Using Surplus Cotton Sacks

Using Surplus Cotton Sacks

by Miss Alice Sundquist, Extension Specialist in Clothing and Textiles
The State College of Washington Extension Service Bulletin 260, December 1940

As so many others during these challenging times, we are often pulled back to an inherited memory of the depression and family stories of the ways they got by. Cotton sacks were common place and finding artful ways to put them to a second life became emblematic of the period. I thought perhaps there would be some useful catharsis to be had going over these designs and ways. LRM

Surplus flour sacks, feed sacks, seed sacks, and fertilizer sacks have uses as household textiles and can be used in making clothing.

The coarse texture of many of these bags makes them harmonious when used with simple furnishings and hand-made things. However, the heavy sacks, such as feed, seed and fertilizer sacks, have a commercial value when returned to the feed or seed store. If material could be purchased for the money received from the sacks to make a more suitable and, perhaps, a less expensive article, this should be taken into consideration before using them for household purposes.

The fuzzy surface of flour sack material causes it to soil more easily than smooth-finished material. For this reason, it is well to adapt flour sacks to articles which will not show soiling. For instance, clothing, such as aprons, dresses, blouses, and shirts, made from flour sacks soils easily and requires much laundering to keep it looking neat. Pajamas and sport clothing are garments best suited to sack materials. Infants’ slips may be made from soft quality sugar sacks. If necessary, rompers for creeping babies may be made from soft, firm material of sugar sacks, and underwear, panties, shorts, nightgowns, and slips may be made from flour and sugar sacks of suitable quality.

The dish towel has the first claim on flour sacks. Every home should have an ample supply, so that dishes can always be dried with a clean, fresh towel. Clean towels are also indispensable at times to cover food or large containers.

Flour sacks are easily adapted to the following household articles:

  • Dish towels
  • Pillow cases
  • Sheets
  • Luncheon cloths
  • Place mats
  • Tablecloths
  • Tray cloths
  • Jelly strainers
  • Mattress covers
  • Card table covers
  • Curtains
  • Comfort protectors
  • Dressing table skirt
  • Window shades
  • Shoe cases
  • Garment covers
  • Laundry bags
  • Bean bags
  • Stuffed animals
  • Dolls

Heavy feed, seed, and fertilizer sacks are suitable for:

  • Shoe bag
  • Laundry bag
  • Clothes pin bag
  • Pillow
  • Draw curtains
  • Shower curtains
  • Place mats
  • Mats for tops of furniture
  • Bedspread

To Rip Bag

Most cotton bags are sewn with chain stitching. This stitching usually starts in the lower corner near the fold. By cutting the chain close to the bag and taking hold of the ends of the upper and lower threads at this point and pulling both, the stitching is ripped in a few seconds. If any difficulty is experienced, the bag has perhaps been stitched from the other end.

To Remove Printing

Because the ink used in printing the sacks varies in composition, it is difficult to be always sure the method used to remove it will be successful. If sacks are washed in hot water before being treated, the printing is set and it is impossible to remove it.

Method 1. Turn the sacks wrong side out and shake. Soak the sacks overnight in lukewarm water to which one tablespoon of kerosene has been added for each gallon of water. Wash them in several waters, using plenty of soapsuds; rinse thoroughly.

Method 2. Cover the inked places with lard and leave it on overnight. Wash out in warm soapsuds.

Method 3. Soak the sacks in cool water for 20 minutes. Wring out the water and place the sacks on a table. Rub laundry soap well into the printing and roll the sack up into a tight roll and let stand for 20 minutes. Again rub soap well into printing. Roll up the sack and let stand 20 minutes. Wash.


To remove the pink tint resulting when sacks are washed, wet the bags, then spread them in direct sunlight to bleach. Repeat this process several times, if necessary. A commercial bleach, or Javelle water made at home, may be used. Use one tablespoon Javelle water to each gallon of water, or one cup of Javelle water to a boiler full.

To make Javelle water:

Dissolve one-half pound of washing soda in one quart of cold water. To this solution add one-fourth pound of ordinary bleaching powder, commonly called chloride of lime. Filter this liquid through a piece of muslin or flour sack to remove the sediment which remains. Keep the clear liquid in tightly-stoppered bottles. Use in home bleaching and stain removal.


Sack materials take dye well. The colors are deep, solid and lasting. Clever tie-dyeing may be done easily. Block printing is also an effective decoration.

Using Surplus Cotton Sacks

Simplicity the Keynote to Trimming

Elaborate trimming would be out of place on sack materials. A little simple, inexpensive, and quickly done trimming is effective and in keeping with the material.

Outline stitch, chain stitch, cross stitch, drawn threads, stitching with heavy colored thread on the machine, couching, buttonhole stitch, applique, bias trims, borders of print material, rick-rack, and block printing are suitable decorative treatments.

Using Surplus Cotton Sacks

On the whole, deep colors are more suitable than pastel shades.

Suggestions for Making Some Articles

Dish Towels – Hem dish towels by machine on two raw edges, using a 3/8 inch hem reinforced with back stitching at both ends.

Pillowcases – One large flour sack will make one pillowcase with a 3-inch machine-stitched hem or use a border of print material. The common torn sizes for pillowcases before hemming are 42 x 36 (or 38-1/2) inches for a 20 x 27 inch pillow and 45 x 36 (or 38-1/2) inches for a 22 x 28 inch pillow. It is always wise to have the case a little larger around than the pillow. Two inches larger is recommended.

Sheets – Sew several sacks together making a flat-fell seam to keep edges from pulling out. Make 3 inch hems on both ends so that either end may be used for the top. For double beds, sheets 90 inches wide and 108 inches long before hemming are most satisfactory.

