Woman’s love for quilting leads to new hobby
Chris Motl’s love for quilting has led into a new hobby that has become her passion.
Having grown up on a farm she was naturally drawn to traditional quilts.
She describes herself as a scrap quilter, using many different fabrics in the quilts she has made in the last 30 years. Then 19 years ago she took a class in period quilts and that sparked her interest in feed sacks.
She comments, “I knew about feed sacks because I grew up on a farm and we raised chickens and of course the feed sacks came in patterned, colorful fabrics. I remember my grandmother making things out of cloth sacks.”
Her mother actually helped start her collection, locating many feed bags at flea markets and sales. As they gained in popularity and became harder to locate, Motl realized if she wanted the really rare ones she would need to go shopping on line.
She began using the feed sacks material for her quilts but soon started collecting them and showing them on their own. She states, “I realized many of bags were too valuable to cut up.”
She did make several quilts using pieces of feed sacks, including one that is a square patchwork design with many different prints. On the back she attached a fabric picture of her as a child, wearing a dress that had been made of feed bags.
She admits she probably didn’t wear the dress to school, but most likely only wore it around the farm and for doing chores.
In another quilt she adopted a butterfly pattern her grandmother had used in the 1940s, choosing various feed bag prints for the appliquéd butterflies.
The feedsack story dates back to the early 1800s when goods such as food staples, grain, seed and animal feed were packed in tin and wood barrels.
These items were hard to transport and the homespun linen, available at the time, did not work because the hand-sewn seams wouldn’t hold up with heavy use. When the stitching machine was invented in 1846 sacks were used but they were made of heavy canvas and reused.
Eventually cotton was used and thrifty farm women began recycling the bags for dish cloths, diapers, nightgowns and other household uses.
Then in the late 1920s fabric companies started offering the sacks in various prints and solid colors.
Motl, who had been a coat buyer in the clothing industry, says, “I understand that. I have a degree in marketing and retailing. There were many fabric companies that offered their printed bags to feed, flour, sugar and other manufacturers to use for packaging.”
She says these companies began competing with each other to provide attractive, useful bags. Some bags came ready for sewing with pre-printed patterns for dolls or aprons. Some with labels offered suggestions for use and instructions, including how many bags were needed.
She even has a sample pack of fabric, likely used by a salesman making calls to businesses. She has a collection of trade magazine ads luring companies to buy a particular brand of fabric.
In the 1940s there were 31 textile mills making them including Bemis Brothers that had a “cat in the bag” logo and Percy Kent of Buffalo, NY. Motl has several designed by Kent, including one with scenes from World War II including Pearl Harbor but it did not include D-Day, so it was likely made before the war was over.
She notes, “It’s sometimes difficult to know exactly what year a pattern was manufactured so all we can go by is the colors and patterns as an indication of what was popular at the time.”
One pattern, for instance, was obviously put out in 1948. There were actually two designs — one a democrat pattern and the other a republican. These became a part of what came to be known as the Pullet Poll that actually predicted the outcome of the election between Dewey and Truman more accurately than the official polls.
She notes, “Farmers didn’t like Dewey because he ignored farmers but he was predicted to win by the official polls. The Pullet Poll, determined by the number of prints purchased for each party, was right.”
Among her collection she has numerous prints indicating the themes that were used by companies. There were Walt Disney prints, movie themes such as Gone with the Wind, comic book themes, nursery rhymes.
When square dancing was popular in the 1940s prints came with instructions indicating how many bags were needed to make the woman’s full skirt and the man’s matching cowboy shirt.
The bags were generally a piece of cloth, folded in half, and stitched on one side only. Motl said an indication that a piece of fabric was authentic was the side that was stitched may have tell-tale pin holes that did not disappear when the fabric was washed. When she makes quilts with the fabric she tries to hide those on the underside, but then it is difficult to prove that the fabric is indeed from feed sacks.
Pattern companies took advantage of the feed sack popularity by publishing patterns for prints. Three sacks were needed to make a dress. Even the twine that was used to bind the sack was recycled.
A smaller bag in her collection is actually an apron when the string stitching on the side of the bag is pulled out. In the corner the apron ties are already attached. Another states, “This is an Excellent luncheon cloth. Just rip, wash, ready to use.”
The bags were so popular that many state fairs had contests with various categories of items made with the fabric. The winner was flown by jet airplane, a big deal in the 1950’s, to the national contest in Hollywood, California. There were as many as 30,000 entries.
Motl’s collection also has white bags that simply sport the company name and information about the contents. Most bags came with instructions on how to wash the ink out. Some inks came out easy and others were nearly impossible to get out. She recalls one company suggested using lard on the ink and then soak it in kerosene. Some women simply bleached the material and hung it in the sun.
She says, “I remember when we were on the farm they had gone to paper labels that peeled off so we didn’t have to get the ink out.”
She also has an off-white bag, a heavier material, that has her family’s name – Teschner – stamped on it. Those bags were returned to the mill for re-filling.
Later, paper and plastic became less expensive for packaging. Women also started losing interest in recycling as times got better, more women were employed away from home and fewer families lived on farms.
Motl’s life revolves around quilting and collecting. That is reflected both inside their home where numerous award winning quilts and designs adorn the walls and rooms, and outside where a large wood quilt block hangs on the side of their octagon barn. When she isn’t quilting she does programs on quilting and feed sack history.