Finding Feed Sacks

When I first started writing about feed sacks, I had a tiny stack of 12 of them and promised myself I wouldn’t get more.

As a fellow fabric lover, I’m sure you know how well that went. Though my interest initially was about the culture and economics of the feed sack era, it wasn’t long before I was sucked in by the colors and tens of thousands of different patterns. What was once a tiny pile in my sewing room has grown to fill six shelves. And there’s no end in sight.

Feed sacks provide visual inspiration, of course, but I’m also moved by the women who made their clothes, curtains, and dishtowels from them. When I feel “too tired” to keep sewing, I think of them raising six kids, growing their own food and canning it, cleaning and cooking without the aid of modern appliances, and still taking the time to add embroidery to their everyday items.

Embroidered towel spotted in an antique store during the search for feed sacks.

Loving feed sacks is one thing, but finding them is another. Here are a few hints, if like me, you’re on the hunt.

  1. Online resources—Ebay is a great source, although you’re bidding against many other feed sack collectors (like me!). Still the range of feed sacks is wide and every now and again you’ll get the one you’re in love with. Prices vary and with some sacks occasionally available for less than $10, and others $40-plus and more. Shipping fees are on top of the price. Etsy is another source for feed sacks—here you’re not bidding against others, but prices tend to reflect that and shipping costs are additional. And I once found feed sacks on Craig’s List, so it might be worth checking. There are also some Facebook groups devoted to feed sacks and feed sack sales.
  2. Garage sales, estate sales, and other sales. I recently read about a woman who found feed sacks at a sale of old tractors she attended with her son.
  3. Antique stores, flea markets, vintage shops. This is one of my favorite ways to find sacks. The photos here are of some of the places I visited last week—I found only one, very plain striped sack. But I still enjoy poking around.

    The kitchen of an antique store in an old house in Marion, Iowa.

How do you know if what you find is really a feed sack? The most obvious way is if it’s still sewn into a sack shape. If it’s not, then the best way to tell is to find the stitching holes around the selvedge edges and across the width of the fabric. You’ll often see the remnants of a curved seam, as well.

And if you find a quilt that’s labeled “feed sack,” know that many of those are actually 1930s dress prints. Without being able to see the stitching holes it’s challenging to tell whether a quilt contains feed sacks. Once you’ve spent some time familiarizing yourself with prints, you’ll start to recognize them. But with more than 18,000 different patterns, there are sure to be some you haven’t seen before.

Feed sack fabrics stitched together for a quilt back.

Many feed sack quilts are scrap quilts and it’s common that they’ll combine feed sacks and other fabrics. In an era of “waste not-want not” nothing was wasted and every bit of extra fabric wound up in the scrap bin, to be pulled out and used when the need arose. As a fan of scrap quilts, I love that idea, though I’ve not yet been brave enough to cut into any of my collected sacks.

I recognized some feed sacks in these balls of strips, which were likely intended for weaving into rag rugs.

A pin cushion spotted on my search.

How about you—are you a feed sack fan? Tell us about how you find and collect them, and whether you’re brave enough to use them to make quilts.

JOIN THE CONVERSATION
Email this to someoneShare on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterPin on PinterestShare on Google+Share on LinkedIn

23 comments on “Finding Feed Sacks

  1. Karen Johnson says:

    Most of my feed sacks have come from auctions, although I am sometimes lucky enough to find one at a garage sale. I have not found many at antique shops. I have made one large quilt with them, and hand quilted it, but find that I have difficulty cutting them up. I would rather pet them. My grandma used to make me dresses with them, and would let me go along with her to the chicken man to pick out the ones I wanted.

  2. Kaye Walker says:

    Isn’t the feed sack material a little different from other fabric sold by the bolt? When I have looked at feed sack material (the material a seller was claiming was feed sack material) it seemed to have a large weave and a different feel. Am I wrong? Was fabric on the bolt the same material? I would really love to collect feed sack fabric but I don’t want to get ripped off. If anyone could help me with this email me at kayew54@gmail.com Thanks for any help.

    • Linzee McCray says:

      Hi Kaye: I should have clarified that I’m using feed sacks as a general term: at one time just about everything came in a sack, including hams, laxatives, and even ballots! Typically, animal feed and seed sacks were more loosely woven, while bags containing sugar and flour were of tight weaves, to keep the finely ground ingredients well contained. But I have heard (though haven’t been able to verify) that the some of same fabric used for feed sacks could also be found on bolts in stores. Much of that fabric was woven in textile mills in the Northeast, but some bag companies (notably Bemis and Fulton) grew cotton, processed it, and wove it in their own mills. So yes, some feed sack fabric is more loosely woven and has a rougher texture, but not all.

  3. Lisa Sweet says:

    I’d also be interested in response to Kaye Walker. Was fabric made specifically for feed sacks, or did feed sack manufacturers use any cotton?

    • Sharon Malone says:

      I remember going to the feed store and choosing enough feed in sacks of the same color and pattern to make a dress or a skirt. Feed sack fabric is coarser and not as tightly woven as the regular cotton fabrics that were bought off the bolt. I don’t know how the manufacturers of the feed sacks bought their fabric but would assume it came on a bolt. That said, it would be possible I guess that some of that type of fabric could still found on a bolt as well.

    • Linzee McCray says:

      Comment repeated from above: I should have clarified that I’m using feed sacks as a general term: at one time just about everything came in a sack, including hams, laxatives, and even ballots! Typically, animal feed and seed sacks were more loosely woven, while bags containing sugar and flour were of tight weaves, to keep the finely ground ingredients well contained. But I have heard (though haven’t been able to verify) that the some of same fabric used for feed sacks could also be found on bolts in stores. Much of that fabric was woven in textile mills in the Northeast, but some bag companies (notably Bemis and Fulton) grew cotton, processed it, and wove it in their own mills. So yes, some feed sack fabric is more loosely woven and has a rougher texture, but not all.

