November 17, 2018
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Maine artist offers new take on farm-to-table

Given their choice of barnyard animals to shop with, Mainers tend to opt for pigs, says a crafty Swanville woman who transforms used feed bags into grocery totes.

“Pigs are the biggest seller,” said Jes Vaillancourt. “People just love pigs!”

Vaillancourt, 31, was a part-time farm hand when discarded polypropylene feed bags caught her eye.

“In a lot of cases, they have the most gorgeous images on them,” she said. “It seemed like such a shame to throw them out. I thought there’s got to be something better.”

And there was. She delved into Pinterest, looking for ideas to help her turn the feed bags into tote bags.Then she got to work.

Now, Vaillancourt is finding that other people like the bags and zipper pouches, too. Through her new home business, EcoTotes, she sells them for $8 as environmentally friendly alternatives to plastic grocery bags. With single-use plastic bags now banned in Bath, Belfast, Brunswick and Freeport, her timing was good.

“It’s been very gratifying to me to do something that can make a difference,” Vaillancourt said.

She’s part of a long American tradition of making do with the materials on hand. In the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s, farm women who couldn’t afford to buy fabric turned feed sacks and flour bags into dresses, towels, quilts and more. During World War II, a civilian shortage of cotton fabric spurred manufacturers of flour sacks and feed bags to use bright colors and cheerful designs—making for prettier dresses.

But post-war prosperity meant ready-made clothes were more affordable. Repurposing cloth bags fell out of favor. That’s why, when 15 years ago Maine artisan Julia Ventresco began turning flour bags and feed bags into totes, she didn’t have other examples to guide her.

“I just kept saving these bags. They had such beautiful graphics, I couldn’t bear to throw them away,” she said. “I thought, ‘Oh, my gosh, this is such a strong bag. I could just cut it down a little bit, put a handle on it and use it as a tote bag.’ I had never seen anything like it before.”

Ventresco’s tote bags were a success and helped her start her Ellsworth-based company, One Woman Studio. She uses found, recycled or what she calls “upcycled” materials to make beautiful things, including scarves, wallets, throws and all sorts of creative bags. Her prices are higher than Vaillancourt’s, with her upcycled feed bag totes with details such as an interior pocket and lining starting at $34.95.

“I have had to keep evolving my design and upping my game because a lot of people are making these bags,” Ventresco said. “It is kind of time consuming. But it’s such a good feeling to know that this trash has one more use.”

For more information about EcoTotes, call (603) 769-1824 or email EcoTotesME@gmail.com. For One Woman Studio, go to www.onewomanstudio.com

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