Feedbags – From Rags to Riches

A very successful ad campaign The Other White Meat certainly improved pork’s image and sales. In a way that slogan parallels the remarkable renaissance of feedsacks.

When one spoke of vintage fabrics, the prima donnas hog the spotlight — exquisite lawns, batistes and voiles, lush silks and velvets, fine wool – and would leave one to believe these were the only fabrics worth having.; everything else sits on the wrong side of the tracks.

That one would even consider feedbag a fabric was tantamount to treason and expulsion. Just as the nouveau riche overcame high society’s snubs, so did the feedsack people unite to prove that they were not an updated version of the carpetbaggers. With their endless variety of sacks creating a booming marketplace and top prices, collectors have shown feedsacks are now indeed The Other Legitimate Fabric.Feedbags deserve their own niche; this column can’t do the topic justice but it can inform the uninitiated, such as myself, about giving due respect to all fabrics, regardless of their origins.

EXTRA! Feedsack goes respectible; Nefertiti to trade Sphinx for bags to make coronation robe.
– Ms Nefertiti’s wardrobe courtesy of Betty Wilson.

Joan use

If you are a beginner thinking about starting a collection or would like to know more about feedbags, here is some advice from a roundtable of five feedsack experts/collectors who share their thoughts and open up their collections to make this column possible.

They are members of the Quiltropolis vintage fabric list and the Yahoo feedsack fanatics list discussion groups — Paula Hammer, Lilburn, GA, collector, quilter, has three feedsacks featured in Fabulous Feedsack Quilts, will soon retire from Verizon and have more time for hobby; Jane Clark Stapel, Pittsburgh, collector, lecturer, conductor of feedsack conferences and seminars and founder of Feedsack Club; Sharon Stark, Pennsylvania, quilt collector, dealer in the old and curious – Sharon’s Antiques, and writer and teacher of fiction; Judy White, New England quiltmaker, teacher and lecturer, collector of old newspaper quilt patterns, vintage quilt books and feedsacks; Betty Wilson, Wisconsin, lecturer, exhibitor, collector and dealer in vintage hankies, linens, fabrics and notions and author of a book on cat humor.

Origins What is the fascination with feedbags, this once lowly regarded coarse, homespun textile called chicken linen — nostalgia for times gone by? a relic of America’s agriculture progress? a piece of American folk history? a part of childhood? something for a colorful display or quilting? The feedsack or feedbag was at the peak of popularity during the 1930s-50s.

Just as vast economic changes contributed to its beginnings, it also contributed to its decline. Much of the historical facts cited here are from Anna Lue Cook’s Textile Bags, a resource every feedbag collector should keep securely pinned to her side. To this greenhorn, it made absolutely no sense when some one told me to use a cookbook to learn about feedbags; later I realized it was the Cook book.Up until the mid-1800s, storage containers were primarily wooden barrels, boxes, tins and to some extent, pottery. It was the abundant source of cotton from the South which enabled the transformation to cotton bags for flour, sugar, meal, grain, salt and feed.

Eventually this led to the births of industries for weaving bag cloth, manufacturing bags and developing inks suitable for printing on textiles, not to mention those handy with words to come up with catchy advertising . The early bags prior to 1850s were handsewn, handmade and usually bore an identifying handstamp of the individual taking it to the gristmill. With the introduction of sewing machines, bag manufacturing and sales increased although were still too expensive for most companies to purchase.

As late as the 1880s barrels were still the preferred storage unit but by WWI they had all but disappeared. Once established, bags were produced in varying sizes from one pound for household use to those 12 feet long for picking cotton. The original sizes corresponded to barrel measurements for a pound to 1/8 pound of flour. In 1943 bags were standardized into six sizes ranging from 100 pounds to two pounds by order of the War Production Board. It was the depression which created a real demand for bags as frugal housewives discovered they could reuse and recycle them. Empty bags were prey for conversion into boys underpants, children’s clothing, aprons, dresses and everything else imaginable.

To accommodate the little lady as well as sidle in a great marketing ploy, manufacturers added figured and dress prints to the whites, browns and other solid colors of earlier manufactured bags. Some bags came ready for sewing with doll patterns printed on one side or sewn-in drawstrings that when one seam was ripped produced an instant apron; others were specifically printed for pillow cases or curtains. Pattern companies issued appealing booklets for sewing attractive garments and how to care for sacks. A 1942 estimate showed that 3 million women and children of all income levels were wearing print feedbag garments.


