Tennessee Mountain Stories

Feed Sack Dresses

Last week’s Decoration Day story and the comments it inspired mentioned all the girls getting a new dress.  For most ladies on the Cumberland Plateau for many, many years, the best source of fabric for new dresses or any new sewing project for that matter came from feed sacks and flour sacks.  I wanted to write an article about this ingenious recycling trend so I did a little research and learned some amazing facts both historical and current.

Historically speaking, cloth sacks were first used in the early 1800’s when the wooden boxes and barrels that had previously been used to move food stuffs became impractical.   They were bulky and difficult to carry and they did a poor job of keeping out pests.  However, making sacks that were strong enough to carry these products wasn’t practical until the lock stitch was invented in the mid 1800’s. 


Initially, sacks were made of heavy canvas with labels printed right onto the fabric.  Even these bags were re-used by industrious families.  We still have examples of quilts made of these plain white bags.  Fertilize continued to be packaged in the plain white bags.  But the best was yet to come. 

Sack manufacturers eventually realized that they could market to the women of the family by weaving beautiful prints, stripes, plaids and even solids.  Soon feed sacks and flour sacks had a market all their own.  How many of you have heard some man in your family tell of having to re-stack feed in order to find the particular print his mother or sister was looking for?  My Daddy remembers having to do this for his sister’s Decoration Day dress at least once. 

A coarse cotton weave replaced the initial canvas sacks and it was used for everything from bedding to dresses, curtains to dish towels.  A lady’s dress would require 3 matching or coordinating sacks while a single feed sack could make a child’s dress.  There was no shame in wearing these clothes for the fabric was used by everyone.  And all the homes of the day reflected the use of these sacks throughout.  Your neighbors assumed you were sleeping on feed sacks, scratchy though they might be.   In fact, flour sacks were sized and woven especially for pillow cases.  They were perfectly sized and some were even woven with an attractive border on the end.

The people of the Plateau have long been accustomed to making do with what they have.  A land that did not easily accommodate growing cotton and no great grazing ground for sheep probably meant even the earliest Plateau settlers struggled for textiles.  But we are survivors and we will find a way.  Bringing home a sack made of some usable material was a godsend.  Even had no one else in the nation thought these were worthwhile, I’m sure we would have treasured them. 

If you read this, or hear your grandmother’s stories with disdain, take a tour around the internet.  Vintage fabrics (especially feed sack fabrics) are quite the collector’s items now.  And if you’ve got a feed sack quilt hidden somewhere in your closet you may have more of a treasure than you realize.  Hey, if you have such a quilt, please snap a photo and send it along to me.  You can post it through Facebook – the link is on the right-hand side of the blog.