Australian Wagga Quilts
Photo courtesy of International Quilt Study Center, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, 2007.010.0001.
Written by Maria V. Schwamman
Global Perspective: Australian Wagga Quilts
From the feed sack quilts stitched during the Depression Era to the scrappy quilt patterns of today, the art of making do has resonated with quilters for generations. And this is not a phenomenon limited to North American quilters. As a result of hardship caused by drought, depression, war, and plagues, Australia has its own rich tradition of make-do quilting that dates back to the late 19th century: utilitarian quilts known as waggas.
Dr. Annette Gero, author of The Fabric of Society: Australia's Quilt Heritage from Convict Times to 1960 (The Beagle Press, 2008), classifies waggas in three categories: those made from agricultural bags for use around the farm, "depression rugs" made from worn-out clothing during the 1930s, '40s, and '50s, and "saleman's samples," quilts made from pinked-edge cotton swatches carried by traveling sales representatives. While waggas vary in construction and material, they were all thrifty solutions for providing warmth.
Historians speculate that in the 1890s bushmen and itinerant workers were the first to crudely stitch early versions from several unopened wheat or jute flour bags using bag needles and lengths of twine. Other versions were stuffed with agricultural bags and covered in old fabric. It's believed that waggas were named after the Wagga Lily Flour sacks used by the Murrumbidgee Flour Milling Co-operative in Wagga Wagga, New South Wales. In Australia's National Quilt Register, these first waggas made by men are known as "traditional waggas," while later versions made by women are considered "domestic waggas."
This wagga, made in the 1950s by Ethel May Woodman in Burra, South Australia, is an example of a depression rug. She machine-stitched it and many others from wool and corduroy skirt and suiting fabrics to keep her husband and son warm while they hunted and trapped rabbits during a plague.
Waggas are generally subdued in color because palettes were limited to the available scrap materials, but some women took care to create attractive waggas for their homes. In her book Australia's Quilts: A Directory of Patchwork Treasures (AQD Press, 2000), Jenny Manning says waggas were "designed for thrift and need rather than beauty, through some were not only warm but also decorative."
Woodman's wagga features a complementary color scheme, red and green, with punches of red placed deliberately to draw the eye around the design. "What's striking is that even though people are using what they have on hand and working in an improvisational way, some still emerged with an artistic eye," says Carolyn Ducey, curator at the International Quilt Study Center & Museum in Lincoln, Nebraska. "Ethel could have used simple strips of fabrics, but she created a frame look. Even though it was something that was going to be very utilitarian, it's still something that she probably took great pride in creating."
In the 1960s, when conditions improved and resources became more readily available, the number of waggas being created declined.
"Sometimes the social history, which they tell, is even more valuable to us than the item itself," Gero says in her book. "The waggas seem to evoke a particular emotion and fondness in all those who remember them and yet domestic crafts such as the wagga have only recently begun to be acknowledged and given due status."
Resourcefulness and pragmatism made waggas possible during times of hardship, and Ducey sees a resurgence of these ideas today. "I think that any time the economy is really challenging for people it seems like there is an interest in creating something handmade," Ducey says. "It's a practical response to not being able to buy something."
To learn more about the IQSCM's extensive collection of more than 2,300 quilts and the history behind them, visit quiltstudy.org.