Northern State University opens ‘Thrift Style’ October 2020

Feed sack fabrics from library exhibit

ABERDEEN, S.D. – A nationally touring exhibition opens this week in Williams Library on the campus of Northern State University. 

“Thrift Style” explores the reuse of feed sacks to make clothing and other household objects and illuminates how the “upcycling” of these bags mutually benefitted 20th-century consumers and businesses.

With 41 works from patterns to garments, it serves as an example of past ingenuity that can inform today’s efforts towards sustainability. This exhibit is hosted by the South Dakota Germans from Russia Cultural Center, which is also located in Williams Library. Dress from library exhibit

“The Germans from Russia are renowned for their ingenuity, hard work and thrift, and many of the themes found in this exhibit are also reflected in the story of the Germans from Russia,” said Robert Russell, director of Williams Library. “The time period covered by ‘Thrift Style’ was a difficult one all over the Great Plains, and the story told in the exhibit is focused on both the producers and the consumers and how they managed through very difficult times.”

The exhibition is organized by the Historic Costume and Textile Museum and the Marianna Kistler Beach Museum of Art, both at Kansas State University, and ExhibitsUSA, a program of Mid-America Arts Alliance. It provides a nostalgic view into American ingenuity, sensibility and optimism during a particularly challenging time of economic hardship and war—the period of the Great Depression and World War II. The reuse of feed, flour and sugar sacks was a cost-saving and resource-saving approach employed by homemakers to make new items to meet their families’ needs.

In the 1920s and 30s, manufacturers began producing patterned and colored feed sacks to give home seamstresses more options. During World War II, the federal government limited fabric use for individual garments and homemakers were obligated to use thrifty approaches to repurpose what was available to them. As fabrics from feed sacks were not considered a limited resource, women turned to them as an accessible and patriotic option during the war effort. In response, trade organizations and manufacturers promoted the thrifty use of feed sack fabric by publishing how-to brochures and booklets with clothing designs, mending instructions and other suggestions for restyling clothes.

The artifacts in the exhibition demonstrate a mutual goal of sustainability, with local businesses—mills and feed and seed operations—tailoring product design and marketing campaigns to attract customers; and consumers using their imaginations and practical skills to tailor clothing, aprons, quilts, dolls and more out of the industry’s byproduct: feed sack cotton. Flour from library exhibit

The exhibit, which will be on display at Williams Library through Nov. 30, is free and open for public viewing from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday-Friday. To accommodate appropriate social distancing, groups of 10 or fewer are able to view the exhibit at one time. Please note that masks are required, as mandated by the S.D. Board of Regents. For more information, call 605-626-7770.

About Northern State University

Northern State University is a student-centered institution that provides an outstanding educational experience, preparing students through the liberal arts and professional education for their future endeavors. A regional university, Northern offers rigorous academics; diverse civic, social and cultural opportunities; and a commitment to building an inclusive environment for all points of view. Northern also offers a broad-based athletics program, sponsoring 15 NCAA Division II intercollegiate varsity sports that compete in the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (NSIC). The university strives to enrich the community through partnerships such as its Educational Impact Campaign, which opened a new South Dakota School for the Blind and Visually Impaired; new athletic and recreation fields; and, soon, an on-campus regional sports complex. With the $55 million campaign, NSU has been the recipient of more than $120 million in privately funded building projects and scholarships within a decade. To learn more, visit NSU Admissions.

About ExhibitsUSA

This exhibition is toured by ExhibitsUSA, a national program of Mid-America Arts Alliance. ExhibitsUSA sends more than twenty-five exhibitions on tour to over 100 small- and mid-sized communities every year. These exhibitions create access to an array of arts and humanities experiences, nurture the understanding of diverse cultures and art forms, and encourage the expanding depth and breadth of cultural life in local communities. For more about ExhibitsUSA, email or visit