Until I started researching about the lives of Appalachian women who worked in the cotton mills, I had never heard of flour sack dresses.
We tend to think that recycling as a new thing, but Solomon tells us plainly that, “What has been will be again; what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.” Ecclesiastes 1:9
During the Great Depression, all had to be salvaged; scrimping and saving was a way of life. It was not an option. Clothing for growing children was, of course, a necessity, and cloth was expensive.
Going to buy one of their staples, flour, at a mill’s Company Store created a new market for the flour sacks. Mothers made dresses, shirts, pillow cases, curtains, and kitchen towels out of empty sacks.
Manufacturers weren’t slow on picking up on this, so they packaged their flour in printed bags of cotton. Even animal feed sacks followed suit to help their consumers out. Notice the variety of patterns in the Sun Bonnet Sue Flower below.
During World War II, there was a shortage of cotton fabric for the civilian population, and the recycling of bags became a necessity, encouraged by the government. The military was using cotton for their uniforms. Using feed sacks for sewing was considered patriotic, and women still enjoyed finding attractive prints on feed sacks One feed sack could have easily made a child’s dress or shirt, and three identical sacks to make a woman’s dress. One study said that over three and half million women and children were wearing clothes created from feed and flour sacks.
Looking at these old patterns, it is obvious that manufacturers aimed to please a variety of tastes in their consumers. They are bright, beautiful, and useful. It was 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. Scenic prints were also popular. Manufacturers even made preprinted patterns for dolls, stuffed animals, appliqué and quilt blocks. Rodkey’s Best Flour sold a bag with Alice in Wonderland characters printed on it.
One of the vignettes at the Textile Museum in Englewood, Tennessee, includes this quote, “I washed five feed sacks and made me a bedspread.”
I have several flour sack kitchen towels that were my Nanna’s. Even after all these years, they are the best drying cloths I own. And if you want some similar ones, try the Vermont Country Store. You won’t have to buy flour with these!
The 1930’s Flour Sack
by Colleen B. HubertIn that long ago time when things were saved,
when roads were graveled and barrels were staved
and there were no plastic wrap or bags,
and the well and the pump were way out back,
a versatile item, was the flour sack.
Pillsbury’s best, mother’s and gold medal, too
stamped their names proudly in purple and blue.
The string sewn on top was pulled and kept
the flour emptied and spills were swept.
The bag was folded and stored in a sack
That durable, practical flour sack.
The sack could be filled with feathers and down,
for a pillow, or t’would make a nice sleeping gown.
it could carry a book and be a school bag,
or become a mail sack slung over a nag.
It made a very convenient pack,
That adaptable, cotton flour sack.
Bleached and sewn, it was dutifully worn
as bibs, diapers, or kerchief adorned.
It was made into skirts, blouses and slips.
And mom braided rugs from one hundred strips
she made ruffled curtains for the house or shack,
from that humble but treasured flour sack!
As a strainer for milk or apple juice,
to wave men in, it was a very good use,
as a sling for a sprained wrist or a break,
to help mother roll up a jelly cake,
as a window shade or to stuff a crack,
we used a sturdy, common flour sack!
As dish towels, embroidered or not,
they covered up dough, helped pass pans so hot,
tied up dishes for neighbors in need,
and for men out in the field to seed.
They dried dishes from pan, not rack
that absorbent, handy flour sack!
We polished and cleaned stove and table,
scoured and scrubbed from cellar to gable,
we dusted the bureau and oak bed post,
made costumes for October (a scary ghost)
and a parachute for a cat named jack.
From that lowly, useful old flour sack!
So now my friends, when they ask you
As curious youngsters often do,
“before plastic wrap, elmers glue
and paper towels, what did you do?”
tell them loudly and with pride don’t lack,
“grandmother had that wonderful flour sack!”
There’s something “that long time ago” that we shouldn’t forget.