due to changing farming practices and the affordability of the previously mentioned paper bags. The cotton feed sack was almost entirely gone from the shelves by the early 1960’s. However, the art of sewing feed sacks was not lost- county and state fairs, amongst other organizations, continued to hold sewing contests for feed sack garments at least through to the 1960’s.
Do you have any family stories about sewing with recycled resources, or sewing in times of scarcity? Let us know in the comments!
Adrosko, Rita. “THE FASHION’S IN THE BAG: Recycling feed, flour, and sugar sacks during the middle decades of the 20th century.” (1992).
Banning, Jennifer, and Jenna Tedrick Kuttruff. “Fashions from Commodity Bags—Case Study of a Rural Seamstress in the Mid-Twentieth Century.” Dress 41, no. 1 (2015): 21-35.
Brandes, Kendra. “Feed Sack Fashion in Rural America: A Reflection of Culture.” Online Journal of Rural Research & Policy 4, no. 1 (2009): 5.
Textile Museum of Canada. “Flour Sack Costumes.” Narrative Threads, 10 Sept. 2015.
Fig. 1: Woman Sewing at home, 1936. Krystle, Emee, et al. “What Did Women Wear in the 1930s? 1930s Fashion Guide.” Vintage Dancer. Accessed August 22, 2019. https://vintagedancer.com/1930s/women-1930s-fashion/.
Fig. 2: Flour sack dresses. Krystle, Emee, et al. “What Did Women Wear in the 1930s? 1930s Fashion Guide.” Vintage Dancer. Accessed August 22, 2019. https://vintagedancer.com/1930s/women-1930s-fashion/.
Fig. 3: Branded feed sack made of osnaberg. Used for towels, aprons, undergarments. Brandes, Kendra. “Feed Sack Fashion in Rural America: A Reflection of Culture.” Online Journal of Rural Research & Policy 4, no. 1 (2009): 5.
Fig. 4: Flickr / austinevan
Figs. 5 &6: Left: Two women in feed sack dresses, National Geographic, 1947. Right: Instructions from a chicken feed sack. McCray, Linzee. “Feed Sacks: A Sustainable Fabric History.” Etsy Journal , 9 May 2011, blog.etsy.com/en/feed-sacks-a-sustainable-fabric-history/.
Fig. 7: Pamphlet showing items that can be made from flour sacks, circa 1928. Photo: Western Development Museum, George Shepherd Library, Bladon Collection. Banning, Jennifer, and Jenna Tedrick Kuttruff. “Fashions from Commodity Bags—Case Study of a Rural Seamstress in the Mid-Twentieth Century.” Dress 41, no. 1 (2015): 21-35.
Fig. 8: Page 5 from the 1952 Pattern Service for Sewing with Cotton Bags, indicating a pattern layout for Simplicity patterns using three bags to make a woman’s dress. Photo courtesy of the National Cotton Council. From Brandes, Kendra. “Feed Sack Fashion in Rural America: A Reflection of Culture.” Online Journal of Rural Research & Policy 4, no. 1 (2009): 5.
Fig. 9: Pamphlet inviting customers to send away for patterns, circa 1940. Photo: Western Development Museum Collection, WDM-2009-S-466. Narrative Threads. Accessed Aug. 22, 2019
Fig. 10: 1950 – 1969 Dorothy Overall’s Flour-Sack Bassinet Quilt. National Museum of American History, Washington, D.C.
Fig. 11: 1959 Feedsack Dress. National Museum of American History, Washington, D.C. This dress was made by Mrs. G. R. (Dorothy) Overall of Caldwell, Kansas, in 1959 for the Cotton Bag Sewing Contest sponsored by the National Cotton Council and the Textile Bag Manufactureres Association.
Wow! I love the idea of re-purposing packaging to make garments or other household necessities. It makes me wonder if there isn’t more we can’t do with the goods we bring home now.
Excellent point Miranda! Hmm…I wonder what we could do these days?
i’ve seen a brilliant sewist on IG (will try to find her @ but I think she’s from Finland) who makes really cool purses and pouches out of coffee bags that she’s cut into strips and woven!
