Perhaps you think recycling is something relatively new; that because of dwindling resources and ever-increasing waste problems over the past couple of decades a new idea was born. But in fact, resources were much scarcer at some earlier times, and many Americans found ingenious ways to make do with what came to hand.
When cloth bags began to be used to ship and store grain, replacing crates and barrels, at first they were personal property, and reused to carry grain and flour back and forth to and from the mill. In rural Pennsylvania, these were handstitched from homespun linen, often stitched or stencilled with a name or initials to identify the owner. This Pennsylvania homespun linen bag probably dates from ca. 1870.
As the industrial revolution progressed, the bags began to be mass-produced, and it became more convenient for the miller to pre-fill the bags. The user of the product then had an empty bag to use for something else. Many of these bags were turned into towels or other utilitarian household textiles, including even underwear. The advertising labels were printed with inks that could be washed out, if properly cleaned. Some examples:
But the development that really set feedsacks apart was when an enterprising bag manufacturer hit upon the idea of using a printed fabric to make his bags, so that the colorful fabric might be reused in other ways, and his sacks would then be in demand in their own right, as well as for the product they contained. And paper labels that could be easily soaked off were added to identify the product contained.
The development of color printed feedbags was claimed by several different manufacturers; one Asa Bales had a patent on the idea, while a history of the Percy B. Kent Co. attributes the idea to one Richard Peek, one of its emplyees. Still another source attributes the first use to the Plant Milling Co. of St.Louis.
Through the shortages of the Great Depression and WWII, these printed bags sustained many a farm wife’s need for sewing material. The bags were used to create clothing, household linens, and quilts.
These colorful fabrics, in all their great variety, have been popular ever since and are still a favorite of quilters around the world. In fact, some of the greatest recent demand for feedsacks has been from Japanese quilters and crafters, who fell in love with this uniquely American product.
The patterns range from solid colors through simple ginghams, checks and plaids, to floral patterns, dots and geometric designs, and whimsical figurals and juveniles.
There was also a subset of prints with borders, made specifically for reuse as curtains or pillowcases.
We could show you hundreds of different patterns; in fact, we do display over 400 different ones on our website at any given time. But that’s still a drop in the bucket. We’ve handled feedsacks in more than 4000 different patterns, and every time we turn around, we find more that are new to us. By our best estimate, there are probably 20,000 different patterns – a lady we know of in Florida has collected swatches for years, and so far has amassed over 18,000 different, and she’s still finding new ones all the time. Collectors today generally find it necessary to specialize because the field is so large.
This should not really come as a surprise; printed feedsacks were produced for over three decades, and during one year alone millions were made by many different companies, among the larger ones being Fulton Bag Co., Percy B. Kent, Bemis, Chase, Werthan – and many smaller companies as well, including some we apparently have no records of – only a logo surviving as a clue to their existence, but no name.
There’s an excellent article on feedsacks and feedsack fabric in Joan Kiplinger’s Vintage Fabric column on Fabrics.net, and another later column that shows examples of repurposed feedsack fabric. Other articles on feedsack history are available on Pat Cummings’ website Quilter’s Muse, and on Womenfolk.com.