Monday, August 23, 2010

the wagga quilt

Kaite mentioned the word 'wagga' in an email, so of course i immediately asked her if she would care to contribute a guest post on the subject. not only did she respond with enthusiasm, she submitted the story with lightning speed.
here it is

The wagga rug or quilt

When India described her “found, stitched and dyed” project I immediately thought of the heritage Australian “wagga” rug or quilt, a very functional and warm rug which dates back to the late 1800s of outback Australia.    

The original “waggas” or bush rugs were made by pioneering men who lived a very rough outback life droving and shearing, and were made from 4 or 5 large unopened jute wheat bags or flour bags which they sewed together using a packing needle and a long length of twine.  In colder areas or when parts of the rug started to wear out, the men would improvise by stitching more bags over the base rug or by stuffing the bags with whatever was to hand.  The name “wagga” rug probably came from Wagga Wagga, a town at the centre of wheat production in Australia in the late 1800s and where there were abundant jute wheat bags and Wagga Lily flour bags from the local flour mill.  Some of these bags were flawed and not able to be used for packing wheat or flour so were freely given to the working men. 

These traditional waggas from the late 1800s started to evolve in the early 1900s as women folk entered the scene and the jute bags which were reputedly very warm but quite heavy and rough textured were replaced by calico flour bags and sugar bags.  The women made domestic waggas for use by the family at home.  They would open out these calico bags and wash them well to soften, then use them as a backing over which they would stitch old clothing such as felted jumpers, darned holey socks, torn singlets etc then cover them with patchwork made from tailor’s or dress material samples, offcuts from handmade clothing, or sometimes cretonne, an upholstery weight cotton, linen or hemp fabric.  The patchwork was often not in a set pattern but in a shape that best suited the area it was to cover and it would continue to evolve such that more fabric could be stitched over the old as parts wore out or more became available.   These domestic waggas were popular during the First World War and the Depression years using whatever was available regardless of fashion or style in order to keep warm and survive those very difficult years.  My own Mother, now in her mid 80’s recalls the domestic waggas made from scraps of old clothing and calico flour bags during the so-called Great Depression.   Many of the more up-market ones were made from men’s tailors suiting samples as the top layer, which in those days would have been pure wool pieces. 

The Australian wagga was in many ways the Aussie equivalent of the Japanese boro cloths made by sashiko stitching together of old indigo dyed fabrics to make floor rugs, futon covers, sleeping mats and more.  A “make-do” tradition of thrift and functionality that belonged to the culture and the community of its time. 

Kaite Matilda              August, 2010

please go to the links below for more information and images of waggas.


20 comments:

  1. what a beautiful story!Not so long ago I read a book of Flanagan and I imagine those wagga's in the camps the workers lived in.
    After the second worldwar the women in the Netherlands made special feast skirts to be worn at memorials and made from remaining pieces of cloth that survived war.

    ReplyDelete
  2. hi Yvette, i guess that re-purposing and re-imagining has been around for time immemorial; it's good to know that women in the Netherlands made special feast skirts - that's really celebrating survival...kaite

    ReplyDelete
  3. What a great guest article! This reminds me of the way some saddle blankets for horses were constructed when I was a kid in the Adelaide Hills. One of my favorite books as a child was 'Runaway Girl' by Ruth Morris, in which an orphan girl travels across the Queensland outback. I think she may have used a wagga early on her journey. Thanks for the links. Gilly.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Great article! Coming from Canada, I had never heard of a wagga so it was quite interesting to read about them. Thanks!