Ooh, that sounds really cool!
That is so fascinating. Thank you. I hope you don’t mind me suggesting that you put the reference beside the image they refer to. The information in the references is so interesting. It would save scrolling up and down. Thanks!
My grandpa always told the story of when he first saw my grandma. They were both little kids, and she was standing on the stairs of the church in a pink feedsack dress, twirling around. He was a few years older than her at the time, but decided that she was the girl for him. He asked her out multiple times when they were teenagers, but she always turned him down. Eventually she gave in and said yes. They were married for 56 years and he always remembered her feedsack dress when he told of story of first seeing her.
That’s like a story out of a movie! I love it!
Alas I fear we are a dying breed. Though I hated “domestic science ” as was taught in my school at 13 I was taught how to wash and iron a shirt ugh! While we complained “please Miss my dad wears Nylon and it doesn’t need ironing” and yet I taught one of .y daughters how to work this magic! And the same went for the “Dorothy Bag and Apron” we were forced to make in needlework class, and I am sure I left an unfinished shirt in a school sewing cupboard! But when I got married in 1865 the sewing machine toooed my wedding list, and though i could hardly lift this portable machine I soon put it to .ore use than shortening curtains.now in 2019 neither of my daughters own a sewing machine and my eldest has asked I make her one more quilt before I kick the bucket! Or before her sister nabs it.
My dad, who is 79, has vivid memories of his mother making bras/camisoles from feed sacks. I guess after a good deal of washing, they’d be soft enough. She was a widow raising 10 kids (9 of them boys) and I’m pretty sure she knew how to stretch a buck.
That is some intense buck stretching!She deserves some recognition for that, that’s for sure!
I remember my paternal grandmother going to the rural store to buy flour, and there weren’t many left. The pattern she chose was available in flour, and if I’m not mistaken (could be, I was only about 5), there was another one in sugar. She didn’t really want sugar at that time, but bought it anyway so she could make her a dress. She needed at least two. That was before color blocking, which was considered a “coat of many colors,” aka Dolly Parton. It simply was not considered. Anyway, she went home and poured up the staples into glass jars and other containers, washed the material after taking out the seams, and ironed it to cut out. Next time we visited, she wire her pretty new dress. I’m pretty sure she decided it was easier and almost as cheap to order a dress from the Sears & Roebuck catalog after that. Sweet memories, great experience.
What a special memory! Maybe she felt pressured to use up the two sacks of sugar. That is really cool!
Chloe, thank you so much for taking the time to share your knowledge and research. This was fascinating!
You’re welcome Terri, I’m so glad you enjoyed it!
What an interesting read – looking forward to your next history post!
Thank you! If there’s anything you are particularly interested in learning about, let me know!
Wow! Well done Chloe. Really interesting and thorough, explaining well something I was kind of familiar with. Really appreciate the references. I’m looking forward to your next edition.
Thanks so much Susan! I love research! Please let us know if there is something you are specifically interested in.
I’m an African American. Most of my family came from southern Georgia. I was a hard scrabble life in the best of times. I have several quilts made by one of my grandmother’s cousins back in the 1930s and 40s. They’re pieced and stitched by hand. Recently a few of the quilting came apart and I found part of a sweater and other pieces of clothing used as the batting. It makes me cherish the quilts even more knowing she recycled old clothes to keep us warm.
Lori, what an amazing find! I’m sitting here looking at a flour sack quilt that my grandmother and aunt made and wondering what the batting might be made from …
Lori, thank you so much for sharing this with us! It’s emotional and touching to think of your grandmother’s cousins making do with what they could to ensure their loved ones stayed warm. Those quilts are precious heirlooms! And, they are strong material ties to the ladies in your family who came before you.
I grew up wearing feedsack clothing. One sundress was bright red print, made with a full circle skirt. I twirled and told my younger sister that I had been a ballerina at one time. She had no doubt that her 8-year old sister had been a ballerina and was awed. After she figured out that I had told her a fib, she was annoyed about that, and stayed annoyed until she died 66 years later.
