by Suzanne Labry
Feed Sacks—The Colourful History of a Frugal Fabric
The many quilt lovers out there who are fans of feed sacks will be delighted with a recent book by Iowa-based writer Linzee Kull McCray entitled Feed Sacks—The Colourful History of a Frugal Fabric (UPPERCASE Publishing, Inc.).
McCray details the story of cotton commodity bags beginning with their textile precursors made by the Chase Bag Company founded in Boston in 1847 right up to the mid 1960s when cotton bags were displaced by competition from lower-cost paper ones. While she acknowledges that cloth bags were used around the world, McCray’s focus is on the ones made in the United States, with special emphasis on the “dress print” cotton sacks so beloved by quilters.
Feed Sacks—The Colourful History of a Frugal Fabric is illustrated to a remarkable degree; in fact the last 175 pages of the book are completely dedicated to images of the feed sack assemblages of various collectors, including Gloria Leonard Hall, Gloria’s grandson Paul Pugsley, Janine Vangool, and Charlene Brewer. Brewer’s collection alone contains over 7,000 swatches of different prints and solids that she has catalogued in “feed sack notebooks.” (In 2010, Brewer generously donated 12 three-ring binders full of swatches to the International Quilt Study Center and Museum in Lincoln, Nebraska.)
Interspersed throughout the book is a wealth of pertinent period photographs and images of advertisements and marketing promotions designed to encourage the use of fabric from bags, including patterns for dolls, toys, aprons, clothing, and quilts.
McCray devotes an entire section to quilts made from feed sack remnants, personalizing the text with the reminiscences of women who made feed sack quilts or who used those made by their family members. She describes the attitude of the thrifty quilters who made the most of what they had: “Just as work clothes and undergarments were often stitched from plain feed sacks while printed sacks were saved for clothes worn to school and church, many feed sack quilts were also created with a similar mindset. White or off-white backing, created by stitching plain feed sacks together, was frequently used for the flip side of quilt tops pieced out of patterned feed sacks. This ‘party in the front, business in the back’ aesthetic represents an effort to create quilts that were spirited and cheerful, even when resources were limited.”
The book is not only a delight to look at and fun to read, it is also instructional. For example, despite my own very personal history with feed sacks, I learned that only 12% of cotton sacks were filled with animal feed. A whopping 52% were filled with flour. And although cost competition and the decline of home sewing put an end to mass production of feed sacks last century, the Hutchinson Bag Company in Kansas (Hubco), which was founded in 1919 to manufacture bags for salt, still makes them today.
McCray, a writer and editor who focuses on textiles, art, and craft, and whose work has appeared in such publications as Patchwork and Quilting, Quilt Country, Quilt Sampler, and Modern Patchwork, clearly counts herself as a feed sack aficionado and a quilt lover. Her book, Art Quilts of the Midwest, serves as the basis of an exhibition at the Texas Quilt Museum that runs until October 1, 2017.
* Photos courtesy of Linzee Kull McCray, The Coulourful History of a Frugal Fabric, uppercasemagazine.com.