Functional History: Repurposed Vintage Grain Sacks


“Bridlechair” using German grain sacks, 3 Fine Grains

Repurposed grain sacks have made a welcomed design appearance in the past couple of years, and it doesn’t seem to be a passing trend. Check out some more inspired applications of these old workhorses below, from upholstery to lampshades.  Grain sacks are inherently durable, pest-resistant and their understated, nubby texture is equally at home in rustic, traditional or contemporary spaces.

A fair quantity of vintage grain sack material is available, and prices vary depending on origin, rarity, quality, condition, etc.   For some background information to assist with your hunt… American grain sacks tend to be either thin or thicker cotton.  Thin cotton stock often has imagery dyed into the fabric. Conversely, thicker cotton sacks have imagery printed onto the face of the fabric and can have stripes sewn integrally in the bag fabric and are suitable for upholstery. Unfortunately, the thin cotton variety often fades and bleeds when washed while the thicker, printed selections are less likely to.

European grain sacks are highly prized and are heavier, made out of hemp or flax. The background colors vary (off-white to flax to grey) and demarcation markings, usually stripes, are sewn in the bag, sometimes with embroidered or stenciled initials.  Like lobster buoys and livestock branding, the markings visually signified the farm from which the sacks belonged, and allowed the bags to be re-circulated to the owner once the grain was deposited at the mill.

In particular, German grain sacks are considered the paragon of the grain sack world – they’re rarer (many didn’t survive the war) and a bit softer than other European sacks.  They  are stenciled in a tar-based black with the name of the farm and the date it was established and frequently an animal silhouette or decorate symbol associated with the farm.  German bags often show a number on the bag face for inventory purposes, 1 to 99.   Hand-painted bags pre-date the stenciled bags, usually prior to 1890.

One-of-a kind, these everyday relics are striking and enchanting repurposed into another form or simply as artwork in themselves.




Special thanks for providing me with valuable background information, inspiration and imagery:


Denyse Schmidt Quilts: Art For Your Bed

“Drunk Love in a Log Cabin”, Signature Design

The first time I saw Denyse Schmidt’s quilts years ago, I felt as if I’d been pleasantly hit in the head by a hefty box of crayons.  A quilter myself, I’ve quietly followed her work, lurking online and admiring her spare, brilliant wizardry.  Often described as “painterly”, her exhilaratingly colorful, simple designs are reminiscent of Mark Rothko and Newman Barnett’s color field paintings of the 1960’s. Although abstract and decidedly “modern”, Schmidt’s designs are actually rooted in an American tradition when early quilts were utilitarian and elemental, in contrast to later pieces, which tended to be more carefully constructed, decorative heirlooms.

Schmidt discloses “…what inspired me to begin in the first place were quilts that were very old, but looked modern. Especially fifteen years ago when I started the business most people who were making contemporary quilts weren’t really referencing the simplicity or the limited color palette or the kind of quirkiness of some of those really old quilts.  That was the driving force for me-I felt like these (traditional) quilts would fit in a modern interior, they seemed like modern paintings to me….”1

Made of pre-washed cotton or wool, depending on the collection, the quilts are designed by and pieced in her Bridgeport, CT studio, occupying a historic building which was coincidentally previously home to the American Fabrics Company.  Schmidt works with a group of Minnesota Amish women to finely hand-quilt the Couture quilt line while the Works quilts are machine finished in the studio and offer a quicker lead time.  In spite of their artful spirit, the quilts are designed to be used as bed coverings.

Highly sought out, Schmidt’s creations, to name a few, have been commissioned for Philip Johnson’s Glass House, and Stone House Inn in Rhode Island, where she made fifteen custom-designed quilts and pillow shams to complement a modern renovation of the historic seaside resort.  Undeniably diverse, Denyse Schmidt’s quilts ingeniously bridge the gap between old and new, traditional and modern, dynamic and repose, craft and art.


1  Kristin Link interview with Denyse Schmidt, April 2, 2012 at blog.