The history of feedsack fabric
Nov 22, 2017 | by Becky Oeltjenbruns
We’ve chatted on it before – the lack of whimsy in modern design. Yet my recent introduction to the Disney Dress Shop has restored my faith in fanciful and fun fashion. The bright and cheerful fabrics are so delightful and I found myself thinking, where have I felt this gravitating force before? Oh yes – the beautiful feedsack dresses of fashion past. Let’s learn more about the history of feedsack fabric and its role in women’s fashion during a pivotal moment in time. Tell me all about your favorite vintage fabrics and patterns in the comments…
A common thread for vintage fashion is ingenuity born out of necessity. We have seen it before during wartime efforts, but feedsack fabric was inspired by the everyday crisis of individual financial circumstances and limitations of geography. For the rural American woman, life was not easy (just consider how intense laundry day was!). Access to colorful fabrics was even more challenging. The socioeconomic climate was equally daunting – although attention was paid on income equality – the divide was still severe and the Great Depression widened that chasm. What was a gal to do? What she always did – make do and mend. This is when the history of feedsack fabric really hit its stride.
Fun fact: In the early 1940s approximately 3 million people wore at least one article of feedsack clothing!
Before we talk about the colorful renaissance of this medium – let’s start with some key data points. In the mid 1800s a couple pivotal things occurred: the invention of the lockstitch sewing machine and the adoption of linen/canvas fabric for bulk goods. Clever housewives didn’t let things go to waste and that sturdy fabric was soon repurposed into all sorts of household goods (including dresses). Companies took note of this unexpected demographic and started competing to make stunning patterns to gain the attention of shoppers’ wallets. (And we thought the ad men of the 1950s and 60s invented strategy!)
The weave of flour sacks proved to be the most conducive for use in dressmaking. Companies made their ink markings washable so ladies could maximize the amount of usable fabric. The offerings were varied and you’ll find a fun slideshow of some popular designs here. (My personal favorite is the couple sharing the umbrella!) Beyond including intricate patterns, flour companies went on to include washable instructions on how to create a variety of offerings.
Check out this sample of a feedsack dress in the Smithsonian – can you imagine a modern packaging material with a comparable impact to today’s society?
These purpose-driven sacks became so much more – a sense of confidence for struggling families and an instructive vehicle. The popularity of flour sack designs even inspired a sub-industry of its own. Farmers would sell their empty flour sacks to peddlers who would go on to sell their secondhand wares to wives who lived further away from the city center.
By the 1950s the preferred medium for bulk goods changed again – this time to paper. And while I enjoy a whimsical label design, I can’t help but mourn the loss of the feedsack and its plucky utility. So what killed feedsack fabric? Was it just a matter of changing market forces or a result of a culture that was less self-sufficient? When I think about my own habits, I’m not exactly clever enough to find new uses for the wrappings my goods come in. (But here’s some modern inspiration to get your creative juices flowing.) Do you think we’ll ever push product design in the same groundbreaking way we did in the 1930s? Let me know your thoughts below…