What I Learned From a Feed-Sack Dress

When my son was 13, he told me about a comedian he had heard on television the night before. It seems this person "was so poor" when he was growing up, that when he showed up for school in new clothes, the other kids yelled, "Hey, here comes Page 25 of the Sears catalog!" Not to be outdone (or miss the opportunity to make him roll his eyes and look for the nearest exit), I countered that when I was growing up, that would have been a compliment.

He'd heard my lectures before - the ones about hard work building character and humble surroundings building compassion. He'd heard my rendition of "we were so poor that any time I wanted to bake a cake, I had to wait for the hen to lay an egg." (OK, maybe that was an exaggeration, but not by much.)

This time, as I was leading into the feed-sack dress story, he bolted for the door, informing me he'd heard it before.

I suppose it's hard for a young man who sports designer labels to relate to something as mundane as hard times, or to understand a mother's ravings about not everyone being as fortunate as he. Sometimes it's even difficult for me to remember what happened back then, but to do so helps keep life in perspective.

EVEN before prestigious labels ever appeared on jeans and blouses for ordinary little girls, the origins of clothes were a status symbol. In the rural South, mothers and daughters drew the battle lines not between name brands, but between "homemade" and "ready made." These were only skirmishes, however. The real conflicts arose when the material happened to come, not from the fabric store, but from the feed store. I was about 8 when my rebellion began.

Except for one or two dresses painstakingly picked from the Sears Roebuck catalog, Mother made our clothes. Still, the money never quite stretched far enough. Since I was the youngest and the smallest, my wardrobe was often supplemented by a freebie, much to my chagrin.

Each time Daddy went to Russell's Store to buy 100-pound sacks of feed for the cows, Mother went along to help him pick it out. Instead of ordinary brown burlap bags, this grain and meal was packed in printed fabric, stiff and sturdy, perfect for fashioning dresses for small, active girls. And I hated it.

I never minded the blouses made from flour sacks; they were soft and smooth, and the material could have come from anywhere. But the flour only came in five-pound bags, and Mother could never collect enough of the same pattern to make anything big. Therefore, flour sacks were for blouses, feed sacks for dresses.

In spite of all her words about how nice these dresses looked, about how this stiff, woven material looked like starched linen, I knew the truth. I could tell. Anyone could tell. And sure enough, eventually they did.

Mother had found a couple of feed sacks exactly alike, a beautiful deep red with sets of tiny multicolored rings, like entwined Cheerios, printed throughout. Under her skilled hands, they became a summer dress with a full skirt falling in folds from my waist. This one I liked, and as soon as it was finished, I wore it to school.

One friend thought it was pretty; but another girl eyed it with all the scrutiny a third-grader could possess. Then she said, "Isn't that a feed sack? Hey everybody, Mary Lou's wearing a feed sack!" For the rest of the day, my face was as red as my dress.

I never wore it to school again, never forgot the incident, and never forgot the lessons of humility that were forced upon me that day. In this short span of time, I had learned how ridicule hurts when you're on the receiving end. I had learned to make my judgments of people by how they treated others, and not by what they wore.

Still, I was glad when I finally grew too big for my dress patterns to fit across those bags that had been ripped open, washed, ironed, and spread across the bed. My feed-sack dress days were finally over. Mother had been right about one thing, though.

A patch of this red dress is sewn into a quilt top that she made from outgrown clothes. In retrospect, this scrap of fabric, some 40 years old, really does look like a piece of worn linen.

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