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.