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 manufacturers 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 War II, 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.
Currently not on view
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
Home and Community Life: Textiles
Data Source
National Museum of American History
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I am completing a project on the Goodbody's of Clara, Co. Offaly, Ireland, who had a textiles mill. They were keen innovators and often traveled abroad to get ideas, including to America. There is a record from one of their A.G.M.s that they introduced this system of putting the labels on the bands of the bags and sacks so that the fabric could be used by women, they said it "proved exceedingly popular". It's fun that this system reached the other side of the Atlantic. Offaly Independent, 05/11/1955, page, 3. America.https://archive.irishnewsarchive.com/Olive/APA/INA.Edu/SharedView.Article.aspx?href=OFINA%2F1955%2F11%2F05&id=Ar00308&sk=C664FA4E
I had to smile while reading these wonderful comments. I am sewing a feed sack quilt right now, but using fabric squares from Etsy instead of the old feed sack fabric my grandmother used. Using her treadle sewing machine, she fashioned adorable sunsuits for me, maybe even a dress. During WWII we had to conserve everything, nothing was wasted. This afternoon, my grandson and I had an enjoyable family feed sack history lesson as I arranged the squares. I suggested he look up the feed sack history, and now, here am I .
My grandmother always went to the feed store to match patterns on the sack I have worn feed sack shirt as my brothers (5) and (5) sisters had skirts and dresses made from feed sacks then it was the normal thing to do.
My mother grew up during the Great Depression. She used to tell me that her mother had a slip made out of a flour sack. Across the rear end was printed "100 lbs. net wt." She also used to joke, "Which dress shall I wear, my new dress, my blue dress, or the one I wore last?" (She had only one dress.)
Thank you so much for sharing your memories here in this forum. You are providing the precious gift of valuable "oral history" and also offering a refreshingly positive use of the internet.
My Dad would holler from the garage door, "going into town to buy feed", and we all three , Mom, my brother and me, would scurry out and hop in and away we went. We had feedsack pajamas, even Dad, dresses, shorts, blouses, shirts, hairbands, eyeglass cases even sheets and pillowcases. I remember one hank of feedsack that was so garish to our eyes, Mom made it into pj's for Dad, saying once he takes his glasses off, it won't keep him awake. The plain white ones were valued as dishtowels and Mom would take several and sew them end to end put them on a rolling towel bar, thus giving the crews a chance to a clean section of a towel when washing up for those big harvest meals that were prepared for them. We kids were all proud of our wonderful clothes and wore them with pride. Around 1985 I found a printed fabric resembling a feedsack and made my son a shirt which was a big in our high school and other young men wanted one like it. It made some wonderful memories for us after the war was over.
I am 69 years old.I remember my dresses and my brothers shirts were made out of colorful flour sacks.My mother saved either our clothes or some of the flour sack material.She had me a quilt made out of them.I love my quilt.Im reminded of the beautiful memories of my child hood every time I look at it.
Back in the 40’s and 50’s, my Dad would buy chicken feed in cloth bags that we called feedsacks.. My Mom would have “House dresses and dish towels” made from them. Pretty prints. The towels really absorbed the water well when drying dishes. I can’t find any today that comes close to the quality of those. Nothing like the good ‘ol days! I’ll be 80 on Friday.
I also have memories of feed sacks. My first quilt made in 1958, with the Kings X pattern, is lined with four feed sacks. There are two different patterns in green prints.. It is a full bed size. The second Feed sack quit is a nine patch design. The quilt top sacks are red, white and blue, small prints. The lining is a larger print with blue grapes and red and yellow flowers on a white background. It is a twin bed. I still have the quilts.. My quilt interest developed into writing magazine articles and two books with original patterns. I regret to say neither feed sack quilt is in the books. In the 1980s Wallace Homestead Book Company published my two quilt books, "Patchwork Plus!" and "The Pieceable Kingdom! Both are out of print today.
