Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Vintage Feed Sacks from the Amana Colonies

These two pieces of fabric were the highlight of last weekend. I am still completely giddy about them because I was very surprised to find them. We went to the Amana Colonies, which is a string of six villages a few miles apart that were established in the 1850s. The people who lived there farmed and lived communally and today, it's a place to find some traditional crafts (woolen blankets, woven baskets) and food (jams, wine, sausage, mustard). In a gift shop that had a substantial collection of vintage quilts for sale, I found a stack of fabric. I didn't realize what they were at first, but I knew I loved them. Here's a little history less on feedsacks:
Cotton had been king until the period of 1914 to 1929 when the price dropped out of the cotton market partially because synthetic fabrics like rayon became popular for dresses and undergarments. With the drop in the price of cotton even more companies began using cotton sacking as packaging.

Initially these bags were plain unbleached cotton with product brands printed on them. In order for women to use these bags they first had to remove the label. Housewives used such methods as soaking the brand in kerosene or rubbing it with unsalted lard then washing it with lye soap.

In spite of their efforts the entire brand label didn’t always get removed and sometimes it didn't seem worth the bother especially for making undergarments.

feedsack border print It took a while for feed and flour sack manufacturers to realize how popular these sacks had become with women. Eventually they saw a great opportunity for promoting the use of feedsacks. First feed sacks began to be sold in colors then around 1925 colorful prints for making dresses, aprons, shirts and children’s clothing began to appear in stores. Manufacturers began to paste on paper labels making it far easier to remove them.

By the late 1930s there was heated competition to produce the most attractive and desirable prints. Artists were hired to design these prints. This turned out to be a great marketing ploy as women picked out flour, sugar, beans, rice, cornmeal and even the feed and fertilizer for the family farm based on which fabrics they desired. Some sacks displayed lovely border prints for pillowcases like the above print. Scenic prints like the one below were also popular. Manufacturers even made pre-printed patterns for dolls, stuffed animals, appliqué and quilt blocks.

By the 1950s paper bags cost much less than cotton sacks. Companies began to switch over to this less expensive packaging.

I am pretty sure that the fabric on the left will be the one that I build my next quilt around, but until then (I have two to finish first!), I will enjoy keeping it on a shelf where I can look at it often.

And so you can see what Amana, the biggest of the six villages, looks like, here you go...
If you're ever passing through Iowa and see the signs off of 80 for Amana around mealtime, swing through and have yourself a brat with spicy mustard and a side of brown bread.


  1. Thanks for the info on feedsacks - I never knew that. Now I hope I have a chance to stumble upon some one day too!

  2. My Step-Dad regularly talks about the dress shirts his mother would make for him, made out of feed sacks...apparently they made them so that they could be reused, turned inside out, of course. Purina, apparently, has always known what it was doing...