When I first began my love affair with antique grain sacks it was as someone who thought they were out of reach. Surely they were too expensive and hard to find. I would see random pictures of grain sack stacks, or a grain sack upholstered chair and just sigh. It took me a while to figure out why I was so drawn to them. Antique grain sacks had a purpose and consequently, have a history all their own.
I can picture a woman, sitting in her farmhouse, stitching her family’s grain sacks by the light of the fire. The sacks were instrumental in getting a family’s grain to the mill and were personalized so they could be easily identified. Each family had their own stripe design, predominately blue or red.
Antique grain sacks are a popular design trend and are used in all sorts of ways. As upholstery material, for pillow covers, table runners and various other textile furnishings. I think they are perfect in almost any style decor.
When I opened my Etsy shop, I was determined to figure out a way to obtain the antique grain sacks easily and at a decent price. The easiest place to find them is on sites like eBay and Etsy. I have never found any at the antique malls in my area. If you are really lucky, and enjoy the hunt, you might find them at large antique shows or fairs. My friend Kim from Savvy Southern Style posted this picture last fall after attending the Country Living Fair in Atlanta.
Seriously. Grain sacks are out there…you just have to look, use search engines and spend time online to find them.
The average price for a grain sack in good shape is usually between $40 and $50. Bigger sacks and the ones with embroidered initials go for more. The rare colors, like yellow or green, are very pricey. Occasionally the actual rolls of hemp used the make the grain sacks can be found. Never used, it is very easy to work with. I have only ever purchased one roll of unused hemp. The day it arrived on my doorstep was truly unforgettable. The tote bag below was made from that roll of hemp.
Before I begin sewing, I wash every grain sack with a pod each of detergent and Oxiclean. I add fabric softener to the rinse cycle and then dry them all the way. It softens them a bit and hopefully takes care of any shrinkage. Depending on the width, sometimes I have to pick out the side seams in order to get the most out of the sack. Once in a while when I get to the bottom there are still bits of grain in the corners. It always makes me wonder about the woman who sewed the stitches that I just took out.
Sometimes I feel a bit sad when I cut into a piece of vintage fabric to “repurpose” it. I try to think of it as giving that fabric a second chance. Grain sacks are not being used any more for their original purpose. Instead of sitting in an attic or barn somewhere, I am lovingly bringing them back to life.
My best advice for sewing with grain sacks is to go slowly. Look at each bag for a while and think about the best way to use it. Once you cut, it’s all over. With each sack I sit at my sewing table and measure the length…several times. I decide what to make that will get the most bang for my buck. My first choice for pillow covers is always to have both sides made from grain sack but sometimes that’s just not possible.
I will only use vintage fabric to back a grain sack pillow cover…never, ever anything new and only as a last resort. I like to make my pillow covers in pairs. I understand all those symmetrical people out there! Sometimes using a different back is the only way to do that. Reversible pillows are just smart…two looks for the price of one.
Here is the before pic of a project I hope to start very soon. When we closed my father-in-law’s condo there was a set of chairs that no one wanted. I brought them home and they have been sitting in my garage. This is one of them.
I’m certainly not an expert, but if you have a question about sewing with grains sacks I would be happy to try and answer. To learn more about sewing with vintage fabrics visit my All About Vintage Textiles category.