I am endlessly fascinated by feedsacks.  I don’t mean the burlap variety farmers use for hauling hen house manure, or the ones the foolhardy leap into for Fourth of July sack races.  I’m talking about cotton feed or flour sacks adorned with cheerful prints that were designed to be emptied, washed and used for quilts or clothing.  The practice began in the early twentieth century and is said to continue today, although with a much smaller supply and audience.  Feedsacks experienced their heyday in the 1930s and 40s, and are definitely collectibles today.

I found my first feedsacks at a quilt show, wonderful blue and white prints that I snatched up and began, slowly to add to through the years.  I’ve stayed with the theme, although I’ve allowed red and a little yellow to sneak in from time to time.  I have a wire basket filled with whole feedsacks or portions and plans for a patriotic Ohio Star quilt someday, when I can finally bear to cut them into smaller pieces.

Years ago, when my collector fervor was at its strongest, I found three and a half inch four-patch squares on eBay, some of which were said to be stitched from feedsack fabric.  So I won the bid and waited impatiently.  When the four-patches arrived, I saw what a motley assortment they were.  Some hand-stitched, some machine-stitched, some four inches, some three, some stained and all in need of a good soak.  Humiliated I put them away and told myself someday when I could face my own foolishness, I’d drag them out and see what could be done.

Several weeks ago I saw the squares on a long list of my UFOs.  That’s Unfinished Objects in quilterspeak, and most of us have a lot of them.  With a sense of duty I pulled out the squares, and finally they spoke to me.  I saw what I’d missed the first time around.  These were scraps from somebody’s sewing basket, a bit of this shirt, a piece of that dress, and yes, some were likely feedsacks, although I’m not expert enough to be certain.  But it no longer mattered.  I had something precious in my hands, another woman’s hopes and experiences.  I began to plot how to make best use of them.

The four-patches have now grown into sixteen-patches, carefully washed, trimmed and combined.  I’ll set  them with brand new navy star points and muslin using this Scrappy Star pattern from Quilt In A Day, and when I’m finished I’ll have a lap quilt or larger, both old and new, the memories of someone from another generation and my own stitched together.

I’m reminded of a novelist’s mission as I piece together the old patches and wait for the new fabric to arrive.  My job as an author is to take bits and pieces of my characters’ pasts and surround them with new events into one cohesive and pleasing whole.   I’ve never been more aware of that than with the book I’m writing now.  Each character has a rich history that can’t overwhelm the quilt of my novel.  While the history is “central” to who they are, it’s just a part of the story.  Only when a reader looks closer will the history, the past, add the color to the overall shape.

I’ll love this quilt once it’s finished.  When I wrap myself up on a cold evening, I’ll think about the woman who pieced these tiny squares.  Together, old and new, we created something useful and hopefully, pleasing.  But I’ll never snuggle under it without thinking of my book in progress, as well, and the story that grows in my mind from scraps of the past and slices of the present, as I stitch the four-patch squares into stars.

18 Comments

  1. Audrey Bonnell on May 6, 2011 at 7:58 am

    Emilie, I remember those feedsacks even though briefly. My mom kept the ones that came with feed in it for their chickens and I remember her using it for clothing for us kids. Later on while going through some of her old clothes with her I found some of the feedsacks that she had saved. Now I have a friend that searches for them and then sells what she doesn’t want on EBay. Thanks for those memories.

  2. Denise on May 6, 2011 at 9:27 am

    Oh, Emily, you made me cry with this one- so touching to read of how you came back to find and hold another woman’s experiences in your hands. And thank you for posting the pictures of your feedsacks. When I was growing up, my Mother’s family would talk about how my Mamaw made their dresses and underwear from feedsacks and I just could not comprehend what in the world they looked like. It usually brought a chuckle as I imagined them wearing dresses and underwear- white with big Xs across them, a la Ellie Mae Clampett. It wsa many years before I was clued in to what they were actually talking about, and saw and came to love the beautiful fabric feedsacks they spoke about. Thank you for a beautiful look at feedsacks and those items you received in your auction- can’t wait to see the finished quilt!

  3. Marna on May 6, 2011 at 10:02 am

    Beautiful collection photo.

    I love a UFO (an UFO?) on its way to becoming a finished object. And I love the “Quilt in a Day” idea although it’s more like quilt in a month-year-decade for me. (Emily just turned 11 last month. Haven’t finished her baby quilt. Maybe next year…)

    • Emilie Richards on May 6, 2011 at 3:47 pm

      Think of it as a gift for Emily’s daughter. It will be well-loved.