That’s a touching story! I am pretty sure that my sister and I still hold grudges from early childhood too.
My 3-year old son was wearing feedsack pajamas when we arrived at my mother’s house after a long car trip. In all the commotion of arrival, we didn’t notice him toddle into the kitchen, open a cupboard, pull out canisters of flour and cornmeal, and dump it all over himself in a matter of minutes.
Ok, I love this story. I think your son knew that his pajamas had a connection to the flour, probably why he dumped it all over himself!
I buy flour and other grains from my health shop in 5kg cotton bags. I re-use the bags in the kitchen all the time, and they are wonderfully soft after washing. A bit small for clothes, but I have thought about it, making feature of logo. Some are pretty neat. Prints on the cotton is a wonderful idea.
That’s amazing! You are keeping the tradition alive! I want to try it now…
Thanks for an interesting article and including all the old photos.
You’re welcome! Thanks for reading!
Thank you so much for this article, I am a total fashion history newbie and this was captivating. Really looking forward to the rest of this series !
Thanks so much! Let me know if there’s anything you’re interested in learning about!
Very interesting! I really enjoyed this post!
Awesome post! I just bought a bunch of vintage feedsacks from an older local lady who had saved them from her mother and was cleaning out an attic. This post is making me even more excited about using them!
Thank you! That is really cool. I hope you post pictures of what you make!
I was born after WW2 in UK. My clothes were not made from sacks , but were all recycled. My skirts were made from the legs of men’s trousers . The fashion then ,helpfully, was for wide legged . One pair of worn out trousers trousers made lots of children’s clothes.
That’s really interesting, thanks for sharing that with us! It’s fascinating how people made do in the UK after WW2, when their resources were so limited.
Great info … women know how to turn anything into a treasure 🙂 My grandmother curtains would always go missing, thanks to my sewing habits 🙂 When she saw me with a new outfit. She would ask, was that her curtains … ROFL … FIESTA
That’s hilarious! Thanks for sharing!
My grandma grew up in Manitoba, CA and told me how during the Great Depression her mother had to get a job at a bakery since her father lost his job. Her mother used the flour sacks to make dresses for her daughters, which was a great source of embarrassment for them since it showed their poverty. My grandma told me this store as she was showing me some of the flour sacks she had saved after all these years. The look on her face was visceral as she remembered the embarrassment. I framed one of the flour sacks with a brand logo and it now hangs in my kitchen. It serves to honor struggles of previous generations while reminding me of their resourcefulness. Thank you for your article highlighting this practice!
Thanks for sharing Emily, that is intense! Isn’t it interesting that your grandma could remember the embarrassment so vividly, and yet she still saved the sacks? I think it’s really nice that you have one framed in your kitchen- it highlights the resourceful history of the women in your family!
My mother was from the depression era in Nebraska and she always told me about the only two dresses she had to wear for school. They were made from flour sacks. She would wear one two days in a row and then the other one the next two days. On the off days they were washed for the next week of school. One was burgundy and the other was a floral print. When I was in school, she sewed a lot of my clothes and she sewed beautifully. Now I sew all my clothes and I love it
That’s a great story- I bet remembering how she only had two dresses to wear made her feel even happier when sewing clothes for you. And you are carrying on the tradition! Awesome.
Thanks fof the wonderful article. I live in South Africa and my grandmother sewn undergarments for my mom and her cousins from washed flour sacks. She made lovely embroidered aprons for them too. She also used my grandfather’s old pants to make skirts for them. We can learn a lot about re-using items from our grandparents.
Isha, that’s so true, we can learn a lot about reusing items. It’s interesting to know that this sort of recycling was a global thing!
Wonderful piece! I actually knew someone whose family used feed sacks for clothing. For my story – my family are from the Toronto area and I have a quilt that was made by my grandmother. My mother told me that the fabric was purchased from Eaton’s from bags of scraps left over from the making of women’s cotton house dresses. They were all new fabrics, just the cuttings and could be purchased inexpensively. I guess nothing was wasted!
That’s such a great story! I haven’t heard of using up the scraps left over from ready-to-wear garments before, that is really interesting. Your grandmother was scrap-busting before it was cool!
