Feedsack Dresses & Thriftiness

By Randy Townzen

Depending on your age, when you hear the term "Feedsack Dress", a lot of different images may come to mind.  Perhaps you think of a tattered pioneer frock like Johnny Appleseed wore, or maybe you see a stylish sundress worn by your grandmother.  Whatever your image or memory, it was the frugal talent and imagination of our Mothers and their Mothers that turned feed sacks into the things that made a house a home.

Before 1840, most goods were transported in bulk in barrels or tins.  But thanks to a new weaving process, American cotton could be made cheaply in a tight, strong weave, and using a new "stitching machine" invented in 1846, this fabric could be sewn into strong, reusable sacks.  The cotton fabric could be produced for as little as five cents per yard, so soon "feed sacks" were used to package most every dry good... sugar, beans, salt, flour, and yes, animal feed.  Up to the 1880's these sacks were often returned to the mills when empty to be refilled over and over. Many times the sacks were simply used for storage or stuffing in pillows and mattresses. 

But then a wonderful thing happened.  An affordable "stitching machine" was patented for use at home, and the housewife and mother found the feed sacks were far more valuable to keep.  The first machines were "treadle" machines powered by foot, but they had a strong and fast locking stitch.  Many Mothers still used their treadle machines into the 1950's when electric models became affordable.  In the 1920's, sack makers started printing the fabric with patterns and designs, and through the Great Depression and World War II, Mothers used feed sacks to make clothes, sheets, pillow cases, diapers, table cloths, curtains, underwear, bonnets, aprons and pretty much every fabric product for the home.  Even the binding string was used to crochet doilies and decorative trim.  Nothing was wasted.  The small pieces were used to make quilts and blanket trim.  It usually took three sacks to make a dress, but you were considered petite if you wore a "size two".  Using cheap dyes and threads, Mothers could make new clothes instead of constantly patching and repairing old. 

In Bentonville in the 1940's, there was a growth in chicken production, which meant though times were hard, feed sacks were plentiful and if you had a "stitching machine" you could decorate your home, dress your children and even sell or trade what you made for what you needed.  Even the poorest Mother had some "tea towels".   A trip to the Cash Store on the square could buy thread for a dime and Rit Dye for a quarter.   

Paper, plastic and cardboard have taken the place of feed sacks today, though vintage feed sack designs are still very collectible and considered treasures.  But the real treasures are the memories of the creative and often unique ways Mothers have always shown their love and sacrificed to provide for the their families. 

Happy Mothers Day!