Flourishing in Flour Sacks

A year ago I did a post about a child’s flour sack dress that I picked up at an antique store.  The dress intrigues me because the front and back are highly contrasting, and I always wish I could know the story behind it – did the little girl ask her mother to sew the dress of two separate fabrics?  Was it her favorite?

One of the readers who stopped by, Jeannette Cyr, said that she had a picture of her mother’s family in clothing made from flour sacks, and she did know the stories behind it.  There is nothing I love more than ordinary, everyday textiles and their stories, so I asked her to do a guest post.  I am so honored to present Jeannette’s family photograph and the story she wrote about it!

family in flour sack clothing

LaFramboise family in flour sack clothing.

The LaFramboise Family

My mother was the oldest of six girls in a family of eight.  Born in Canada in 1915 she came to the states by train at the age of three.  The family was moving to a farm and a better life, along with many of their relatives and friends.   It was hard work raising a large family, dependent on what they could grow for their own food as well as the animals they raised.    With the premature death of her husband at age 39, the widow took charge and continued farming with the help of all the kids and one hired hand.  During those hard times they learned to make everything they needed including clothing and soap for bathing and washing clothes. 

My grandmother would use the bags and sacks that contained wheat and seeds. By opening one seam it would become a larger piece of ‘fabric’.  After bleaching and washing them many times, she made clothes for the girls and boys, even their underwear from these sacks.  Years later, one aunt would describe to us how her underwear was so scratchy that it made her itch.  Her dream was to have store bought underwear like her friends at school.   The enclosed photo shows this family a couple years before the father passed.  In the photo the 8th child was not born yet and she later told me she was too young to remember her father.  The girls wore similar dresses made from the sacks as well as the  boys shirts. My mother is shown as the taller one in the back row. It was a very difficult life, the older girls took care of the younger ones and the household while the mother worked the fields and animals with the boys and one hired hand until the boys got older.  

 Raising a family during the depression, forced everyone to live simple and make do with what you had.  My parents were married in 1934 and my mother continued to live the way she had learned from her mother.  So in turn we also made do. For example, my father would save all the seed sacks and feed bags, and my mother in turn would wash and bleach them until most of the printing and writing washed out.  She showed my sister how to sew on the treadle machine making circular towels from the seed sacks with French seams joining each sack.  These were made into hand towels.   This was my sisters’ punishment when she did something out of line.  In our old farm house the bathroom was a converted closet and had only a tub and toilet, no sink. We had to wash our hands in the kitchen sink and to the right of the sink was the basement door.  My mother hung a broken roller shade bar on the outside of that door and placed those circular hand towels on the roller bar.   When company arrived my mother would quickly give that towel a quick tug and the clean side of the towel appeared with the dirty side hidden in the back.

Being the youngest of four children born during the depression I’m sure I grew up with many luxuries that my older siblings did not have until later years such as the indoor bathroom.  They always told me I was spoiled. 

My mother passed away two years ago at the age of 96. Only two of her sisters  remain today, both in their 80’s.   I have two quilts made by my grandmother using those seed sacks.  The weave of the fabric is very coarse and there are many of them sewed together for the backing.  Some of the sacks still have the writing and logos on them.  One has the face of Abraham Lincoln and another has a picture of a rooster. These are utility quilts made for comfort rather than show, but they’ve become priceless to me.  

I love the details in this account that help me visualize so clearly.  I wonder if the sister who had to sew for punishment hated to sew when she grew up.  The father in the photo looks like such a cheerful person, happy to take a moment to capture his family in a picture, and I think you can see the mother’s pride in her family as well.

Thank you, Jeannette for such a lovely story.  I am so glad you have the quilts your grandmother made, and the wonderful memories to pass on to us!