Enjoyed this post, looking forward to your series!
Thank you Susan!
My Nanny used to tell me stories about her mother making dresses from flour sacks and how they came with lovely prints sometimes. It’s sad how in only about 90 years as a society we’ve lost all connection with how things are made and valuing the resources we have. Ingenuity at its finest (though my Nanny did say she was happy when after the war she didn’t have to wear ‘sack dresses’ anymore…). Great article! X
Thanks Melissa! It sounds like you have some really nice memories of your Nanny. I hear you about our connection with resources- I feel like the sewing community is revitalizing that connection in a few ways, which makes me feel better about it.
Excellent post, really interesting. Love the idea of the podcasts, can you recommend any?
I sure can- the podcast Dressed is the greatest! April and Cassidy are two fashion historians that I really look up to. Check it out!
Interesting! I’m now thinking of basmati rice bags & what can be done with them.
Tote bags, perhaps? or line them with a tighter weave cotton for zippered pouches?
This article brought tears to my eyes. I was born in the depression, in New York City, fortunately to a father who had a good job, and a mother who could sew. She told me that she made a lot of my blankets and cuddlies from her own mother’s worn household items, but my mom, raised in rural upstate New York, was by then too cosmopolitan to make clothes from sacking, as did her younger sister who lived in the community where they grew up. Mom would have been overjoyed to know that her great-granddaughter inherited her sewing talent. Chloe the way you match it with knowledge in your blog is so creative —entertaining while sending the important message that what woman do in their daily lives makes History all the time! Keep up this great work !
Thank you Oma! Our family is pretty cool. I still have one of your mother’s spools of thread in my sewing room for inspiration.
Can I make a kind of annoying comment about writing history – I am a history professor and I always make sure my students don’t do this: “the 1900s” is 1900 to 1909.
“in the first half of the 1900’s, especially during the Great Depression” is very confusing!
Thanks so much for this! I haven’t actually heard this critique before (or if I have it went in one ear and out the other), it’s actually quite helpful and totally makes sense, I can’t believe I didn’t think of that myself! I am going to edit it to say “the first half of the 20th century”. I’m always looking for ways to improve my writing, so I appreciate it, thanks!
In the 60’s, my paternal grandfather was an electrician at the flour mill that used to be in my hometown. He would bring empty flour sacks to my mom, grandmother and aunt. I still have some kitchen towels made from those sacks; they were unused for many years. My mom used some to make a witch costume for me one year, using Rit dye to make it black.
Thanks for sharing Tracy! What a great story- I wish we could see a picture of that resourceful witch costume, it sounds awesome.
We’re from Australia and similar fashions happened here. My husband’s grandmother told us a story when we visited, about life in remote queensland as a child. She asked could I make a song of it:
My sugar bag dress
We went to visit Granny,
And shared a cup of tea
And we shared some stories
Of how life used to be
She said I see kids these days
With lots of toys and stuff
And I remember back when
We did things pretty tough
They say necessity’s the mother
Of invention, so I guess
That’s how my mother came to make
My sugar bag dress.
I remember when it rained –
It didn’t happen much
There was so much excitement
When the drops hit the dust
Well us kids didn’t care
About the dirt and the blood
As we played with the chickens
And the horses in the mud
And it didn’t matter if I fell
Or how we made a mess
Mum could always patch me
And my sugar bag dress.
But kids grow up
And times move on
And there’s been so many changes…
When I look back on those times
They seem so bright
Though things were hard
That simple life
With all it’s joys and dangers
Remembering back then
My heart feels light
I only had 2 sets of clothes
That’s all we could afford
it never occurred to me
To think we were poor
Cause they shone bright
Those days without a care
When life was an adventure
That we were meant to share
But materials were dear –
You know kids make a mess!
And that’s how my mother came to make
My sugar bag dress.
When Mum solved the problems
And if I made a mess
She could throw me in the bath
In my sugar bag dress.
– Ellen Romanov, adapted from a tale told by Marie Webster
This is so amazing, thank you for sharing!! <3