Cloth sacks were used by manufacturers beginning in the mid-nineteenth century, but became common around the 1920s. Goods such as chicken and hog feed, sugar, flour, and guano fertilizer were all packed and shipped in cotton cloth. Thrifty women throughout the United States, but especially in rural areas, saved the cloth and thread from these sacks by emptying and unraveling the cloth. Flour, fertilizer, and sugar were plain white, but often had labels that were difficult to bleach out, as can be seen in this quilt. Feed sacks, though, came in brightly printed calicos with easy-to-remove paper labels. A large sack would yield about 1 1/2 yards – just enough for a child’s dress. Sacks and scraps were saved to make household items as well, the most common being quilts. Sewing with feed sacks was widespread until the 1950s, when most manufacturers switched to paper packaging and cotton cloth by the yard was more accessible and affordable. Sonja Stikeleather remembers:
“I grew up with a family of people who were very self-reliant, and nothing was ever thrown away. We utilized everything. Feed came in feedsacks, and a lot of them were printed…I remember going with Daddy when he went to get feed on Saturday so that I could pick out the ones I wanted. Mama made many things with those sacks. Believe me, you find it in an old quilt, and it will be the fabric that is still there. It just wears forever. It’s pretty tough, and it has a linen-like weave.”
This summer quilt made from joined, bleached sacks, either flour or sugar. The threads were pulled from the flour sack backing to create 3.5″ long fringe along the perimeter, except for the top, where it has been folded and hemmed. The quilt is a single layer blanket with an appliqued pattern of sunflowers, with sixteen pointed petals around a circle. The pattern edges are embroidered with a wide feather stitch. The embroidery is done in cotton threads of varying color and weights, some of which is likely recycled binding thread from feed sacks. The pattern pieces are cut from feed sack cloth and other leftover cotton fabrics. In some areas, faded, but illegible printing from original sacks remains.