Volume IV, No. 4, Summer 1977
AND OTHER CLOTH SACKS
by Angela Hancock and Paula Wilson
Drawings by Emery Savage
Photography by Doug Sharp
Chicken linen? Many Ozark farm families had entire wardrobes made of chicken linen--from under clothing to men's shirts and women's dresses. Quilts, sheets, pillowcases, dresser scarves and table cloths were also made of chicken linen--the cloth feed sacks that held a hundred pounds of chicken feed.
Before the late 1920's and early 1930's, the Ozark women kept just a few chickens, just enough to supply their own family with eggs, some fryers and some old hens for chicken and dumplings. The chickens usually ran loose and scratched for their food or were fed corn grown on the farm. But, in the late '20's women began to raise chickens to sell eggs for profit. That was when they began buying a commercial chicken feed that came first in white muslin sacks that had about a yard and a half of material.
However, even before women bought chicken feed, farmers bought commercial dairy or hog feed. From the early 1920's until about 1970, this feed came in burlap tow sacks, or gunny sacks, holding a hundred pounds of feed. The brown or tan burlap had a very coarse texture, with thick, stiff and loosely woven fibers of hemp or jute. After the burlap sacks were emptied, most of the sacks in good condition were sold back to the feed store. Farmers would hang empty sacks on nails or store them some place out of the way of mice, for as Ira Barr said, "The mice would get in and just eat them up if you didn't hang them up." Then after accummulating enough sacks, they would count them and roll them up with binder twine. Depending on the condition of the sack, each sack would bring from one to five cents in cash or as credit on another sack of feed. The sacks that had holes or were in poor condition would bring the lower prices or be refused.
Burlap sacks that were not in good enough condition to sell had a variety of uses around the house and farm. The mice may have gnawed a hole in the bottom of the sack, but burlap, because of its stiff and bulky fibers was so durable it would last for years.
On the farms the burlap sacks were used to line chicken nests, cover holes in hog houses and to cover open barn or chicken house windows in the winter. Some farmers used them to make back rubs for the cattle for insect control. They would make a long roll of the sacks, tie them in place with twine, soak them in a solution of oil and insect repellent, and then hang them on barn doors, gates or between two trees. When the cattle would walk under them and rub on them, the insect repellent would coat them. Gunny sacks were also handy containers for picking up walnuts or hickory nuts, picking corn or taking on coon or possum hunts to carry the quarry home.
In the house clean burlap sacks were used for the bottoms and backs of upholstered chairs or as the canvas for hooked rugs. Imaginative Halloween costumes, especially Indian costumes, were sometimes made with burlap, but it was too scratchy and uncomfortable for other clothing. Wrapped and tied over shoes or overshoes, sacks gave farmers firmer footing on the ice.
A few creative women would save good burlap sacks, sometimes dye them and make rustic curtains or rugs of them. The natural tan color blended well in home decoration and the fibers would dye to soft natural looking colors which when blended in a rug made a luxurious pile carpet.
One of the most beautiful and long lasting methods of making a rug of burlap takes advantage of the stiff fibers. To use the burlap sacks to make this rug, first turn them wrong side out, shake well, remove the seam and wash. Leave some sacks the natural color and dye some if desired. Dye at one time enough of each color to complete the entire rug.
Cut each sack lengthwise into strips one and a half or two inches wide. Fold these strips in half lengthwise and with the sewing machine sew one-fourth inch from the folded edge. Don't cut threads between each strip. Ravel out all the lengthwise fibers almost down to the row of machine stitching. This will produce a fringe about one-half inch wide. This fringe becomes the pile of the finished rug. (see illustrations below)
The rug can be either oval or round, whichever is desired. If oval, begin with a strip one-third the length of the finished rug. Double the strip and using extra heavy thread, sew by hand the two strips together. Do not whip them together as the exposed thread will soon wear out, causing the rug to fall apart. Instead sew back and forth through the folded area at the machine stitching. Sew securely. Continue wrapping the ravelled strips around and around the first two strips sewing and tacking each strip to the one before it.
If the rug is to be round, begin at one end of a raveled strip. Roll it up like a jelly roll, sewing in place securely at each new layer.
As the rug gets larger, you can make patterns by adding rows of different colors, or you can achieve a mottled effect by alternating colors for every strip. This rug looks and feels like soft velvet pile and will last years, becoming softer and more beautiful as it wears.