  4. Knitnana on May 6, 2011 at 10:46 am

    Hi, Emilie, LOVE this post…and the pulling from another’s past to make a personal future! The 16-patch blocks are so special…
    Makes me lean strongly towards picking up the quilting bug again after all these years of being a committed knitter.
    (((hugs)))
    Sallee

  5. Emilie Richards on May 6, 2011 at 3:45 pm

    Denise, that’s exactly what i thought they meant by feedsacks, too, until I found my first at a quilt show. Had to laugh at the thought of Ellie Mae in burlap.

  6. Sherry on May 10, 2011 at 11:20 am

    I love that the work of whoever made the original blocks is not lost. Once while searching for Halloween costumes with my girls I found a quilt at a thrift store that had been a bit abused. But what I saw was a wonderful hand quilted pink and white quilt that might have been made by a grandma for a granddaughter. I don’t think it was ever loved like it should have been. I bought it and tried to clean it up, but it didn’t get completely clean. It still has some spots on it, but a pillow or second quilt across the bottom hides most of them. I use it at my vacation house on one of the beds there and I’m giving it the love it deserves.

    • Emilie Richards on May 10, 2011 at 4:15 pm

      A lovely story, Sherry. It’s loved now, as it should be. I’ve decided to use some of the stained pieces, just because it will make the quilt that much more real. I think you feel the same way.

  7. Laura Russell on January 20, 2012 at 4:42 pm

    I was perusing your blog and found this one. I saw an ad in our local paper a few years ago from a woman who had a feedsack collection and was selling it off. I went to her house and in her basement, she had tubs of them. I picked ones that spoke to me, spending about $100. Then they sat in a pile in my fabric stash for years. I recently made a queen size bed quilt top. Now, I am figuring out the quilting.

    • Emilie Richards on January 20, 2012 at 5:41 pm

      I’d love to see a photo when it’s all done. What a find.

  8. Connie Coon on April 6, 2013 at 8:52 pm

    Old quilts are the best, they have so much love in them and when you wrap yourself in them you can just feel that Grandma loved you. (Even smell it):0) I was recently give a box of fabric scraps, while going thru that box I discovered many blocks started by the woman, one of them a Granmother’s flower garden, with lots of little pieces to finish more blocks. I now have my Friday Night movie with the hubbs project. He was happy I received that box of old scraps also.

  9. Susan on September 26, 2013 at 3:42 pm

    I love the scrappy star block that was used for this project. I just came back from a retreat with Gwen Marston — will need to wonk up the star and blocks a bit!!

    • Emilie Richards on September 26, 2013 at 3:48 pm

      She’s great fun, isn’t she? I did a retreat and have the wallhanging to prove it. Such fun.

  10. Mary Jane Lamphier on December 26, 2017 at 6:14 am

    I enjoyed your story about fee sacks. I made my first quilt in 1958. It is composed of scraps from three people; Aunt June’s sewing scraps from dresses made for her four daughters; my sewing scraps and my mother chicken feed sacks. There are at least ten different prints from the feed sacks. Three print sacks line the double bed sizes quilt. My story was published in the Reminisce Magazine a couple years ago. I wrote two quilt books in the 1980s, Patchwork Plus and The Pieceable Kingdom, published by Wallace Homestead. At that time I never thought feed sacks should be included in books. Wow, have I changed my mind on that! I now have a small collection of the beautiful feed sacks and the stories that accompany them.

    • Emilie Richards on December 26, 2017 at 8:48 am

      I bet those quilts are particularly precious to you. Thanks for the reminder that I need to get busy and make something of my own. And thanks for your comment.

  11. Dottie on April 3, 2018 at 7:15 pm

    Hello Emilie,

    I am so interested in these fabrics to a make quilt. Do you know of any places that Carrie 1840’s fabric? I love your quilt idea, did you ever finish the quilt?just found your site!!

    Thank you

    • Emilie Richards on April 9, 2018 at 1:25 pm

      Hi Dottie, no, those blocks still need to be sewn together. I haven’t had enough time to do any serious quilting for a while. As for 1840s fabrics? I bought the ones I had–not nearly that old but vintage–on eBay. I’ve had great luck finding feedsacks there. Why not give it at try. I look forward to hearing more of your quilting adventures.

      • Dottie on April 9, 2018 at 2:37 pm

        Hi Emilie, I meant 1940’s fabric!! Funny!! Thank you I will check eBay never thought of them.

        Thank you for responding to my question!!

        Dottie

Leave a Comment