The National Wool Museum holds one of Australia’s largest and most significant public collections of quilts and waggas.
Traditionally consisting of multiple layers of jute (burlap) bags sewn together, they may also include calico sacks, recycled clothes, fabric scraps and old blankets.
Waggas were made from recycled materials that were available to people at the time – for travellers on the land it might have been flour or wheat bags; for a family it might have been old clothing stitched together.
Learn more about the history of the wagga in the “What is a Wagga” essay written for our recent exhibition Necessity: Waggas and the Art of Making Do.
This distinctive wagga was made by Mrs Lizzie Morton on her farm ‘Wanera’ at Benjeroop on the Murray River. It was stitched with a treadle machine. Her sister Flora MacDonald did the running stitch and provided the silk backing. The squares were sent as samples from a firm called ‘Fred Hesse’ who advertised in the Melbourne papers: “Be smart and dressy in a suit by Fred Hesse”. The buyer chose a sample and then sent it back with measurements and received a ‘mail order’ suit. In this case, the samples were used to make this unique quilt that has survived from the 1930s.
The maker of this wagga is unknown. However, since the creator has used larger than usual pieces of suiting material, they may have worked as or knew of a tailor for their fabrics.
One of the earliest examples of a wagga quilt that exists in Australia. This quilt was made from reused patches and fabric scraps that were stitched together to create a warm covering for a child to sleep under. The quilt was made in Daylesford, but little is known about the maker or users of this quilt. As early as the depression of the 1890s, when times were difficult in Australia, making do became a way of life. The wagga quilt entered the list of uniquely Australian inventions that helped us survive through lean times.
This coverlet was made for Chris Neyland by Rene Densham when he was born in 1953. The quilt was created from scraps of woollen fabric from clothing used in the family. It was used in Chris’ cot or pram when he was an infant. His aunt Lois Densham donated the quilt. Lois can remember the dark green fabric coming from a jacket she once wore and the blue tartan pieces from a skirt worn by Rene, her mother. Lois also remembers her mother being “a better piano player than a cook or a sewer”. According to her, the quilt was “made in the tradition of making do from a family who knew how”.
The wagga quilt still lives on in quilting circles and the Australian imaginary. This contemporary take on the wagga is the winner of the Art Quilt Australia and National Wool Museum’s Expressions: Wool Quilt Prize (2019). Barbara Mellor, of St Helens in Tasmania, made this wagga after researching their history and was fascinated by this early form of recycling. Barbara sourced the used fabrics from a variety of places. Some are from her personal collection while others were given to her. She purchased a woollen three-piece suit from a local op shop and decided to incorporate it into the design, making some unique and distinctive shapes. Another notable feature of the quilt is the patch labelled ‘Parkside’. It was cut from a blanket she purchased from a garage sale from a property that had been the ‘Parkside’ caravan park in the 1960s. The filling of the wagga includes the rest of the Parkside blanket.
This turn-of-the-century English quilt is made from tiny hand-worked patchwork squares reminiscent of medallion style quilts. It is an extraordinary example of early quilts that arrived in Australia with immigrants. The maker is unknown. When it was found it was being used as packing material. The form and the aesthetic of this classic European quilt demonstrates the stark contrast with Australian wagga quilts. Through the difficult times of the 1890s and 1930s the wagga became a uniquely Australian form.
This is a classic crazy quilt. Although not technically a wagga, crazy quilts took many of the ‘make do’ techniques of wagga quilt making. This quilt was made in Highton, Geelong. It is a double bed sized quilt in the classic ‘crazy’ style with extensive use of herringbone and feather stitching. The pieced style of the quilt, made from squares of patchwork, is similar to the style of quilts made by members of the Country Women’s Association (CWA). The women sometimes made a quilt as a group activity and this one was possibly a 1930s group creation.
These are samples of products made at the Returned Sailors and Soldiers Mill in Geelong but discontinued before 1960. They were used to show shops what materials were available. The samples were given to Mr Robert Anderson, an apprentice fitter and turner at the mill between 1960-1965. His mother, Mrs Lucy Anderson, sewed the samples into rugs in the early 1960s. Lucy’s rug shows that by 1960 the spirit of the wagga quilt and making do continued in the vernacular of Australian quilters.
These waggas were made and owned by Percy Perkins. He was a keen fisherman and hunter his first love was sitting on the banks of the Murray River with a fishing rod in his hand. Family camping trips were spent by the river where everyone slept on stretchers with several army blankets underneath and a wheat bag wagga on top. Perkins joined the police force in his early twenties and apart from an eighteen-month posting in Melbourne, spent the rest of his career serving communities in country Victoria. A good wagga accompanied Percy on all his fishing and hunting journeys. The green colour of the wagga is from ‘Dekkol’, a preservative which Perkins used to protect his cotton fishing nets from rotting. The second wagga is made from two standard sized jute wheat bags split and hand bound along the seams. It is typical of a basic wagga made by shearers, farmers and swagmen. The paint stains on this wagga display signs of later use as a painting drop sheet by descendants who inherited the quilt.