Grain sacks were another familiar item on the farm and were similar to burlap except the fibers were cotton, not jute or hemp, and were woven very tightly to keep the tiny clover and other seeds from falling through. These sacks were heavy and larger than burlap holding two and a half bushel of grain.
Grain sacks were hard to come by. Farmers didn't buy many sacks of seed and because of their usefulness, no one sold them back to the stores. Therefore, they were very valuable. When threshing season came, grain sacks were ideal to first catch the threshed wheat, clover or other grain as it came from the threshing machine and then carry it to the bin. Before threshing time, the men gathered up their sacks and gave them to the women who washed them, and if needed, mended and patched them with pieces of demin overalls. To be sure of getting their own sacks back, some women embroidered the family name on the sacks, or families near town would have the printer stamp their name on. When threshing was over, each owner would take his own sacks home. People were very particular about getting their own sacks back. But sometimes a family taking a patched sack to a threshing, would come home with good sacks "with nary a hole or patch!"
Grain sacks made good towels. Since they were long, when opened, hemmed and sewn together correctly, they made fine roller towels for the kitchen and back porch. They often even had a stripe down the side. These towels were especially good to catch the oily or greasy dirt that came from working on farm machinery. In many homes these were all the towels they had. Even for those who had other towels, using the grain sacks as towels saved the good hand towels and made them last longer.
Because of the firm body of these sacks due to tight weaving, the material made excellent interfacings for tailoring coats and jackets.
Lime, cement and fertilizer also came in cloth sacks. Though they were too heavy for most home uses, they were handy for storing shelled corn and grain.
WHITE CLOTH SACKS
The first sacks made of white cloth contained flour, sugar, rice and salt. The material was of fine and closely woven cotton threads, something like unbleached muslin, with the textures varying according to the different contents. Flour sacks, sold in twelve, twenty-four, forty eight and ninety-six pound sizes, were made of the finest materials. The texture was so fine they were used for diapers, baby clothes and children's underwear. These flour sacks became even softer with washing and thus were perfect for such uses. Sacks containing sugar, salt and rice, sold in twelve or twenty-four pound amounts, had only enough material to make handkerchiefs or napkins. A twenty-four pound sack had about one-eighth yard of material, forty-eight pound sacks had three-fourths yard and ninety-six pound had one and one-half yards.
Feed packaged in white sacks came into use in the Ozarks soon after farm women began to raise chickens for profit in the late 1920's and early '30's.
Perhaps white feed sacks were used more for sheets and pillow cases than anything else. A pillow slip was just the size of one feed sack and all that was needed was to hem them. Many women put a crocheted or embroidered rim around them, or added a border of brightly colored material to dress them up. At first this border was sewn one. Later, however, feed sacks began to come out with colored borders already printed on them.
It took four or five washed and bleached sacks to make a sheet. The sacks were straightened and sewn together usually with the seams felled (turned under and sewn down as on blue jeans) to prevent raveling. Some older women who received commercial sheets as gifts would put them in closets with the wrappings still on, preferring to use the softer feed sack sheets.
Many women also made tea towels from these white sacks by simply hemming the edges. Most preferred to cut the sack in half. Many made them fancy by embroidering designs, often in sets of seven, with a different design for each day of the week. Besides being pretty, the towels were soft and pliable, and many women claimed these towels were more lint free than purchased tea towels.
Some neighborhood baseball teams had uniforms of white sack material. Two or more women
might get together and sew up enough uniforms for the whole team. This consumed a
considerable amount of both white sacks and time. The result, however, was a well dressed,
professional looking team.
Looser woven white sacks were often saved for use in making molasses. After the cane was mashed, the juice was strained through the sacks to remove dirt and pieces of cane before the cooking process. Then after being cooked down, the molasses was strained again to remove any scum or other impurities as it was poured into jugs or other containers. Coarse white sacks came in handy in jelly making to squeeze the juice from the fruit pulp and for straining lard into lard cans at butchering time. Sacks had many, many uses.
Many women dyed white sacks for greater variety. They dissolved dye in water in a wash tub, iron kettle or a washing machine, and then added enough sacks to take up all the dye. After the sacks had boiled a while, they might throw in a large handful of salt to set the dye.
Putman, Diamond and Rit were just a few of the commercial dyes used. Poke-berries, sumac, black walnuts and other plants also made good natural dyes. With such a variety of natural and commercial dyes, the white sacks could be used in a greater variety of household and clothing needs than before.
