Friday, June 30, 2017

Tobacco Cloth?

Top in the Whig's Defeat design, 
Turkey red and a fugitive blue. About 1900.
What did people call these inexpensive solid cottons with a low thread count?

Maybe tobacco cloth?

Late winter in 1907 was time for Breckenridge, Kentucky,
 tobacco farmers to buy their tobacco cloth
for the spring crop.

Tobacco cloth is a gauze used to tent over young tobacco plants to shield them from too much sun. 
This photo from the Library of Congress is from 1940, and shows a field in Connecticut. Apparently farmers make tents from plastic now.

H. D. Reddicks's store used the words Tobacco Bunting or Tobacco Cloth
advertising a sale on the 2-1/2 cent cloth: 2 Cents in 1915.

Competitor S. Marcus advertised the following month:
"We are unable to mention all of the many items in our
store such as Homespuns, Sheeting, Tobacco Cloth, etc."

The question is whether everybody in Kingstree knew that tobacco cloth was a cheap cotton for domestic use, in patchwork, aprons, curtains etc.
Or whether everybody knew the stores were talking about unbleached tobacco cloth to hang over their
Or both.

Katy at KatyQuilts paid $9 for this old top
made from some low quality cotton. You could almost read through the white
 She washed it,
fixed it up and is quilting it now:

Louis Harmuth's 1915 edition of Fairchild's  Dictionary of Textiles described four uses for tobacco cloth.
  • wrapping tobacco [perhaps he'd never seen a tobacco field]
  • antiseptic gauze
  • printed drapery [light-weight cretonne perhaps]
  • flags [bunting]
It seems to me that tobacco cloth, like cheesecloth, was a generic term for low quality cloth. One might wrap cheese in cheesecloth but it had many other uses. In Manning, South Carolina, five years later, Tobacco cloth was listed under Domestics.

Tobacco cloth was 
3 cents a yard when check homespuns were 12-1/2 cents and 
higher quality percales cost 19 cents and 24 cents.

 The term tobacco cloth does seem to have been used to describe a sheer, light cloth with many uses.

In 1922 a fashion note from the New York Tribune suggested
a Russian look. The pictured garment was "blond tobacco cloth
trimmed with steel rings."

In 1949 a New York home economics publication gave advice
on stitching inexpensive curtains from"sheers, such as tobacco cloth."

The Montgomery Ward catalog in 1942 sold:
"In 8-yard cuts: bleached...Tobacco Cloth GOOD— Thread Count 22 x 18."

Pat Sloan sez:
"Most quilt shop quality fabric is made with a thread count of 75 [x 75]."
Read more here:
I'd certainly like to come across an ad that described tobacco cloth in colors. Or an interview with a Southerner who remembered people making quilts from tobacco cloth. I've seen discussions of using tobacco sacks to make patchwork, but they are talking about sacking fabric like sugar or flour sacks...

...small pieces of sacking fabric.

Mrs. Bill Stagg shows a quilt made from tobacco sacks which she ripped up,
dyed, and pieced. Pie Town, New Mexico, 1940. 
Russell Lee Photograph. Library of Congress.

The North Carolina project did interview a woman born in 1908, daughter of a tobacco farmer, who remembered using tobacco cloth in family quilts, but she was not talking about the patchwork:
"In Thelma's opinion a now nearly vanished material 'tobacco cloth,' provided the best batting because it was the softest....Thelma recycled this cover by washing it and carefully spreading it evenly to create batting."
North Carolina Quilts, page 128.

I found an intriguing flag quilt at a site in Texas. The Bonham Public Library displayed this quilt with the family story that it was a tobacco sack quilt made by Texan Lois Graham. I looked for seams in those stripes, thinking "That's a good use for small tobacco sacks. You piece them into a stripe"....but there are no seams in those stripes. The stripes appear to be cut from yardage.

Did family memory confuse the words "tobacco cloth" with "tobacco sack?"

Remember, I am from New York City. I don't know a thing about tobacco cloth except what I read in old books and newspapers. You Southern readers may have a few things to add to the discussion. Please comment.

Here's a another post I wrote on Southern cloth in quilts.


  1. Thank you Barbara for a great story about tobabocco cloth. It is very interesting to read about. I feel smarter now.

  2. I grew up in North Carolina in tobacco country. Tobacco cloth was just like the photo that you show of the very loosely woven gauze like fabric used to provide shade for seedlings.
    The very labor intensive production of tobacco required the use of this gauze for several weeks after the plants were transplanted, while they got established.
    In 1970, our junior class went around and asked farmers for worn out tobacco cloths that we used to make a low ceiling for the Junior Senior Prom. We took the cloths and dyed them purple in outdoor bathtubs and sewed them together making a huge gym sized cloth. This was tied up to provide the ceiling.
    This cloth is a cheap gauze and not as closely woven as any of the fabrics used in the quilts that you show. I never saw anyone try to make any type of object from the old tobacco cloths other than rags.

  3. I'm thinking maybe the "tobacco cloth" for sewing use might have just been a slightly sarcastic term for low thread count dry goods, like saying "that material is so thin it's almost like tobacco cloth."

  4. Barbara, I grew up on a tobacco farm. Tobacco cloth is grade 90
    Cheesecloth. Growing up on a tobacco farm in eastern NC I know all about it. I just did a google and apparently "Pinterest brides" will drape it on anything that stands still.
    I have at least one quilt (and maybe more) that has several layers of tobacco cloth inside it rather than batting. This happened often with poor folks who made scrap quilts. It is a soft "batting" but the devil to quilt so the quilting stitches are pretty long.
    Tobacco seeds are very very tiny and expensive. Farmers would plant the seeds in about 5 feet or so wide beds and the beds were at least 12-15 feet long. The beds were then covered with tobacco cloth to protect the seeds from birds eating them, rain run off, and to keep them warm for germination. The seeds would be planted in February. The plants would be pulled in April and be transplanted into rows in the fields.
    I have seen quilts that tobacco cloth was also used for piecing. It is a pretty poor substitute for regular muslin. Very thin!
    If you would like to see photos let me know. I am pretty sure I can find the quilts that have this material used as a batting and also as patchwork pieces.
    End of farming lesson. Lynn Lancaster Gorges, New Bern, NC

  5. I am curious if tobacco farmers today still use tobacco cloth for these same purposes? Or is there a new material that has replaced tobacco cloth? Thanks.

  6. I have a tobacco sack quilt that was pieced by my great grandmother. It was died with walnut hulls and Polk berries. It is pinkish red, blue and the natural sack. It was given to my mother and father for a wedding gift. They have been married for 65 years. It was in their cedar chest for years. It was the pieced quilt top and the backing made from flower sacks. It wasn’t put together. I had it hand quilted when I got it.