Mrs Faulkner of Bendigo made this wagga for her father in his later years when a hot water bottle was considered too dangerous and a blanket was not warm enough. It was donated to the Running Stitch Collection by Mrs Faulkner after she saw their memorabilia exhibition curated by Murray Walker at the Museum of Victoria in 1985. Mrs Faulkner sent the wagga down on the train and Lois Densham picked it up from ‘Travellers Aid’ at Spencer Street station. Many of the quilts in the National Wool Museum Collection were originally part of the Running Stitch Collection.
This small woollen suiting wagga was machine stitched, backed with orange cotton and edged with brown navy and white striped braid. It shows how important old and disused suiting fabric was for quilt making during World War Two.
This wagga was made during World War Two from disused patterned rayon patches. The wagga is filled with jute bags. The maker of the quilt is unknown. The quilt shows the persistence of wagga quilt making right through to the 1940s.
This large wagga is made from fabric pieces that were handstitched together and lined with jute wheat bags. The fabric pieces are roughly rectangular and of various sizes. They are made from cut-down pink and green cotton knit garments. The wagga was once described by early collectors as the ‘world’s worst wagga’. Today, it is considered one of the most significant waggas in the National Wool Museum’s extensive collection. Unfortunately, very little is known about the maker of this wagga.
This patchwork quilt is made from suiting and fabric offcuts. It is machine stitched with red diamond and rectangle motifs at strategic positions. Little is known about the maker or owner of the quilt but the red triangles and squares show a flourish of creativity for the humble wagga quilt.
This homemade wagga was purchased from the Old Bank Auctions, Geelong on 2 December 2000 for $20.00. The regular size of the patchwork and the varying colours show that the fabric was most likely sourced from a disused men’s suit fabric sample book.
This wagga is made from men’s suits and coats, unpicked and sewn together. It was made by the great uncle of George Stephens. Mr Stephens was a mining engineer from 1885 to 1915 in Stawell, Main Lead (near Beaufort), Diamond Creek and Costerfield in Victoria. His last residence was at Bosterfield, where the Wagga was used as a bed quilt until the 1940s. Not just a maker of wagga quilts and an engineer, Mr Stephens was also a hero – in 1910 he saved the life of a blacksmith at Diamond Creek Gold Mine.
This wagga was made by Jean Hepner’s grandmother from used woollen garments during the Great Depression. The garments were hand stitched on to an old woollen blanket. The quilt was used by at least five of the seven children in the family. It had assorted covers that were replaced when needed. In later years, it was also used by Hepner’s grandchildren.
The simplest form of wagga quilt is the jute wheat bag wagga. This wagga was made of several two-bushel bags hand bound together. Two rows of red jute and one of orange run the length of each side. Two holes have been mended with white string. Green, purple and black markings have been stamped into the bag. Although the maker is unknown, the size shows that this quilt was created for a child to sleep inside.
This ten-kilogram flour bag came from the Murrumbidgee Milling Company Limited, Wagga Wagga, NSW. The name ‘wagga quilt’ takes its name from the flour mills that operated in and around the NSW town. As you will see throughout the exhibition, bags like this one were used as the interior layer of early wagga quilts.
This quilt was made by Harry Walter Hewitt Wilton (1872-1950). Harry joined the Essex Regiment and served in the British Military in India and also served in the Second Boer War. He married the seamstress Mary Elizabeth in India in 1895. Harry was injured during battle and made this quilt as part of his rehabilitation. The quilt was made using woollen army singlets. Harry and Mary moved to a farm near Orbost, Victoria, in 1914. The quilt remained in the family until 2019.
WARM was a community project about why the earth is warming and what people can do about it. It was led by the artist collective called SEAM – Sustainable Environment Arts Movement. It comprises two large-scale artworks created by Lars Stenberg. First, a landscape scarred by coal mining. Second, the same landscape many decades later, regenerated and renewed after the closure of the coal mine. In 2016, 250 knitters from across Australia created more than 1,000 knitted pieces. During several days of installation, these knitted pieces were assembled to create the image of the renewed landscape. WARM was a sustainable project. All knitted elements were from left over, reused or organic wool. Any unavoidable emissions created as a result of delivering the project were offset by trees planted by Fifteen Trees. WARM has recently found a permanent home in the National Wool Museum’s Collection. Paintings by Lars Stenberg
Knitted pieces designed by Georgie Nicholson
Graphic design by Mel Stanger