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Feedsack Dress

Feedsack Dress

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Life on America's farms in the 1920s and 1930s meant hard work and frugal habits. Farm families were used to "making do" with what they had, wasting nothing that could be recycled or reused. With feed sacks and flour bags, farmwomen took thriftiness to new heights of creativity, transforming the humble bags into dresses, underwear, towels, curtains, quilts, and other household necessities.
By the 1940s the bag manufactureres were turning out bags in bright colors and printed designs. It was felt that these designs and colors would boost sales, because the woman of the house would always select the brand with the most attractive fabric. During World WarII, there was a shortage of cotton fabric for the civilian population, and the recycling of bags became a necessity, encouraged by the government.
After the war, the bags were not only a sign of domestic thrift; they also gave rural women a sense of fashion. National sewing contests were organized as a way for women to show off their skills, and manufacturers to show off their designs. Women frequently sold their surplus bags to others as a way of picking up cash to aid in running the home.
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. The dress is made of cotton bag fabric, with an overall design of white flowers on a brown (originally black) ground. The dress is lined with black organdy, and machine quilted with a synthetic silver sewing thread. Mrs. Overall was awarded 2nd place in the Mid-South section of the contest.
Object Name
dress, women
woman's dress
Object Type
Date made
Overall, Mrs. Dorothy
Place Made
United States: Kansas, Caldwell
Physical Description
cotton fabric and thread (overall material)
synthetic metallic thread (overall material)
plain weave; printed (overall production method/technique)
overall, unmounted: 42 1/2 in x 25 in; 107.95 cm x 63.5 cm
overall, mounted: 41 in x 17 in x 15 in; 104.14 cm x 43.18 cm x 38.1 cm
ID Number
catalog number
accession number
Credit Line
Gift of Mrs. Dorothy Overall
See more items in
Cultural and Community Life: Textiles
Exhibition Location
National Museum of American History
Data Source
National Museum of American History
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"I was born in 1935 and well remember the adorable dresses Mom made for me and shirts and pants she made for my older Brother. I was blessed to have a Father that worked all of his life for the Flour Mills of America in Kansas City, MO, Valier &Spies Co in St. Louis which was later purchased by Pillsbury Company and later by Archer Daniels Co. He also worked for Pillsbury in Alton, IL. I have pictures of Mom and family members in their flour sack dresses and thank God that she knew how to sew so we had nice clothes to wear to church and everyday play. I vividly remember embroidering tea towels as a child made from flour sacks and the many quilts made using the pretty flour sacks and the added material that used to be on the end of the flour sacks. Times were tough but my memory is love, faith, patriotism all thanks to God, Mom & Dad.Eleanor McAdams Preston"
"I lived with my maternal grandmother, paternal grandparents and for a while with my great-grandparents. The men had both been born just before the turn of the century, and the women within the following 20 years. It is amazing the different uses the women had for the sackcloth. My Greatgrandma Edna (b 1901) used in for "housecoats " if she was going to be at home all day she would wear one of these in the summer, in the winter she might wear it over her dress.My Grandma Leona (b 1910) used it for every pot holder, apron, basket lining and dishrag she had. she would deck it out with rickrack and ribbons to make her kitchen pretty.My Grandma Nila (b 1926), however was ashamed to let anyone see it. It meant you were poor and low class. She still used it though. As a lining for the dresses she made or pieces in her quilts. The potholders she made were several layers of this fabric which she would then knit a cover for. She used it anywhere it wouldn't show. This fabric is still available, I see it when I go to my local mexican market. I always consider buying the cornmeal/beans/flour that it is used for just to get the fabric... but since I don't bake much nor cook the volume of beans required to make it reasonable I have refrained. "
Mom would always insist on going to the store with dad when he was to buy cow feed since the cow feed sacks would come in different colors and prints. It was important to match the feed sack with the last one so you would have enough material for the dress.The same was true for fertlizer bags in the late 40's and 50's.
"You should have done some more research on your story....I can recall vividly, some suppliers attached about a half yard to an extra yard of fabric to the feed sack. This was to enourage the farmer husband to buy a specific brand. My grandmother would often go with my grandfather and she chose the feed! The marketing worked. I personally do not recall the dresses being made from the sacks, rather the material that was attached, we lived in a remote and i do mean remote area of west Tennessee. "
"I was born in 1941 & lived on an IL farm. Many of my dresses were made from feed sacks. But, my greatest memory was of my friends who were identical twins. Their mother would make them identical dresses that were simply straight pieces of fabric with an elastic casing for the waistline. The sides would be stitched together with bottoms and tops hemmed and openings for their arms (which were turned under and stitched, of course). She didn't like to sew but their dresses were always pressed and I can't recall anyone laughing at them. They might have been embarrassed but nobody was kinder or sweeter than these two girls."
I thought material was attached to a flour sack to be used as a kitchen towel...?
"I was born in 1940, the oldest of seven children (five of whom were girls). My Aunt Dorothy made all us girls dresses from colorful printed feedsacks, and we were very lucky to have them! We had ruffles, ties and puffed sleeves, and of course, these all had to be sprinkled, rolled and then the bushel basket of ironing had to be ironed!! I can remember when as a young adult "perma-press " clothing came into being, and I thought it was a gift from Heaven - NO MORE IRONING!!"
A friend of mine was born in the 1920's. His family were African-American farmers with no money to spare. He was mightily embarrassed by the homemade feedsack shirts he had to wear to school. Those same feedsack fabrics now sell for $30 or more per yard. If only he had hung on to those embarrassing shirts...!
"I was born in 1951. For the first four-five years of my life, all my dresses were sewn by my paternal gradnmother from feedsacks. she would layer the faabric two to three layers deep and cut the main dresses fromt he same pattern. She would then add different details to each dress. Some sleeveless, some with little puffy fifties sleeves, some with self collars some with contrasting solid collars. We lived in rural north GA, but none-the-less I was teased by my parents friends about my feed-sack dresses. Oh how I longed for storebought dresses. Now, oh how I long to have some of those wonderful littel feedsack dresses! They weren't thought of as precious at all, so no one ever thought to keep them!"
I was also born in 1951 and remember several of my favorite dresses were made by my paternal grandmother from feed sacks. She would ask me for my favorite colors/patterns. Wish I had them still. I just have a few photos.

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