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.