I was born in 1934. I wrote a story which is published about the Feedbag dress I made for a 4-H competition around 1946. It won first place and was displayed in a store window in the county seat in SE PA for 3 months. I do not have a picture of the dress, but vividly remember the pattern style and obtaining the bag material with flowers on a pink background.. I do not have a picture because I wore it so much I wore it out. I do have the ribbon I won. I wrote a story about the feedbag dress and it has been published three times in the following places: "Out of the Cradle" Magazine, Fall, 1996; "Fellowship Link" Magazine, Fall, 2002; and "Echoing Memories", Faithful Life Publishers, 2014, page 81, ISBN 978-1-63073-034-5.
What a wonderful story!
In what weights did flour sacks come? 20 or 25 pounds? 50? What weight sack would be enough for a dress for a petite 5 year old ?
"When I was small, my mother made dresses for me out of these sacks.. I was born in 1946. So sacks were still being used to make dresses."
"I was born in 1936 and spent my growing up years in/around my parents' feed mill that produced its own brand of feeds for poultry/hogs/beef and dairy. we sold feeds in many different colorful patterns that showed up again as dresses, curtains, etc. And as late as 1955 or so we were selling feed in bags that had bright colors and flower patterns that were made into pillow cases, some unused bags that I still possess.Most were made by the Bemis Bag Company, but other big bag makers such as Fulton and Chase made theirs as well.The other heavy duty seamless bags for grain and ground feeds were reused many times, and often had patches over patches by the frugal families of that period. The depression mentality stayed with many of the farmer families that we served in the 1950s."
"I LOVE that dress! Mama made a lot of pretty things for us girls out of flour sacks. She was born in N. Florida in 1919 and was an accomplished, self-taught seamstress. She could see a dress and make her own pattern. I can remember her with 'yesterday's' newpaper spread on the dining table in preparation of cutting out a new pattern.Does anyone have or can someone refer me to someone who could make me a pattern for the dress in the article?"
"I remember my ex husband saying he doesn't understand why women make such a fuss about their bodies he would find them attractive in a sack. Well I wish id nknown about this at that time mind you , as usual they do appear to pinch the waist so even sacks were worn fashionalbly "
"My Mother was born in 1922 on a farm in NC. Their were 6 children two boys and four boys. My grandmother made all of their clothes out of seed sacks. When she would tell me that I would always think they were a rough burlap. Until I saw some photos of them as children wearing the feed sacks. Some of my older cousins even have their photos taken wearing the feed sacks. My Grandmother was a beautiful seamstress her quilts were made out of the scraps from the dresses so they sometimes did not follow a pattern. I have some of the quilts the were even seen together with tobacco twine to save on sewing thread. My Grandfather had several tobacco farms so he had the twine. My Mom said they did well turning the depression because they raised most of their food. I wonder what generation would do if we were faced with the same kind of depression now, well I know what would happen we would not make it. My Aunt even made me Barbie clothes when the Barbie first came out from scraps my Grandmother had saved in her sewing machine, a Singer I still own today and it still works."
"I was born in 1942. I cherish the memories of Mama's beautiful Quilts and my Feed Sack dresses.By 1950 I guess we had moved up in the world because all that was left of my dresses were in pictures and I could identify squares of feed sack prints from a dress I had cherished and in a couple quilts mama had left when she died. Wish I knew who got those quilts? Mama had 17 quilts when she passed in 1962. I was told. I do have two quilts that was given to me from my daddy's first cousin, those were feed sack quilts and made in the 1930's. Long after the last thread is worn to pieces from those old feed sack heirlooms, the memories warms my heart as I think back on those childhood days of ah and wonder.God Bless America!"
"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"
"My maternal grandfather also worked for Pillsbury, at the flour mill complex in Buffalo, NY. Mom was born in 1932. She spoke of her mother, an excellent seamstress, sewing pants for toddlers in the neighborhood, with the "Pillsbury's Best " emblem centered on the seat! I'd love to have a photo of that!"
"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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