Buying clothes for a growing family can be a big expense, even in today's world of mass production and fast fashion. In the first half of the 20th century, having enough to wear was a real challenge for many families. Sewing your own clothes was far more common, especially for women in rural areas, and sometimes the material for these garments came from an unusual source: feed sacks and flour bags.
Knowing that their customers would reuse the fabric to make clothing, grain manufacturers often packaged flour, sugar, seeds, and animal feed in colorful, patterned bags, in a practice that was particularly widespread from the 1920s to the 1950s. It was a win-win strategy: customers would want to buy the most appealing-looking bags, which they would put to practical use at home.
"Feed sack dresses" were common among farm families, especially during the financially difficult years of the Great Depression, but women also sewed pants, towels, underwear, quilts, curtains, and more from the bags. The U.S. government encouraged this fabric recycling during World War II in order to conserve much-needed cotton.
So much to sew:
- According to one estimate, around three million U.S. women and children wore clothing made from bags in the early 1940s.
- Women in rural areas took part in regional competitions – such as the National Cotton Council's Cotton Bag Sewing Contest – to show off the fashionable creations they had made out of bags.
- By the late 1950s, paper began to replace cotton as the most common material for commodity bags, eventually putting an end to the era of feed bag fashion.