PRINTED FEED SACKS
During World War II, feed sacks became even more important to the farm women because cotton materials were scarce. Much of the labor force was in the army which needed quantities of cotton for the service men's uniforms, and factories were busy producing arms and ammunition. It was during this time that chicken feed began coming in printed feed sacks as well as white. In the early 1940's the Werthan Bag Corporation of Nashville, Tennessee, a cotton mill operation, decided to improve the type of bags that feed and flour mills were using and produced printed material for sacks. They bleached the brown sheeting, calendered and printed it. Soon other bag companies took up the practice, producing millions of yards of the printed cloth each year. Rural people all over the United States used the sacks. At first the material was of a poor quality, but the quality improved after some complaints.
Solid colors and printed feed sack material eliminated the necessity of dyeing. The solid colors were in almost every imaginable color in both very bright and pastel shades. Many of the prints were floral, printed on a colored background, but they also ranged through checked, plaid and striped patterns to special designs of chickens or ducks for children's clothing. The white sacks did not increase the price of feed, but the print sack cost ten cents more.
In the early '50's solid color and white sacks began to come in a blend of cotton and rayon. This made feed sacks even more popular and versatile. These sacks were especially fine for making women and girls' slips and baby clothes, and the silky texture gave dresses, shirts and blouses a more expensive look. The rayon-cotton blend sack was also ten cents higher, whether white or colored.
Many farmers bought their feed once a week with the quantity depending upon the amount of stock they had. But some bought more feed at one time than they needed, just for the sake of getting a certain pattern of sack. Many times women could be heard to say, "I really don't need the feed, but I'll take two sacks." Ethel Massey remembers, "Usually when our hens were laying pretty good Mother would buy ten sacks of feed. And one time I told Dad I wanted ten sacks of feed and he got ten sacks all alike! It didn't make any difference if they was all alike. You could use them for sheets. A sack--why it was worth money."
Going to the feed store was much the same as going to the dry goods store to buy material. The women picked the particular piece of material they wanted from the wide variety of colored and printed sacks stacked from floor to ceiling in the storeroom of the feed store. Sometimes a woman would have trouble deciding which sack she wanted, and once she decided, frequently it was the sack on the bottom of the stack. But the worker always got it for her.
Having choice of the colored sacks made the cloth sack even more popular. The availability of the colored sacks helped change the almost traditionally white sheets and pillowcases to pastels and floral prints. Homemade quilts were often pieced of leftover scraps, or from still good parts of worn out clothing. With so many different prints available, any quilt pattern was possible. Matched sacks were used for the quilt lining, sometimes matching a block in the quilt top. Four or five large sacks sewn lengthwise, with a seam up the middle was usually enough to line a quilt. Thus whole quilts were often made from feed sacks.
Since feed sacks were as versatile as material bought in a store and were more readily available at a lower cost to farm women, they made nearly all family clothing of them--even men and boys clothing. They could make a man's shirt of two sacks, a small boy's shirt of one. Some Missouri Farmers Association workers in their feed stores wore homemade shirts with the sack cut and sewn with the M.F.A. label that came on the early white sacks on the back of their shirts. Little boys wore suits or pants of striped, plaid or dark colored sack material. One wOman whose husband was a big tall man made his under shorts from feed sacks with the brightest colors and boldest designs she could find.
Most farm women wore dresses made from feed sacks--especially everyday dresses. A dress would take three or four sacks. The cutting instructions that came in commercial patterns would have to be altered for use on feed sacks. Long pieces would have to be pieced since the sacks were usually only a yard or so square. It took experience and figuring, but after a few times, cutting out a dress from four sacks came quite naturally.
Once a dress was finished, it was nearly impossible to tell whether it was of fabric from the stores or feed sacks, and nobody made fun of anyone else because of wearing clothing made of feed sacks. Catherine Long told us, "You'd go out in a crowd and maybe see someone wearing a dress made out of the same print as the one you had and laugh and say, 'You've got my dress!' The people we associated with were our class of people and we all wore the same thing." High school children knew the difference, however, and as they got older, they sometimes wished for something better to wear.
PREPARING THE SACKS FOR USE
Before anything could be made out of cloth feed sacks, they had to be properly prepared. The sacks were held together with a chain stitch seam sewn down one side and across the bottom. When filled with feed at the milling company, a seam was sewn straight across the top. On the farm that seam was opened first to get the feed by pulling out the top stitching.