    ReplyDelete
  5. hi Gilly, yes i think i remember those saddle blankets too, now that you mention it, thanks for the memory.
    Thanks Mary Anne, yes i'm not surprised, wagga is short for Wagga Wagga the city in far western NSW Aus, and we Aussies always shorten words so it always reverts to simply Wagga (pronounced wogga with an "o"). Aboriginal word, shame on me i haven't looked it up. k.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yes WAGGA WAGGA is situated in the riverina area. There are many crows, hence the WAGGA WAGGA !!!! The big flour mill is still there, now heritage listed, and being added to as a new complex. There is a museum in Wagga that has a few old Wagga quilts on display and the Lily flour bags too. Worth a visit. Also go to Tumberumba and see the Women's Pioneer Hut Museum, there they have such an array of things that our fore mothers used in the domestics of the household. There also one will find several old quilts displayed. This also is a MUST VISIT place..Thanks Katie, love your blog. Sue

      Delete
  6. I just looked up the word wagga, it means crow and wagga wagga means many crows. Maybe i'll have to make one with crows on it now that i've found that...k.

    ReplyDelete
  7. People are really resourceful aren't they? I love the story of the wagga cloths.

    ReplyDelete
  8. Many thanks for the telling of this wagga story - completely new to me - I would like to see one (touch one) in person some day!
    Off to click on those links now...

    ReplyDelete
  9. thanks for the interest, please make sure you go to the links listed, they can tell and show much more than i could.
    I'm currently unpicking the seams on a few smaller size flour and oat sacks and have a pile of worn out wool singlets ready to make a small domestic wagga. It's interesting that the middle layer is attached to the backing sacks first before the top layer is stitched on. Makes sense i suppose when the top cover is going to be continually added to. kaite

    ReplyDelete
  10. Fascinating reading Kaite I have a rice few bags I have saved over the years...a new inspiration is growing...thanks for this interesting article and I have visited the sites really interesting!

    ReplyDelete
  11. Really inspiring! so very glad you posted the links as well!

    ReplyDelete
  12. been thinking about this ever since you posted it. my little neighbor, skye, loves fabric with texture. i think i will make her a wagga for her birthday. she will be six in one month.

    ReplyDelete
  13. Very interesting story, Kaite! I believe that I've even seen one of your "wagga's" in the Textile Museum of Canada. I imagine that the art of "making do" is present in most of our cultures. In my case, I can remember my mother sending boxes of old clothes to my French Canadian grandmother in rural Manitoba. She made utility quilts and braided rugs out of them. As a wee child, I remember her tying strips of cloth to a door knob and showing us how to braid. Somewhere in one of my boxes, is a shredded pinwheel quilt that she made out of old shirting fabrics. Certainly not a thing of beauty, but interesting, just the same. I'm not sure how I ended up with it, but I couldn't bear to throw it out!

    ReplyDelete
  14. i remember seeing rough woolen pieced and very heavy tied quilts for the hired men. that is, according to north country antiques dealers. all pieces were random sizes and weaves.

    ReplyDelete
  15. Velma, i'm wondering who actually made those rough, heavy quilts - was it the hired men themselves perhaps? in the case of the original waggas the men themselves made them.
    Greasyming, go and unpick a couple of those rice bags and hand stitch them together, i've just done that with a couple of old small flour bags. It's interesting how the mind slows and gets into the present moment. I'm now going to stitch old singlets onto one side of them.
    kaite

    ReplyDelete
  16. wandered back home from the Far East
    lovely to find the stories blooming here

    ReplyDelete
  17. welcome home india. i've got started on my wagga tho i am a bit slow as the warmer weather has called me outside.
    i've unstitched the flour bags and hand sewn them together for a base then dyed the base in a nice chai brew, let it set and washed it. now i'm ready to start stitching the old singlets onto this base, hopefully tomorrow. hooroo, kaite

    ReplyDelete
  18. i've finally started stitching my small wagga, made of old flour bags on the back, worn out singlets in the centre (batting) section and squares of old wool suiting on the front. I should be able to take a photo in a day or so if anyone would like to see it. cheerio, kaite

    ReplyDelete
  19. i have posted up photos of my small handstitched wagga replica rug on my blog with a repeat of this article. If you'd like to view it please go to
    http://kaiteyarngarden.blogspot.com/2010/09/wagga-quilt-or-rug.html
    cheerio, kaite

    ReplyDelete