Flour sacks for clothes

By Rosie Moore

My grandmother was a skilled seamstress who worked for the now defunct department store, Watt & Shand, for twenty years in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. She made mine and my sisters’ dresses from the time we were tots till around the third of fourth grade. No one could tell they were homemade, she was so artistic and skillful people would ask, “Where did you buy that?” Although we didn’t live on a farm, neighbors who did receive flour sacks gladly shared their sacks with her. In later years I remember getting my first dress from a shop at Christmastime. I wore it a few times but then a thread came loose. I kept pulling on it until I thought the whole dress was going to disappear. I thought to myself, how I wish my grandmother had made this dress.

Repair, reuse, make do, and don’t throw anything away was a motto during the Great Depression. Very few farm families had enough money to buy new clothes in a store. Mothers mended socks and sewed patches over holes in clothes. Clothes were “recycled” and reused as younger children “made do” with hand-me-downs. When farmers brought home big sacks of flour or livestock feed, farm women used the sacks as material to sew everything from girls’ dresses to boys’ shirts and even underpants.

The feedsack story starts in the early 1800s, when goods such as good staples, grain, seed, and animal feed were packed for transportation and storage in tins, boxes and wooden barrels. This was not an ideal method of storage as tin would rust and the handmade boxes leaked and were damaged easily. They were bulky, heavy and difficult to transport.

Feedsacks were initially made of heavy canvas and were used to contain flour, sugar, meal, grain, salt and feed from the mills. They were initially printed on plain, white cloth but later they were sold in colors and prints. Beautiful colors and prints that could be used to make almost anything.

After WWII, technological innovations provided more sanitary and effective packaging made of heavy paper and plastic containers. It was cost effective, too. A cotton bag cost 37 cents to make, as opposed to 10 cents for the paper bag. By 1948 this new industry cornered more than half of the bag market and the cloth bag fell out of use. But not entirely! some Amish and Mennonite communities demand, and receive, their goods in feedsacks, as always.

Thought for the day: Live in each season as it passes: breathe the air, drink the drink, taste the fruit.    Henry David Thoreau

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