Happy September! As the crazy, hectic days of summer become a memory, our thoughts are turning to fall. For me, I love all things farmhouse, rustic, vintage and historical to decorate with. And kitchen linens come to mind, such as embroidered towels. They remind us of home warmth and the upcoming holidays.

History of vintage towels

Back in the early 1900s, country housewives would cut up old linen animal feed sacks, which could be called “chicken linen,” and flour sacks. At the time, these came with printed and multi-colored trademark symbols. In order to turn the bags into usable fabric for stitching, a homemaker would attempt to remove the ink. If that wasn’t successful, she simply reversed the bag and used the other side.

Soon manufacturers got the idea and began printing their bags with labels glued to cloth bags for easy removal. There were about 42 companies that made feed sack cloth bags. One of the largest feed sack manufacturers was Bemis Brothers of Minneapolis, which had offices in a number of cities throughout the United States.

In the 1930s, General Mills started packaging flour, sugar, and other foods into colorful cloth sacks that could be recycled. They even used washable ink for their logos and printed information so that it would wash away and leave a nice piece of cloth.

Newsletter signup for email alerts

Companies like McCall’s, Simplicity and Aunt Martha’s saw a market and began manufacturing iron-on transfers that were simple and could be stitched quickly to make embroidered towels. Do you know that you can still purchase Aunt Martha’s patterns? Yes, they can be found at places like Fleet Farm and Walmart. Vintage patterns can be found in some antique shops/malls, on eBay and Etsy, and some popular patterns are now being reprinted found on Amazon. Vintage patterns and towels can still be found at garage, estate and flea-market sales.

Finding towels

The value is high for the those from the late 1800s to the early 1900s, but sometimes more sentimental value vs. auction value, unless we're talking about a very unique early piece such as those found in “Vintage Stitching Treasury” by Suzanne McNeill.

Where are these found locally? Sylvia Bauer, of Country Side Antique Mall, Cannon Falls, says, “We do have embroidered flour sack towels in our mall. Sets of seven range $40-$48. Singles range $6.50-$13. The singles seem to be more popular. Mostly bought for decorative use. With the farmhouse being a popular look I think they are being purchased mostly for home decor.”

Sarah Kieffer, Sarah’s Uniques, St. Charles: “I have many different types of tea towels that include the embroidered in the shop. Ranging in price from $5 to sets, for example Sunday through Saturday embroidered towels at $40 to $50 a set. It seems like both the older and newer generations are buying. Some use them every day, some display and some like to switch them out for different times of the year and holidays, too.”

Bobbi Schlesselman, The Cat-Tail, Fountain City, Wisconsin: “The hand stitched embroidered towels are in a variety of wine, coffee, tea, cats, fruits, vegetables, pie and more selling for $5 each. People buy them for themselves and for gifts pairing with a kitchen utensil. They are time-consuming and my crafter works all winter on getting them ready, but usually by July I am almost out and she brings in a few at a time throughout the rest of the season. She also is particular on the size of the towel and the thickness. She makes them as they have been made for years,very usable.”

Shayna Dais, Rusty Bucket, Winona: “We have several vintage hand embroidered towels in the shop. We will have lots of designs for fall at our next sale, Sept. 12-13, from hand-embroidered to the machine-embroidered towels.”

Sandy Erdman is a Winona-based freelance writer and certified appraiser concentrating on vintage, antique and collectible items. Send comments and story suggestions to Sandy at life@postbulletin.com.