Sunday, May 29, 2011

My Feedsack Childhood

So you wish to create a quilt that reminds you of your childhood on the farm. Well, unless you have a grandma or great grandma with a bulging quilt stash she's willing to pass on, you'll have to use the reproduction fabrics available at any quilt shop. They are called feed sack prints, but I argue with that--having worn the real thing for what seemed like forever.

I've read that during the 1930s, quilt making had a huge resurgence as women hoarded every fabric scrap available in order to keep their family warm. Those bits and pieces of cloth became the stuff of today's greatly prized heirloom quilts which have been long hidden from sight or usefulness simply because they are considered a family legacy.

Both my maternal and paternal grandmothers made quilts. Grandma Wood created colorful blankets filled with flannel. They weren't warm, but they were fun to sleep under. Grandma Legler cast her quilts of worn out coats, woolen trousers, flannel shirts and tattered dresses. The colorful quilts smelled like fresh laundry and sunshine; the ugly ones smelled of an old barn. Foolish child that I was, I preferred the pretty ones--even though I froze beneath them come Minnesota winters.

My mom didn't quilt. She was barely even a seamstress. Yet she gave it her best. It was the time of WWII and with everything needed for life rationed, she looked for fabric anywhere she could find it. The white muslin sugar and flour sacks became washcloths and kitchen towels. Her largest supply of free fabric came from our chicken hatchery where it arrived in 100 pound bags filled with chicken feed. Yes. Chicken feed.

Because my folks owned a hatchery in a small town on the southern Minnesota plains, I grew up surrounded by chickens, eggs, feed, and all the other products geared toward helping the farmers raise healthy hens that would produce eggs aplenty until they grew so old they were strictly stew pot offerings. In the meantime, chicken feed deliveries arrived every two weeks and I tried to be there when the sacks came in. My reason was always the same: to scout out multiple prints. I always hoped there wouldn't be any. To my dismay, there were usually three or four of the same design. When that happened, I knew I was doomed.

Mom always grabbed up the matching sacks. She always told the same story of how the feed was for our own chickens, to make sure they grew plump and meaty so the restaurants and food stores in town would order our chickens rather than someone EElse's. Young as I was, I knew that tale made no sense. If it was strictly the feed she wanted, what would it matter if the printed sacks matched?

She had plans for that fabric. And I knew what they were. Empty sacks were unsewn, washed till every hint of feed smell was gone, and then pinned to the backyard clothesline to flap in the wind. So there they waved, announcing to anyone passing by that one of the Legler girls was about to get new clothes. How embarrassing. That feed sack muslin, with its loose warp and weft weave would soon become a sun top or slacks or shorts or worse yet, if mom had three patching sacks, a dress for church or school.

My two younger sisters, whom I labeled as having no taste in clothes, thought they were cute. To me, anything sewn of  feed sacks was the bottom of the clothing world. Yet with textiles so difficult to obtain, I was forced to wear what was in the closet. Then came the day I put on the light blue sundress with the tiny yellow flowers printed on it and dutifully skipped off to school. That was the day it happened.

It entire school was at recess and I was going about minding my own business when I heard someone call my name. Who would it be but Peggy Gunderson. Now Peggy and I were acquaintances, but not what you'd call close friends. Nevertheless, there she came, running toward me with a big smile. As she grew closer, I heard her bullhorn mouth say "Sandy, we have on the same feed sack dress." I wanted to melt into the grass. As luck would have it, a lot of my friends were standing around close enough to hear and then began the questioning. "What's a feed sack? What do you do with it? Did you buy it at the store?" While I remained mute, Peggy filled in all the details and then more. Do you get the picture?

During the 1970s, quilting had another great resurgence and unwilling to let another generation of non-quilters pass by, I was nearly the first one in line for classes. Since I had no stash of quilt fabric, I asked my mom and grandma if they could spare some scraps. Mom gave me a huge box filled with bits and pieces of raggedy remains, but it was Grandma Wood who had the real treasure. Boxes and boxes of pieces came into my sewing room. I began weeding out, tossing fabric here and there. Then I stopped cold. On the bottom of one box lay the remnants of leftover feed sacks. I recognized an apron grandma had long ago sewn for me. And there was a skirt I'd once had. And there were the leftovers of a blouse she'd made.

With such a memorable stash on hand and quilt class moving at a snail's pace, I decided to teach myself to make a Double Wedding Ring quilt. It was the era of trace, cut, and sew--one tiny piece at a time. I spent nearly a year creating the quilt, which I decided had become a twin-sized masterpiece. I took it to be professionally quilted then brought it home and gently placed it across the back of my couch--the better to admire.

Then came the day my daughter and grandkids dropped by and the next thing I knew, Christie was holding the quilt, pointing to a piece here or there and saying aloud how each piece was part of her own life. "Look, mom, there's the dress Grandma Wood made me and there's the apron I had when I was seven and there's the doll clothes you made for my Barbie Doll.

The entire quilt was a combination of three generations. I deemed it a treasure to be passed down so I held it till my daughter's birthday and gave it to her along with instructions to pass on to her children the history of each scrap she recognized. "Be sure your kids know it's a family legacy," I told her, "and not something for the Goodwill Box when it's no longer useful.

Over the years, I've made many quilts yet have none to show for it. All a family member has to do is admire the quilt and it somehow finds its way to them. I figure I had the fun of creating it and that was enough. The joy of passing them on to a son or daughter-in-law or grandchild fulfills my joy. Yet what amazes me the most is how my mind has changed toward the feed sacks. Now that I'm past 70, I look at the years of history I've lived through and the fabrics that accompanied them and I realize I no longer dismay over my feed sack years. In fact, I'm proud of them. I lived in an era when things were kept, just in case someone else could use them. I lived in the time of feed sacks. Few are we who know what I'm talking about and for those of us who walked in those shoes, let it be known that we are the last of a whole breed.

Times like those will never come again. And while it is possible to enter any of today's quilt shops and find feed sack reproductions, few are truly accurate. Today's colors are too bright; the prints too big. My two sisters and I agree that what is passed off as reproductions do not fulfill the true feed sack product. Even so, those chicken feed sacks fabrics remain popular with quilters--most of whom I believe must have been city kids. Farm kids know better. We remember what we wore in those early days and although we know the colors and prints aren't right, we purchase them anyway, cut them into tiny pieces, and then meticulously sew them back together.

I've often thought of forming a club which only those of us who wore genuine feed sack clothes could join. Our goal would be to pass on the history of those years before it is completely forgotten. We can always count on school books to teach our children and grandchildren the history and politics of our nation. But nowhere else will they hear true feed sack stories but from those of us who were there.Now who's with me?

The first quilt I ever made was the Double Wedding Ring. Look closely and you'll find some of the feed sack prints along with other fabrics of the 1940s. Had I kept the quilt, I would have stored it but my daughter chose to use it. I dare say had the electric heating pad not been so toasty, her Persian kitten would probably have been curled up in the quilt. 

Copyright 2011 by Sandra L. Keith, All rights reserved
Photos are the authors and may not be reproduced without permission

1 comment:

  1. stories like these make me wish i new how to sew. mom never liked it much, and i never asked to learn. someday maybe i'll figure it out. or take a class. or spend enough time with you to learn. someday.