The Feed Sack Shirt
Wed, 11/24/2021 - 2:03pm admin
I suppose there aren’t many of us still around who had a homemade shirt or dress made from a feed sack. My grandmother made my shirt from a chicken pellet sack purchased at Welch’s Montier Grocery in—where else—Montier.
According to the National Museum of American History, “By the 1940s the bag manufacturers were turning out bags in bright colors and printed designs. It was felt these designs and colors would boost sales.” A hundred-pound bag of chicken feed provided over a yard of material—enough for a boy’s short sleeve shirt. Three sacks were enough for a woman’s dress.
During World War II a shortage of cotton fabric existed because it went to the war effort, but cloth for feed sacks was excepted from rationing regulations, and women recycled them into dresses, shirts, and even underwear.
On our Montier farm, most of our dishtowels came from feed sacks, until Grandma discovered Silver Dust laundry detergent, which had Cannon terrycloth towels and washcloths inside the box. She became a loyal customer, and after several years, she had a bountiful collection. Whenever the subject of laundry products came up, she would invariably say, “I like my Silver Dust.”
Grandma spied the yellow chicken feed sack sitting like a flower among the coarser brown, burlap bags of cattle and hog feed at Al and Myrtle Welsh’s country store. Now, other crossroads in the rural Ozarks had their country stores, but in my view, Welsh’s could lay most of them in the shade.
With apologies to hippie singer-songwriter Arlo Guthrie, you could get most anything you wanted at Welsh’s: can goods, eggs, milk, various meats, including, jowl (fatty flesh from the lower jaw of a pig)—not something I cared to eat—but Grandpa liked it. But then, he also loved pickled pigs’ feet, which, in my view, don’t belong in the food chain, either.
And if you were lucky, Sharon Welsh, Al and Myrtle’s popular daughter, and my schoolmate at the Montier School, would wait on you.
I suppose when Grandma saw the chicken pellet bag, she got the notion it would make a nice shirt for me. She claimed the tightly-woven cotton was as good as fabric from Dan River (a Southern textile mill). The blue and red teardrops against the yellow background gave the cloth a unique and modern look.
Grandma made a pattern from an old shirt and used it as a guide to cut pieces from the feed bag. She sewed the new pieces together on her Singer treadle sewing machine. I’m uncertain of the age of the vintage machine, but it is safe to say it was a pre-World War II model.
The non-electric machine sat on a burled oak table cabinet, with two pigeon-hole drawers on either side, mounted on a cast iron treadle stand. The treadle, a rectangular-shaped pedal at the bottom, was operated by pressing it up and down like a teetertotter with one’s feet.
Connected to a flywheel on the machine via a leather belt, the treadle moved the sewing needle up and down. It only produced single stiches—nothing fancy like zigzag or embroidery. The speed of sewing depended on how fast one rocked the treadle, but in general, Grandma got a smooth rhythm going. As the old saying goes, “It hummed like a Singer sewing machine.”
Grandma had extremely poor vision due to cataracts, which she attributed to a pressure cooker explosion years before. So, for better visibility, her Singer sat in an alcove of the farmhouse that we referred to as the “sun room,” because it had windows on three sides. In my mind’s eye, I can still see her sitting at the machine rocking the cast iron treadle, and the sun reflecting off her bottle-thick glasses. Electric machines had been available for fifty years, but Grandma remained steadfastly loyal to her early twentieth century Singer.
My new shirt reflected Grandma’s formidable talent. But for lack of a manufacturer’s label inside, it appeared store-bought. It became my favorite shirt, and after I moved to Willow Springs and my mother wanted to have professional photographs made of my brother and me, I wore the feed sack shirt for my photo session at the Wayne Smuck Studio on Main Street.
Grandma sewed and patched numerous things for me, but the other item that stands out in my memory is Teddy’s overalls. For Christmas when I was 4 years old, Santa Claus brought me a teddy bear, whom I predictably named, Teddy.
One day, I remarked to Grandma that Teddy didn’t have any clothes. Grandma and her old Singer came to Ted’s rescue. From an old pair of Grandpa’s jeans, she fashioned a pair of bib overalls, complete with pockets, for him. Over the years, Ted has somehow survived many hardships, including a recent attack by a poodle, and now sits high on a shelf in my writing room, still wearing the bibs that Grandma made him.
Like her loyalty to Silver Dust detergent and her vintage Singer, Grandma remained committed to traditions of yesteryear. When she moved from Montier to Willow Springs, into Sol and Lola Coker’s old store on North Maple, between Main and Third Streets, she insisted that her woodburning cookstove also be moved and set up in the carport.
The new house had a gas stove, but in the summer when she didn’t want to heat up the kitchen, she would fire up the old cookstove. When I was home from college, I would often stay with her. On one visit, she taught me how to make a pot roast in that old stove.
Now, each time I make a pot roast I use the same basic recipe, including the secret ingredient she shared with me, and fondly remember that day in the carport with Grandma. But I have often thought if I could go back in time to that old farmhouse in Montier, I would take her a Crockpot.