Finished: 1930s Dust Bowl Dress

1930s feedsack print dress

Outfit Details

1930s Dust Bowl Dress – Made by Me
Pink Wicker Handbag – Marks & Spencer (years ago!)
1930s Style Sunglasses – eBay
1930s Style Yellow Shoes – Hotter Shoes
1930s Jade Drop Earrings – Gift

The term ‘dust bowl’ comes from a period in 1930s when severe dust storms ravaged the landscape in the American and Canadian prairies. These storms created a severe drought and many farms in these regions failed to produce any crops. The first wave of storms came in 1934 at a time when every day Americans were already suffering greatly from the effects of the Depression.

Out of this devastation and poverty came a fashion known as the dust bowl dress. The style was simple, wearable but also incredibly stylish. Women used whatever they could to add interest and detail to the basic early 1930s shape and often mixed different fabrics they had scraps of. During this time producers of flour and feed realised that women were using their sack packaging to create clothing and decided to print them with very distinct patterns rather than leaving them plain.

1930s dust bowl dress

Today these prints are instantly recognisable as being from the 1930s dust bowl or Depression era. They’re often brightly coloured and have that real Art Deco feel about them. However, purchasing an original feedsack is not only costly but also almost impossible if you want to buy matching ones to make a dress. But not all is lost, there is a sector of the fabric industry that reproduces these 1930s prints and that’s the quilting cotton sector. (Quilting was huge during the 1930s and the distinct 1930s quilt was made from small scraps of feedsack fabric and matched with plain fabric.)

1930s feedsack print dress - back

So, when I stumbled across Country Threads Patchwork in Bath whilst on a hunt for a particular wool shop, and walked into a room full of 1930s printed quilting cotton, you can probably imagine my excitement. I’d seen this type of fabric online but had never seen it in real life, so literally had no idea of the weight or feel of it. It was great to finally be able to see it and touch it for myself.

Unfortunately for me, it is quite a heavy and stiff fabric, despite being 100% cotton. It’s not ideal for 1930s dressmaking but when I spotted this absolutely amazing green, pink, yellow and cream print I just could not resist. I knew I had to try and make something from it but also knew that it was going to be a complete experiment, which could go either way.

1930s dust bowl dress

Now this fabric isn’t cheap and it’s also not very wide, so at £13 a metre and only 110 cms wide, I chose just two metres. I knew this wasn’t going to be enough to make a whole dress, so I decided to take a leaf out of the dust bowl ladies book and match it with a plain fabric. I decided to go with quilting cotton again to make sure the weights were the same, but as it was plain it was much cheaper. I chose cream rather than any of the bright colours to make sure it really stood out.

1930s dust bowl dress buckle

When I pinned the cream yoke onto the main fabric I thought it still looked a little bit too plain for a dust bowl dress. It needed something to go between the plain and the patterned fabric. It was common during this era to add bias binding or ric rac to define certain areas, so I went digging in all of my trimmings boxes. Eventually I pulled out yellow ric rac, bright pink ribbon and green bias binding. I spent ages trying to decide which one of them to use but in the end the yellow ric rac won out. It was from a card of different coloured ric rac scraps my mum had back in the 1970s, so it fitted the bill of just using what I had perfectly.

The buckle is an original 1930s celluloid one and again was in my stash. I did try a yellow one and a cream one but this green one was the most special and stands out perfectly against the pattern. The bows, however, are my favourite bit. They were so easy to make but look so cute. I can just imagine a lady in the 1930s making these from little scraps of feedsack and adding them to an old dress to liven it up again.

1930s dust bowl dress - skirt detail

The skirt part is a 1930s classic and simple slight A-line shape with a single kick pleat in the centre. In typical 1930s fashion, the front and back of the skirt are just one piece of fabric each and the pleat is just created by top stitching the folded pieces above the knee. There’s no messing about with matching up a separate back piece to the pleat, just fold, top stitch and press. Also, there’s no waist seam line. Again, in typical 1930s fashion, it’s what they call a one-piece dress, i.e. the skirt and bodice are all in one, rather than being two separate sections you sew together.

1930s feedsack print dress - back

The darts on both the front and back waist areas were not part of the original pattern and you can read more about why I chose to add them here. They’re not ideal but it does mean that the shape suits me better. There’s still a little bit too much fabric around the waist line as it folds in a couple of places when the belt is pulled tight. If this had been a much softer fabric, i.e. much more of what would’ve been used back in the 1930s, then this would’ve gathered nicely around the waist and there would’ve been no need for the darts.

1930s feedsack print dress

Despite the troubles I had with dress and the messing about with the pattern, I am sort of happy with it. I would say about 70% happy!  I did get a lot of compliments when I wore it on Sunday, which did help me feel a bit better about it. And I do still looooovvvvveeeee that print!

