The utilitarian grain sack is now at home in the living room as it was in the barn.
Repurposed grain, feed and flour sacks are popping up in home decor items from purveyors as upscale as French Laundry for Horchow to as plain-spun as rural Minnesota occasional sales. What's the appeal?
"They're soft and beautiful without being precious," said Style Minneapolis owner Shayne Barsness, who sells pillows made from the sacks at her boutique. "My store is all one of a kind, so that's why I love grain sacks. I have a thing for fonts, and I love the typography on them."
Ron Kelsey, who exhibits a collection of vintage grain sacks at the Minnesota State Fair, uses them to decorate his home in Lamberton, Minn. "A lot of people frame them for their graphic quality or use them as curtains," he said. "They can be used in cabinets that have windows in them in the kitchen, or as a throw over a small table. ... Some have a Christmas theme and we use them then. It's definitely easy to use them in the fall, the ones with grain or vegetable themes."
According to Kelsey, vintage fabric sacks vary in their suitability for home furnishings. That's because grain sacks were made with dye that would wash out immediately so they could be re-used as dish towels or underwear. On the other hand, flour and feed sacks were made with permanent dye so they could be remade into dresses and aprons. (His seven sisters were dressed this way, Kelsey said, and he remembers his mother buying matching sacks at the grocery store each time she made a dress.)
Prices for the sacks vary. Dirty sacks are less likely to be prized, Kelsey said, because laundering them can often remove the pattern. But a dirty sack with its pattern can be more valuable than one that's faded. "I saw one sell at an auction for about $500 in southern Minnesota five, six years ago," Kelsey said. But "run-of-the-mill" pieces sell often for $20 or $25, he said, whereas "10 years ago it was $5."
The look seems to have hit a chord with mass marketers, too. Ballard Designs has French striped pillow covers made from vintage linen sacks ($52 each) and Pottery Barn has a sack table runner that retails for $79. There are knockoffs, as well. Viva Terra makes an area rug based on a French design for $69.
Partly because of their popularity and also because of the disappearing ink, grain sacks are harder to find than they once were, Kelsey said. He used to frequent auctions in his search, but now seeks out most purchases on eBay. Barsness said she heads "out to the country" to search, "to the little antique shops. I'm a digger. The farther out you get, the better chance you have of finding them."
Will coffee bags be the next wave? Mark Christenson, vice president of marketing for Dunn Brothers, said the Minnesota-grown coffee company gets many requests for its 50-pound bags. (It's up to each franchisee to decide how to handle the requests, he said.)
"Usually they want to make something out of them," Christenson said. "I've seen all kinds of very creative handbags, purses, large duffel bags, backpacks."
"Pillows, yes," he said. "Curtains I've not heard of."
Kim Yeager • 612-673-4899