When the sack was empty, the first job to prepare the sack was to turn it wrong side out and shake it thoroughly to remove ground in feed from the corners, and then take out the remaining stitching at bottom and one side. To do this hold the sack upside down, still wrong side out, with the extra string projecting from the stitching nearest to you. Look at the chain stitch and be sure the major part of the stitch is on the right side. Cut off the threads even with the material. Catch one string from each side in each hand and pull. The stitching should come right out.
Next wash to remove the dirt and ink printing if any is present. The earlier white sacks had labels stamped on the sack in ink known as washout ink. Dipping the sack in soap and water and scrubbing usually removed this.
Printed or colored sacks needed only washing, but white sacks needed to be bleached. Sour milk sometimes was used instead of a commercial bleach. Sacks soaked overnight in sour milk would be white as snow in the morning.
The material in the sacks, obviously had no permanent press conditioning and needed starching. Starching could take place after the sack was sewn into a garment, but usually it was done at this time in the washing process because starched material was easier to sew. The starch was frequently a flour and water mixture. Hot water was added to a cold water and flour paste and this would then be cooked. The wet sacks were dipped in the starch solution and then hung out to dry. Nearly everything was starched because many women claimed the starch made the clothing last longer and stay cleaner as well as giving the garment a better appearance.
After ironing the sacks were ready to make into clothing or household sheets or tea towels.
Feed sack material was very durable and sturdy and would last years. Prints and colors might fade, white sacks yellow with age and unfinished seams ravel, but if a garment was properly made and cared for, it could still be in use years later and even when discarded could be used for rag rugs or quilt scraps.
During the heyday of cotton sacks, empty sacks could be bought at feed stores or from neighbors who had more than they needed. In many areas a dry goods store bought the washed and ironed sacks for a quarter a piece and resold them. Most feed stores and country stores handled them, selling both clean white and colored sacks. A country sale or church auction was sure to have a stack of sacks to sell.
Women often traded sacks among themselves to get the patterns they wanted. Depending on what they were making, they would try to get at least three or four sacks to match, and if they couldn't find the sacks, they would trade or buy an empty sack to match their own.
It was often difficult to match sacks. The stores would get a truck load which might sell out quickly before customers had an opportunity to get the sacks they needed to finish a quilt, for example. When women heard a new shipment was in, they would go to the store to buy the feed.
WPFA Clubs (Women's Progressive Farmers Association) had contests of sewing made of feed sacks, including quilts, pillow cases, dresses, aprons, children's garments and many other items. Competition started on a local level and went from there to district and on to state levels. Prize money was given at all levels, but state fair prizes were much higher than county prizes. At the state fair, prizes ranged from five to ten dollars for quilts, which required the greatest amount of work, while county fair prizes were often only seventy-five cents. Even today there is still a place for various feed sack articles in some county fairs.
For several years the WPFA Clubs held annual fashion shows. This event, like the fairs, prompted members to do their finest sewing. At the fashion show, mothers and daughters (WPFA sponsors a Junior Farmers Association) made clothing and modeled it, usually at an evening event which only girls and women attended. First they'd have a tea, and sometimes a program, and then they would model the feed sack garments they had made--dresses, aprons, housecoats, and many other items.
In the 1950's some counties also held a yearly dairy day. Among the activities were contests, or mini-fashion shows, for the little girls and boys dressed in clothing made from feed sacks.
Before and during the Depression, families recycled everything they could to save money and waste. Not only did they make good use of every sack they got, they even saved and used the string which sewed the sack together. They rolled this cotton twine into a ball, and then used it for many farm and home needs from flying kites to tacking comforters. Some even crocheted with it.
In the early 1960's when people became more affluent and thought less of the hard times, home sewing lost some of its popularity. Synthetics, permanent press, double knits and other more fashionable and easier-to-care-for materials came on the market further lessening the demand for printed sacks for those who did continue to sew. Demand for large quantities of flour and sugar .decreased until gradually those sack sizes dropped to five and ten pound sizes. Feed sack size went down from one hundred pounds to fifty pounds. Disposable items also became popular and soon cloth sacks were replaced by paper and plastic sacks. Even the old familiar gunny sack has given way to paper. With all these influences operating, production of cloth sacks dropped sharply in the late 1950's until today only a very few cloth sacks are still manufactured.
Almost without anyone realizing it, the era of the cloth feed sacks was over.
In addition to those quoted we would like to thank Mabel Bart, Zulu Emerson, Hazel Cravens and Irene Smittle.
Copyright © 1981 BITTERSWEET, INC.