So, what did I learn from this experiment?

  1. Never use quilting cotton for 1930s dresses ever again. It’s not suitable and is far stiffer than what would’ve been used originally. It could work for a skirt though.
  2. Always, always do a mock-up first. I was too eager with this dress and had some serious fitting issues that would’ve been ironed out at the toile stage.
  3. I need more casual, easy to wear dresses from the earlier 1930s because, despite the 26 degree heat, this was so comfortable to wear and I didn’t feel sticky at all.

Cate

Just a vintage gal suffering from the Golden Age syndrome. Lover of all things old, lingerie obsessive, crafter and enjoys rummaging at flea markets.

41 Comments

  1. Fantastic dress! Great job 🙂 I love the pattern, you were right to take it home.

    • Thanks Liz! I’ve still got a little bit of the fabric left, so now I’m trying to think of how I can incorporate it into something else. It’s such a beautiful print! xx

  2. It’s a lovely dress!
    It’s a shame that these fabulous 1930s prints are not made in a lighter weight – I’ve been similarly tempted to use them in the past but the fabric really is too stiff. I guess not enough of us make our our clothes for the manufacturers to think it worthwhile to make dressmaking weight fabrics in more prints. It’s sad

    • Thanks Norma. Yes, I know, it’s so disappointing that it’s not available in a cotton lawn or a viscose, I know loads of people who would just snap it up. xx

  3. The dress is really lovely, Cate, and looks so 1930s! The bows are the perfect finishing touch. I often use quilting cotton for my sewing (3 different decades including the 1930s) and have found that how well it works or not really depends on the cotton since it can vary from heavy to thin, and stiff to soft. And of course the pattern has to work with a cotton – it doesn’t drape. This one looks great!

    • Thanks Kristen! This fabric really was too stiff for this pattern. It probably would’ve been okay in a skirt or a lightweight jacket but for the style of the dress it needed a softer cotton. The main problem with modern cottons is the way it’s produced. Cottons from the past were much softer and had more of a hang to them because they didn’t have so many chemicals in them. It’s a shame but thankfully organic cottons are being produced in much more interesting prints than they used to be. xx

  4. I love this dress, the fabric is gorgeous and the bows so cute! Which pattern did you use, or did you design it yourself?

    I have a 1950s dress made from quilting cotton and the skirt hangs and twirls beautifully but the bodice is a little stiff around the neckline.

  5. Like all makers you’re looking at this and seeing the flaws, whereas I looked at this and swooned over such a delectable 1930s dress (and that belt buckle!!). It may not be perfect, but I think that makes it more true to the spirit of the 1930s. I’m sure those women living in the dustbowl didn’t have perfect dresses either- like you, they were working with what they had to create an everyday version of the ideal. I think we’re a bit too prone to falling for the ‘BBC-washing’ (or maybe ‘PBS-washing’ in this case!) of historical fashions, where we get our inspiration from movies and tv shows where the costumes are all perfect and highly stylised. Which is a longwinded way of saying, that dress is gorgeous!

    • hehehe, thank you Kate! It doesn’t help that I’m a total perfectionist either! It’s funny you saying about BBC-washing, I’ve actually seen some costumes up close that have been used for some of the most successful shows and they do have quite a few flaws in them. The clever costume and camera people are just so good at making them look perfect on the final production. xx

  6. its so pretty, that print is amazing and nice use of the white ‘bib’, you have styled it beautifully as always

    • Oh, thank you Eimear! I do like a different coloured bib, it’s such a classic 1930s detail. xx

  7. Such a gorgeous dress – and perfect in that sunlight and perfect with those fabulous shoes. Thanks for the history too – I had no idea! Kx

    • Thanks Karen! Yes, I thought the blazing sun kind of went well with this dress to give it that dust bowl look. The shoes were from Hotter and actually didn’t look like that when I bought them. They had a wide t-bar between the main shoe part and the strap but I didn’t like it. I cut it off and very patiently sewed the leaving edge shut, so it didn’t fall apart! xx

  8. I love how this dress has turned out in the end, even with all the hurdles you came across. The cream yoke with the yellow ric rac is genius and I love the bows and that fabulous belt buckle. Well done, Cate! xxx

    • Thank you Ann! Yes, I’m happy that it turned out as well as it did. I had expected to not like it at all about half way through the making up process. xx

  9. Very pretty! I love the practical 1930s inspiration that you chose – it looks easy to wear and quite cute, two very important things when putting together an outfit!
    Is there any way to soften up a fabric? A few cycles through the washer, maybe? (As a total non-sewer, please feel free to tell me that I have no idea what I’m talking about.)