Bedspreads – Sew several heavy seed sacks together. If they have woven in colored stripes, run them across the spread. Join the sides to the top with a corded seam, using a heavy colored material covering the cord which repeats a color of the stripe you want to bring out. Make it long enough to cover the pillows adequately. Ninety inches wide by 108 inches long is a good size spread for a double bed.

Comforter or Blanket Protectors – Bleached flour sacks may be used to make a thin protector for the blankets. The material should be as long as the width of the blankets and about a yard wide. Double lengthwise and sew the ends together. This forms a slip cover which may be removed for frequent laundering. Tack with thread or use small size safety pins.

Using Surplus Cotton Sacks

Mattress Cover – A mattress protector may be made of bleached flour sacks to fit the mattress. It may be buttoned at the end using old rubber buttons from discarded children’s clothing. The seams joining the side boxing to top and bottom may be bound with tape, or french seams may be made with the seam on the outside to give a well tailored appearance.

Using Surplus Cotton Sacks

Curtains – Coarse-textured seed or feed sacks may be used as draperies or draw curtains in natural color using woven colored stripes running crosswise as a trim with wooder rings painted to harmonize with colored stripes or of same color as the sack material. The heavy, linen-like sack materials in natural color or dyed an appropriate color may be used as draperies or draw curtains using trimmings such as wool fringe or block printing. Soft quality, sheer sugar sacks permit more light to penetrate than flour sacks. Natural color or dyed flour or sheer sugar sacks may be trimmed with bands of print or plain material. Use rickrack or bias tape as trims. Hang curtains simply, using a heading or straight valance. The use of a straight valance makes it possible to piece the curtains under the valance as is often necessary on long windows. The heading may be entirely pieced or with joining line at the bottom line of stitching or heading.

Tablecloths, Luncheon Sets, and Place Mats – Simply trimmed cloths made from sacks are attractive when used with pottery dishes or other everyday dishes.

1. Fold a hem to the right side and insert colored rickrack, stitching close to the edge of the hem. A mitered corner gives a well-tailored look to this cloth. Rickrack applied this way is easy to iron.

2. To make a large cloth join four sacks using rickrack. Use rickrack for edge trim. Machine or handmade fagoting with heavy colored crochet cotton or cord may be used in place of rickrack.

Using Surplus Cotton Sacks

3. Stitch a narrow hem using trim stitch. To make this decorative trim, use heavy colored thread on the bobbin of the sewing machine and ordinary sewing thread on top. Adjust the tension and lengthen the stitch, then stitch the hem on the wrong side. A number of rows of this stitching pleasingly spaced and in harmonious colors gives a nice effect. Some additional kinds of simple trims. Illustrations are self-explanatory.

Closet Accessories – These closet accessories may be made from dyed sacks or trimmed with scraps of cotton print or cretonne that carry out a color scheme in the closet.

Using Surplus Cotton Sacks

Dress Shoulder Protectors – Cut two pieces of material 8” x 21” shaped at the top to fit a coat hanger. Bind the lower edge, or, if dyed sacks have been used, a plain hem is enough finish. A number of these protectors will add to the protection of garments. A strip of material 1-1/4 inches wide set in between the two sections of the protector gives extra fullness needed by full collars or padded shoulders.

Using Surplus Cotton Sacks

Shoe Bag – To hang on wall or closet door. Box plaits forming pockets to hold 12 shoes, each pocket 9 inches deep. The top row of pockets may be made shorter, about 4 inches, for storing hose. A one-inch casing at the top covers a thin wooden stick for support. Fabric tabs are put through metal rings and stitched twice to the bag. The metal rings may be hung on hooks or tacked to the wall. Sturdy materials are needed for shoe bags. The coarse-textured material in feed or fertilizer sacks is suitable for this bag.

Using Surplus Cotton Sacks

Laundry Bags – A laundry bag made from the strong material of sacks may be cut to fit a coat hanger. Face a 20” opening down the center front. A 4” double flap snapped or buttoned at the bottom makes it easy to empty the bag. Small pockets stitched to the front of the bag are convenient for segregating small articles.

Using Surplus Cotton Sacks

Dress Bag for Single Garments (especially good for better dresses or party dresses) – The top of this type of bag is shaped to fit the hanger with the bottom left open or closed. A strip of material about 2 to 3 inches wide set in between the two sections of the bag gives extra depth needed by padded shoulders and full collars. A side opening is most convenient fastened with snaps or a zipper. The eyelet or bound opening at the top should be as small as will admit the wire of the hanger hook. Use a french seam on the sides of this bag instead of tape binding to save expense and make is easier to construct. Tape binding would give a nice trimming effect if desired.

Suit Bag (may also be used for storing blouses) – Made similar to dress bag, but only 40” long and boxed three inches wide at the top and bottom to allow for the extra bulk of the garments. A wire hanger with clothes pins attached provides for hanging the suit skirt.

Using Surplus Cotton Sacks

Large Garment Bag – For storing six or eight garments – made as nearly dust proof as possible. A zipper fastener adds to the expense but insures a tighter bag. Ply board, cut 8 x 20 inches, smoothed with sand paper and painted or covered with inexpensive cambric, is used to form the top and bottom of the bag. Bore holes in the top board at either side center about 1/4” from the edge. Bend a piece of wire 14” long with pliers to form an inside rod and two hooks to hold the bag steady on the closet pole. This wire may be taken from a wire coat hanger. Eyelets the size of the wire are worked in the top of the bag, making it dust proof. Spools or small blocks of wood placed over the wire inside hold it away from the board and allow the garments to be easily hooked into the bag. Small french seams on the outside, similar to those used on slip covers, make an easily constructed, well tailored finish. Tape binding costs more but makes an effective trim. If a zipper fastener is not used, a 3-inch lap should be allowed and the opening fastened with snap fasteners.