“Save the Planet – Use a Cotton Bag”: An Interview with Gillian Vogelsang-Eastwood

Our use of plastic has recently led to some harrowing discoveries: potentially dangerous contamination in bottled water and the sea of plastic floating in the Caribbean to name but two. The quiet Hogewoerd in Leiden might seem an unlikely place to find a solution to this devastation, but the Textile Research Centre’s current exhibition offers insight into a method from times past for handling the crisis, that involves a more frugal way of living. “For a few sacks more…” displays printed feedsacks, which were reused for clothing and household items during the Great Depression. VOX Leiden spoke to the centre’s founder and director, Gillian Vogelsang-Eastwood, about the collection and its relevance in today’s times.

Relatively few people are aware of the existence of feedsacks or how they were used. “It was totally unknown, so I had to look it up. I suddenly realised there was a really interesting story here,” says Gillian. From the mid-1920s, throughout the Great Depression and onwards into the 1950s, sacks used for animal feed and other products were remade into clothing. The manufacturers caught on, and began printing patterns onto the feedsacks, and eventually they were used not only out of necessity, but as a mark of patriotism during the 1940s—even becoming a somewhat glamorous statement in the 1950s. “That’s why you’ve got photos of Marilyn Monroe wearing a potato sack and Lucille Ball from I Love Lucy doing a programme about feedsack clothing,” says Gillian.

Although the stories behind the use of feedsacks are fascinating, there is much it can teach us about our current use of materials. “With all of the problems we have with plastics, it fitted the moment,” says Gillian. Indeed, anyone who has done their groceries at a Dutch supermarket in the past few years will have noticed the excessive use of plastic packaging. Gillian agrees: “I saw a single carrot wrapped in plastic. Why, what’s the point? You buy this carrot wrapped in plastic and you put it in a plastic bag.”

So what can we do, and what can we learn from the exhibition? “It should be pushed commercially: save the planet; use a cotton bag,” says Gillian. There are already initiatives in some countries to reduce the use of plastic, for example, the 5-cent charge for a plastic bag in shops. Many people use cotton bags, which is itself not problem-free: “Cotton is very greedy with respect to water, but there are other fibres,” says Gillian, “for example, seaweed, maize and milk, which produces a really nice, shiny cloth.”

These are certainly alternatives to using plastic, and although our modern lifestyles bring very few of us into contact with feedsacks, we could revive the spirit of reusing. According to Gillian, there are glimmers of hope, as since the 2009 global recession there has been a rise in awareness and interest in handicrafts and making one’s own clothes. While we are no longer making clothes from flour sacks, learning to reuse could be a way to lessen the use of plastic.

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The Textile Research Centre Leiden offers workshops, exhibitions, resources and literature on textiles and the study of textiles. “For a few sacks more…” runs until 28th June 2018. Visit https://www.trc-leiden.nl/ for more information.

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