Saturday, September 3, 2016

Putting on the feedsack

On the kitchen wall, just inside the door, was a row of hooks. Coats, hats and colorful aprons and bonnets hung there just waiting. A vivid memory of Mom and Pop Johnson's kitchen. Mom put a little blue flowered bonnet on my head, tying it beneath my tiny chin. We were off to the chicken house where I looked for the glass egg that supposedly encouraged the chickens to lay. But this is not about eggs or chickens. Nope, it is about the fabric in that little bonnet that resided in readiness on the hook in the kitchen.

That sweet bonnet was made out of feedsack cloth. Quilts sewn by that older generation are made from that same type of cloth. Small prints, floral pieces, pieces of children's clothes, old aprons, men's shirts and mother's dresses. Pieces of history that came from feedsacks.

My children and grandchildren will have trouble understanding how people could use these pieces of cloth for clothing, but times were hard and store-bought fabric was a luxury. Buying clothing in stores was impossible for the farmer. Articles of clothing were handed down until they were frayed. It was a generation of recycling, before we even had the word in our vocabulary. Nothing went to waste. Creativity and invention were used in a time when life was simple, when necessity required ingenuity.

In the time of my great great grandparents, farm and food products were shipped in barrels and tins. Eventually, food products were shipped in bags. In 1846 Elias Howe patented the lockstitch sewing machine and made cloth bags that could be reused. The bags were white with the company name stamped on them or the farmer's name was placed on the bag, so it could be refilled. Women removed the stamp with a mixture of lard and lye soap. Even with over the counter products the labels were difficult to completely remove from the white fabric.

Eventually flour and feedsack manufacturers realized that they could make these bags more attractive and appealing. Stamped labels were replaced with paper labels. Patterns were designed to appeal to the womenfolk. By the 1930's manufacturers were competing to design attractive patterns. The fabric weight was determined by the contents of the bag. Flour required a tight weave, while animal feed used a looser weave. Sometimes a farmer might find that he had more bags then he used, hence he sold them back to the store. Peddlers even began peddling empty bags. Women went to the store with their men to pick out the design of the bags he purchased, looking for a new dress on the shelves of the grocery store.

During WWII, it became patriotic to use feedsacks for clothing, bedding, just about anything that required fabric. Manufacturers began producing yardage of the cloth. I was surprised to discover that feedsack material was still partially in use in the early 1960's.

My sister June and I were having one of our daily conversations. The subject of quilts came up. Each of the Loxley girls have a quilt made by Great Grandmother Hollinger. We have treasured these since we were little girls. I was probably about two or three when she died. Still that quilt means the world to me. "You know that some of that fabric is probably from the feedsack clothes were wore," June said. Suddenly I was not only looking at a quilt made by a great grandmother's hands, but I was looking at my past in the clothing my family wore. A fabric that had a rich history in the life of a farmer and his wife.

This last thought is for my children: It is not the riches we leave behind. It is not the tangible dishes, furniture, other items that have been with you throughout your lives. The wealth of our family has been in the simplicity of the times in which our ancestors made do. In the work of their hands, in the love by which they created. It lies in the struggles they suffered to make our lives better. I am able to give you more because those before me they gave their best.

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