1780-1850s — Mather & Platt six-color textile press as shown in Manual of Textile Printing.

Calicoroller betty

Calico roller, 1893. Experiments were carried out in the field of photographic engraving of copper cylinders to print textiles. Cylinder was then exposed to light to etch designs into the metal plate. Each color required its own  plate.

spress Betty

Early 1900s press which was a multi-color or six-color machine.
– All photos above from Manual of Textile Printing,Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1974 Courtesy of Betty Wilson


These attractive calico prints from Archer feed sacks c1930-40 would end up as equally attractive house dresses, at least from a colorful viewpoint.
– Courtesy of Betty Wilson

Sewing   Bag lady   Bag lady 1952   Baglady save bags

These booklets of the 1920s, 30s, 40s and 50s were immensely popular for making clothes and getting the most mileage  from feedsacks.
– Courtesy Jane Clark Stapel

Judy sea island   Judy uncle sam Clothes line betty

An alluring reason to buy Sea Island sugar in 1935 was to get the entire doll series printed on back of sack which included Uncle Sam [shown], Scotty scotty dog, Uluk Eskimo doll, Minka Russian doll and Gobo, Indian doll.

This and other series are described in  Textile Bags, pp. 58-59.

  • Courtesy of Judy White This ad tucked in the top corner of a 1930s-40s feedbag personifies the the ultimate in clothing — My mamma made all these things from COTTON BAGS.
  • Courtesy of Betty Wilson Bags were made from three types of cloth: print cloth with the highest thread count, three grades of cotton sheeting and osnaburg having the lowest thread count.

Manufacturing stages involved cutting, folding, sewing, clipping turning, labeling or printing of logos – sometimes washing instructions were included, inspecting, baling and delivery to vendors. How a bag was to be used determined how it was to be folded and cut. In 1941 there were 31 textile mills that manufactured bag goods. Some of the textile bag manufacturers controlled their operations from field to finished bag. Bemis Brothers, Fulton Bag & Cotton Mills and Cottons Mills of Atlanta had their own textile mills.

Jane Stapel notes that Bemis also introduced Bemaron bags for all-rayon blouses, dresses, underwear, slips and scarves and that some Bemis bags were made from cambric, chambray, denim, percale and toweling.Other major bag manufacturers and suppliers were Chase, Illinois State Penitentiary in Joliet, Staley and Lone Star. Sharon Stark adds that Percy Kent of Buffalo NY made the famous WWII feedsacks known as Kent’s Cloth of the United Nations. After WWII, new technological innovations and increased family budgets affected society’s spending habits.

More sanitary and effective packaging, less prone to rodent damage, were demanded, leading to heavy paper and plastic containers. By 1948 this new industry cornered 53% of the bag market. Manufacturing of bags is limited today. Judy White learned last month when she talked to Mason Marketing Co, a distributing company in McPherson, KS, that cloth bags are still used in the Midwest, that certain Amish and Mennonite communities prefer flour and feed in plain and printed bags so they can be used for tea towels and other household needs, and in certain sections of the South some companies still distribute feed in textile bags. Judy also adds that souvenir bags can be found in some tourist areas which have restored gristmills.

Warsharon  Bag Lady War

Kent’s Cloth of the UN from Percy Kent, a major New York bag manufacturer, featured wartime   symbols of WWII with Tojo, Hitler and Mussolini in a skillet titled Keep ’em Frying. At right is one view from Sharon Stark collection; left is another view from Jane Clark Stapel collection.

New bag judy

Example of cloth bags still being produced in recent years. This one for Seal of Kansas unbleached bread flour was purchased in Overland Park KS about 10 years ago. Distributor is Mason Marketing Co, McPherson KS.

– Courtesy of Judy White Paula Hammer reports that Shawnee Milling Co. makes bags for special orders, and that at a feedsack conference three years ago author Anna Lue Cook said bags were still in production and could be purchased at some Alabama stores.

Quilters Laurette Carroll and Judith Gridley have spotted small rice and flour cloth bags in supermarkets in southern California and Spokane WA, respectively. There are also bags made in a synthetic blend; see the environmental note at the end.

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