  4. Linda Ferguson says:

    I am not a fan of 30s fabrics but I love Feedsacks. I generally buy Feedsacks at quilt shows and split them with my one of my friends that is a Feedsack collector. I have enjoyed working with the Feedsacks and making them into quilts. Carrie I admire your nice collection!

    • Pris Phillips says:

      This blog post was written by Carrie’s friend Linzee. They seem to trade off days writing this post. So the collection in the photos above are Linzee’s.

      • Linzee McCray says:

        You’re right, they’re mine, Pris. Thanks for noticing! (And you will typically find blog from Carrie the majority of the time, but I chime in on Thursdays.)

  5. Cathy Clark says:

    Great info on feed sacks and your collection is impressive. Thanks Linzee.

  6. Pris Phillips says:

    Love the photos Linzee!! A very fun post! I have a box of vintage fabrics from my grandmother… but I think they are 30s to 50s era, not feedsacks.

  7. Marie Eddins says:

    I don’t really collect feed sacks, but my Mother made my sister and I many a dress from feed sacks ‘back in the day’!

  8. Amber says:

    I have a few. My mom remembered her clothing being made from them in the 40’s. The man who delivered their chicken feed would set her and her sister up on his truck and let them pick their bag of feed. Her underwear was made from flour sacks during that time (she hated flour sacks!)

  9. Marianne says:

    I have a stack I got through eBay. And I just finished a quilt top that has many feedbacks in it.

  10. Rosann Davis says:

    I am from a part of the country where there are no such things as a “feed sack” However, my husband, grew up in North Carolina on a farm where his Mother and sisters would go to their local feed and seed store, look at all the feed sacks that were available for sale and pick and choose the ones they wanted, Some were for dresses, some were for curtains, some for pillowcases, aprons, etc. Name it and it was made from a feed sack. One day, (and I’ll never understand just why!) I decided that I needed to get some of these feed sacks. I fell in love with the patterns, the fabric, the fact that they had at one time held chicken feed (in his case) and had been so much of the culture that my husband grew up in.

    My sister-in-law stilll lived in the small farming town that my husband was raised in. With her assistance I put an ad in the Local (weekly) paper that I would be willing buy any feedsacks they had for $3.00 each. I was inundated with feed sacks. They came from attics, barns, outhouses, and wherever someone had decided to put them because they didn’t know what else to do with them. Lo and behold, here was someone who was willing to pay them money for something they had no idea what to do with. Needless to say they were filty. One cannot get a feedsack from a barn or outhouse or attic without encountering rat turd or some other kind of filth. I spent hours and hours over the kitchen sink with a mixture of clorox and warm water rinishg the filth out of these feed sacks. I then put them into the washer and washed them with detergent in a regular cycle and stuck them in the dryer.

    Today I have several sets of 4 which could be put together for a quilt backing as well as having some aprons, pillowcases. and many whole feedsacks. Feedsacks are woven so loosely that they require being backed with a stabalizer in order to be cut into pieces for a quilt. But all of mine are safely tucked away in bins – I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to cut them into pieces for a quilt.

    I might also add that nothing comes without a price. All the hours and hours I spent over the sink handwringing out clorox water and rinse water resulted in a torn rotator cuff and the moxt excruitiating surgery I have ever had!!!! BUT – I HAVE FEEDSACKS!!
    .

    • Linzee McCray says:

      Wow! Would I love to see your collection! It sounds amazing and you put in such hard work—so very sorry to hear about your shoulder. (I typically air throw my feed sacks in the washing machine on delicate and so far, so good. Feed sack quilt tops and quilts I hang on the clothesline on a sunny, breezy day.) One thing—feed, seed, flour, and sugar sacks were found in all parts of the country, so you might be surprised to find them from where you lived. Even in cities, bakers would sell their empty flour sacks to the public and at one time you could buy them from Macy’s.

  11. Patty B. says:

    You are so very lucky to have so many feed sacks. I only have about 6-10 sacks. I love feed sacks, and GFG is my favorite quilt. Many were made with feed sacks. I was lucky to have been given some old (30’s and 40’s prints) elongated GFG blocks that were made by my husbands grandmother. I hope to some day put them together in a quilt. Thanks for the inspiration. Patty B.

  12. Chris says:

    They are hard to find and very expensive so you are lucky. I rarely see them anymore.

  13. When my mother-in-law passed away a few years ago, my sister-in-law saved a quilt for me to look at. She had boxed it up and was going to give it away. It was a quilt that my MIL’s mother made from feedsack and old clothes. Needless to say, it is in my living room, on display, draped over a chair in front of the first quilt I made. The history of a feedsack quilt is amazing and the fact that we a piece of my husbands grandmother and mother still with us, intertwined in our lives is such a gift!

  14. Debbie R. says:

    You may not want to be blowing your own horn, but readers might be interested in your fabulous book, The Colourful History of a Frugal Fabric: Feed Sacks, from Uppercase Magazine. A fascinating, informative and fully illustrated book for browsing and for reference.

    • Linzee McCray says:

      Debbie, you are very sweet. I’m SO glad to hear you’ve enjoyed the book! I learned so much writing it and continue to learn every time I give a talk about feed sacks. There are still so many great stories out there—the replies to this blog post are a good example. Thank you!

  15. Linzee McCray says:

    Thank you all for sharing your feed sack stories and questions. I adore hearing about feed sacks and the things made from them that have been handed down through the family. And I so admire people who are still stitching with them!

We love to hear from you...