    • Thank you Jessica! I’m not sure it will soften in the wash, but I have my fingers crossed that it will. It’s probably the only thing that will have any effect on the stiffness. xx

  10. Such a beautiful dress and thank you for talking about the history of ‘the dust bowl dress’.

    • Thank you and you’re welcome. I always think it’s important to share information like this, so everyone understands the history behind the dress. xx

  11. This is such a cute and pretty dress. The fabric print is so cheery, perfect for a sunny day. I like the bows and the ric rac too. Looks fantastic on you. Your hair is extra specially good here too!

    • Aw, thank you! I’m trying to leave my hair a bit more natural after I’ve curled it and not pin it back. It worked well this day but it proved rather annoying over this last weekend. I need to figure out the best way to set it to make sure it doesn’t just keep flopping forward. xx

  12. Even with the difficulties this dress turned out very cute! I love the belt buckle too, I really need to make a few things with the buckles I have started accumulating. I know the pain of quilting cotton very well, it’s so incredibly annoying to me that all printed cotton fabric producers seem to make is quilting cotton. Most of the fabric shops here have mountains of colorful and fun prints but only in darn quilting cotton! If they made just a fraction of the same prints in an apparel weight I, and I’m sure many other dress makers, would be so happy! I realize quilters are a huge part of the fabric market, but perhaps more people would make clothes if there were more fabrics available to them! Liberty makes lovely lighter weight cottons of course, but they are just so expensive. This subject is endlessly irritating to me obviously, ha!

    • It’s funny, quilting really isn’t that big here but you can find quilting cotton everywhere! With the Great British Sewing Bee dressmaking is really popular in the UK, but we rely so heavily on imported fabrics that we have no choice. It’s one of the reasons I’ve started looking at organic and UK produced fabrics. Hopefully, this will improve in the future. And yes, Liberty cotton lawns are beautiful, but I generally only ever buy them when they’re on sale! xx

  13. What a beautiful dress you created. Did you prewash use white vinegar in the wash & fabric softener in rinse cycle? I’ve found it really helps.

    • Thank you! No I didn’t. I’m terrible at not washing fabric before I get started, I’m far too impatient. I’ve been dressmaking for over 20 years and have never had any major issues with not pre-washing, so I can’t see me starting any time soon 🙂

  14. The dress looks gorgeous on you! I love the way the bows turned out! Even though you pointed out all the flaws I still can’t really see them. I’ve had the same problem before of falling in love with a quilter’s cotton print but knowing it would be too stiff for apparel. I did successfully make a blouse from quilter’s cotton, but it was very fitted so the fabric didn’t need to drape or gather.

    • Thank you Kate, it’s lovely to hear that you can’t see all of the flaws that I can. I’m far too much of a perfectionist and I’m never happy with anything I make! I may end up using quilting cotton again but it will only ever be for something like a skirt or a fitted blouse. xx

  15. I can only agree with a previous comment – as the maker you can only see the flaws, whereas everyone else sees a stunning dress. I agree with you about quilting cottons though; I see all these lovely prints, and just know that they won’t work for dresses. xx

    • I know, it doesn’t help that I’m a perfectionist, and quite frankly never happy with anything I make! xx

  16. Well I think this dress is a stunner! You persevered marvellously despite the issues, and it turned out fantastic! Lesson learnt here about quilting cotton – I often wondered about its suitability for dressmaking but will leave it alone! X

    • Aw, thank you! Quilting cotton would be fine for something like a 1950s circle skirt because it needs the stiffness in the fabric to create the sharper look, but 1930s dresses were soft and drapey, so it’s just the wrong fibre makeup to get a more period authentic look. xx

  17. Well, it looks adorable, and I have to say that those little bows are my favourite part and up the cute factor a few points all by themselves!

    • Thank you Tanith! The bows were so simple to make, but yet so effective. I’m definitely going to use the pattern on something else I make in the future. xx

  18. This fabric is adorable, so I can see why you had to use it despite it being on the heavier side! And yes-ALWAYS do a toile! Every time I don’t, I regret it bitterly! And thank you for the history of these garments. I hadn’t heard of them before. So interesting!

    • Yep, ALWAYS do a toile! This is probably the first time ever that I haven’t but boy, did I learn my lesson. xx

  19. Oh boy I’m so in love with the print! I’m currently obsessed with feedsack prints at the moment but I totally agree with you on the value-for-money POV. I find that some Japanese lawn fabrics have small floral prints that are similar to feedsack prints, might be worth checking them out! xGwen

    • Yes, I spotted some Japanese lawn fabric on Etsy that had a 1930s feel to them. I immediately added them to my wish list but I haven’t gotten around to ordering any yet. xx

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