Culture Victoria

Threads: Quilts and Waggas in Victorian Collections

By Claire Capel-Stanley Posted Under Inside Museum Collections
Elizabeth Keen, Mrs Keen’s Quilt, cotton, silk, velvet, 1879. 233 x 266cm, Queenscliffe Historical Museum collection. Photograph credit: Predrag Cancar, National Gallery of Victoria.

Quilting is often thought of as a pastime more than an art form. A domestic craft practiced mainly by women, we think of quilt-makers working individually or in intimate circles, sharing stitches and scraps of fabric along with gossip and hushed conversation. In truth, quilts are complex objects. Both utilitarian and artistic, quilts not only testify to the industriousness and ambition of their makers, but they also enclose generations of economic, cultural and social change.

Quilts tell stories and are objects of inference, through which multiple histories can be glimpsed, imagined, covered over: threads gathered and dropped. Few objects are as riven with the small and large shocks, fears, desires and dreams of everyday life.

Elizabeth Keen, Mrs Keen’s Quilt (detail), cotton, silk, velvet, 1879. 233 x 266cm, Queenscliffe Historical Museum collection. Photograph credit: Predrag Cancar, National Gallery of Victoria.

Mrs Keen’s Quilt, now in the collection of the Queenscliffe Historical Museum, is one example. Completed in 1879, it was designed as a showpiece, and made with a confident hand. Cotton, silk and velvet squares as small as scales shimmer across its surface, with the unusual addition of applique cats, complete with fine whiskers. A settler woman, Elizabeth Wensor (nee Hooton) brought her British paper-piecing style with her when she arrived in the colony in the early 1850s. Originally a dressmaker, she purchased the Junction Hotel at Fyansford near Geelong following the death of her first husband. Remarried at the time of making, Keen declared her identity with this quilt, stitching the name of the hotel and her own, in the centre.

Unknown Maker, Red Cross Quilt, c1920, various materials, 250 x 150 cm, Running Stitch Collection, National Wool Museum, Geelong.

Quilting has always been part of the process of place-making. As National Wool Museum Director Padraic Fisher describes, ‘as Europeans started to scatter across the world, quilting went with them’. Many women quilted in order to furnish their homes and build their communities. In these practices, we might identify the particular form of cosiness that the Danish word, ‘hygge’ describes: a sense of warmth and togetherness. Everyday quilting continued into the twentieth century. The Red Cross Quilt, in the National Wool Museum’s Running Stitch collection, was probably made by a group of women, the twelve squares indicating different sections patched and then pieced together. It was made near Geelong around 1920, and found in a charity shop decades later.

Artistically, quilt influences travelled in unexpected directions. The Red Cross Quilt is a ‘crazy quilt’, with irregular scraps and varied embroidery creating a kaleidoscopic effect. The style became popular in the United States, introduced with the 1876 Philadelphia Centenary Exposition. The original crazy quilts used newly-imported Japanese block-printed cottons and rich silks, which were patch-worked and elaborately embroidered. The Red Cross Quilt retains the flamboyant style, but instead of silks, it is pieced from cheap checked cotton and wool. Fisher sees this as one example of ‘tradition passing’. ‘The interesting thing about quilts is that it’s a tangible example of multiculturalism’, he says. ‘You can take this fabric scrap, which speaks to one cultural tradition, and meld it with this other form, in this way, to make something new’.

Adolphina Noll, Wilmington Wagga, 1934, various materials, 160 x 120 cm, Running Stitch Collection, National Wool Museum, Geelong.

The idea of piecing together, of making something from almost nothing, is most evident in waggas. Waggas differ from quilts in that they have a primarily utilitarian purpose. Often composed of multiple layers of recycled fabric like wool, suiting material, old jumpers, coats and blankets, waggas are about ‘making do’. The name is rumoured to have originated with stockmen near Wagga Wagga, who would stitch together wheat bags to make basic blankets for travelling. The form quickly became common in homes across Australia, especially during the Depression years.

The Wilmington Wagga, in the National Wool Museum, is a characteristic example. Stitched with the remnants of a coat and trousers, it demonstrates the ruthlessness with which scarcity transforms the measure of things into terms of shelter, warmth, and availability. ‘I think the human spirit is incredibly resilient, no matter what situation you put it in’, says Fisher. This resilience is stitched through waggas, which would often be patched numerous times, and kept for generations. Another example in the museum’s collection is a cot cover made by Bertha Emily Nitschke in 1929, used by five of her seven children, and then passed on to grandchildren. It was an object not only used, but loved.

Bertha Emily Nitschke, Child’s Cot Cover, 1929, various materials, 105 x 79 cm, Running Stitch Collection, National Wool Museum, Geelong.

We make our homes, our lives and ourselves with things. It is only a small stretch to see quilts in their many variations as a tangible form of empathy. As a museum director, Fisher believes this strongly. ‘There is that thread of empathy that connects us’, he says, ‘in some people it’s a pale thread, but it’s there. I think that thread is what keeps us collecting things. It’s what keeps people seeing things’.

This piece was written with the assistance of Queenscliffe Historical Museum and the National Wool Museum.

This guest blog post by Claire Capel-Stanley is part of a series coordinated by Museums Australia (Victoria) highlighting treasures, stories and what happens behind-the-scenes in museum collections across Victoria.

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