There once was a time when DIY and thrifting wasn’t just a fun thing to do and share on social media, but it was a necessity for survival.
During and after the great depression, it’s no surprise that a lot of people were struggling. People in rural communities were also hit hard with the dustbowl that came to follow. Money wasn’t something people had to spare and was reserved for necessities only.
So what happens when the only dress you own is slowly tattering away; or your bed sheets and curtains are full of holes? You get creative. Previously used for rags around the farm, women of the household now saw something already in their home that they could reuse: flour/feed sacks.
The sacks were originally made from burlap, or a rough fabric called Osnaburg, it started by simply cutting some holes for arms and your head. Even men would wear these as a tunic-type shirt. With the the sewing machine becoming a household item, it made things a lot easier to doctor into nicer designs. Fortunately the feed manufacturers started using a slightly softer, cotton-based fabric for the bags.
By 1925, a company in the UK called The Gingham Girls started printing floral and other patterns on the bags.
Now women were requesting their husbands pick up specific floral prints from the feed store to hopefully match one they got before. Because one 100lb feed sac was the equivalent to a little over 1 yard, people would usually need a couple bags to complete an adult-sized dress. If they didn’t have extra, sometimes a trade could be made with a friend or neighbor to get a pattern needed. At this time even magazines started printing patterns on how to make the clothing.
The manufacturers of the grains still had to print a logo on the front of the bags for sale, which was hard to remove in the beginning, but the trusty housewife figured out that soaking it in kerosene or lard overnight would help to dissolve the ink. Eventually the manufacturers switched the type of ink they used to be easily removed before use, and soon started to print instructions for removal right on the sacks.
During WWII, cotton was in a shortage for most people because it was being diverted for uniforms and other war things, so grain manufacturers started using paper bags instead. The National Cotton Council and Textile Bag Manufacturing Association worked with McCalls and Simplicity to hold annual competitions nationally to see who could make the best dress. This was mostly a marketing tactic to keep promoting a healthy demand for the sacks, while showing off new design patterns and gave people a chance to show off their sewing skills. At this time, the dresses had molded into a sense of fashion rather than thrift.
In the 1960’s businesses started putting Disney prints on the sacs to try and entice the housewives to buy their material. From what it sounded like, it didn’t catch on quite as well. Slowly the use of the feed sacks died out, but the style of dress lasted for a bit longer. If you look back, there are many common styles still used today.
Do you or your family have memories of wearing feed sack clothing? I would love to hear your story.
Si.edu (the smithsonian)
Kristi Moore is the Author of The Pecan trees, A fictional novel, set in Texas about family.
You can find it on Amazon or her website.