Pillow Talk – How to Make a Pillow from Antique Grain Bags


Recently, I attended the wedding of two very special people:  Elena Humphreys and George Tabb.  Both bride and groom are creative artists in different realms, and, prior to the wedding, I knew I wanted to make something special for them that came from the heart.

When Elena announced she was looking for someone to take some fabric off her hands to reduce storage, I was more than thrilled to take her up on that offer.  My grandmother had a saying that stated, “Whoever dies with the most fabric wins!”  I was trying to beat my mother out, but I’m not sure what kind of reward this will entail when I hit the pavement.

Elena showed me these beautiful fabrics she designed.  Then, she pulled out these bags.  There was something exciting about them, but I wasn’t sure why.  She said, “These are antique grain bags.”  She described to me how they were mended and showed me how they were embroidered with initials so people knew which grain bag was their bag.  I was fascinated by the story, and I put them in a special place when I brought them home.



When I received a wedding announcement, I knew immediately I had to make pillows from these bags.  Why?  Elena had told me that she thought the bags would make some really cool pillows and had me promise that I would make her pillows one day.  So, I did.  Knowing how much the details of these bags meant to her, it took me some time to figure out how I was going to make the pillows without changing the integrity of the original bag.

I knew I wanted to place zippers in the pillow covers in case the pillows ever had to be removed.  I ordered upholstery/slipcover zippers.  I also ordered down and feather pillows in the appropriate sizes (two inches larger than the intended size of the pillow cover).  I initially intended to make one red and one blue striped pillow.  To my surprise, when two of the pillows arrived, I realized the red striped bag was too narrow for the pillows I ordered.  That’s my own fault for assuming all things are created equal  Also, the red striped bag had an additional pieces of fabric attached to it that wasn’t going to work right with what I was creating. No problem. I ordered a narrow pillow to create something from the red striped grain bag.

First, the blue striped bag: I wanted to keep as much original stitching in place. I cut the bag in half. It was approximately two inches smaller in height and length than my pillows, but due to trying to get two pillows out of one bag, all sides were not equal.  I knew the fabric had give and that the pillows would work out despite the measurements not being a perfect 23″ by 23″.

After cutting the bag in half, there was a tie on one side and two open ends. I chose to sew the zipper in the end  that I cut to keep the original stitching in the other side. Once I installed the zipper, I put the bag top pieces side by side and stitched them together. You could do this with a basic zig zag stitch. This kept the original hand sewing visible along with the tie string.

On the bottom part of the bag, I had to pin in each side of the zipper. It was trickier because there wasn’t another open end. I basted each side of the zipper in and sewed it down. A heavy duty needle is a must for these bags because it’s like sewing through a canvas or denim fabric, and the layers make it needle breaking worthy.  If you’ve sewn enough, you know what I’m talking about.  There are needles specifically designed for denim.  If you have a needle for silk, you will lose it on this fabric.  Also, the fabric has a tendency to dull needles.

The narrow pillow required more creativity. I originally wanted to install a zipper, but the fabric wasn’t working with me. I had wanted to work it so I could have the red stripes running horizontally. All of these grain bags are different sizes, so giving dimensions, etc. isn’t really helpful to someone attempting this with any bag. This particular bag had pieces added to it. I removed the pieces that had been added onto the bag. I decided the bet method would be to overlap the pieces of fabric. I folded over edges with hems, and then overlapped them so I could fit the pillow into it. I reserved as much as I could from the bag as possible. I cut the tie piece off and attached it to the back with the original stitching still on it.



From scrap pieces of the bag, I pulled threads out with a pin and created a loop with the same character as the tie to pull the tie through to close the pillow. I made a small edge around the pillow for decorative purposes and to give a good fit to the pillow. It’s a little more difficult to get the pillow in and out with this method, but it works when you have limited fabric to use or don’t have much knowledge of zipper installation.


Based on measurements regarding the fabric I had available, I created a pillow cover that overlapped in the back.  I kept original mending because the flaws are what makes these bags so special.


I cut the bag large enough for an edge to go around it.  The rule of thumb with the pillows – after you work out what you want to do with a feather and down pillow, make sure your pillow cover is approximately two inches shorter.  With the smaller pillow, I had to adjust it a bit for the particular pillow because that rule of thumb made the cover too tight.  Just give yourself some room to work with things and take your time measuring and thinking things out.  I’m an experienced seamstress, and the thought process of trying to get what I wanted out of this and making it happen took some time.  I even did things over because I didn’t like how something turned out.  Don’t rush it.  Just take your time.

I apologize for lack of detailed instructions regarding the making of the pillows, but, as I stated, the bags come in different sizes which can cause a person to have to get creative as far as creating a pillow out of them. Antique grain bags are a bit expensive, but there are fabrics created that replicate grain bags of the past that you could get the same look for a lower cost.  Also, you can use less expensive pillows. If you have any embroidery skills or a machine that embroiders, you could replicate an original grain bag look by putting initials on your creation.

And, if you’re wondering how the initial “P” holds up for the new bride and groom, I suppose you need to look them up.   😉


Elena and George – here’s to many years of happiness, new chapters in life, and a story that continues forever.

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3 thoughts on “Pillow Talk – How to Make a Pillow from Antique Grain Bags

  1. Thank You Donna for, hands down , the best gift ever! The fact that you took so much time to make them is amazing (I never got around to make the pillows myself, as I knew how much time and care it would take to make them) They are stunning and something we will cherish forever. I think what it reminded me of is that in our disposable world , people forget how amazing it was when people MADE things for each other. I also luckily enough received a hand knit Blanket from my next door neighbor from where I grew up that we will also cherish. Years from now after George breaks the last of the china we received 🙂 WE will still be loving those pillows (though I think I have to keep them away from George- the great destroyer of all things precious.) xo Elena & George

    1. Donna, I really love these, they’re both elegant and rustic. Thank you for the great post, your talent never ceases to amaze me.

      1. Donna

        That’s so sweet, Shannon! Thank you!

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