Technical accomplishment is just one of the hallmarks of many Quilts on show currently in the exhibition Making the Australian Quilt now at the NGV Australia, Ian Potter Centre, Federation Square at Melbourne. The quilts all date from 1800 – 1950 and showcase the threads of our society.
There are many categories in the quilt world as Leslie Levy, Ardis and Robert James Executive Director of the International Quilt Study Center and Museum in Nebraska U.S.A., who opened the exhibition would testify.
Ms Levy together with the Curator of Collections Carolyn Ducey, and the team they work with at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, oversee a stunning collection of over 5,000+ quilts and quilt related objects, representing fifty countries and four centuries of quilt making
Australia’s leading Quilt historian Dr Annette Gero, co-curator of the NGV Australia exhibition, is the Australian representative on the International Quilt Study Center and Museum’s International Advisory board.
Traditionally a Quilt is a sewn blanket pieced together from scraps of fabric.
The top layer covers a middle-insulating layer with finally a backing layer made of strong and serviceable material, with all the layers joined together by needle and thread or ties.
Some Quilts are made of very fine fabrics, while others come out of a tradition of ‘making do’ when women either working alone or with others, employed previously used fabrics and left over stuff to keep them warm.
Out of 80+ quilts 6 are on loan from private and public collections in the ACT, New South Wales, South Australia, as well as regional Victorian collections.
The exhibition reveals how the unique characteristics of our landscape, straitened times and personal preferences impacted on how our ancestors produced counterpanes more about warmth than design, helping to sustain them through good times and bad.
Every stitch tells a story of comfort and cultural significance and it was only as time went on that design entered the arena.
The show is a triumph for the evolution of design history and the decorative arts, and a tribute to all those who completed them.
Wonderfully displayed, it is a show that will need more than one visit to take it all in, such is the complexity and interest engendered by the many and varied works.
Some have patchwork random, crazy or complicated design patterns, while yet others are symmetrical, asymmetrical or otherwise personally customised into a design pattern that is unique.
In this latter tradition we have the Wagga quilt rug, which started its journey in hardship.
On 15 August 1951 in the popular woman’s magazine New Idea an article recalled,
‘In pioneer homes, where such blanket were used … some were neatly bound with coloured binding, some were given an attractive fringe, while some were even covered with cretonne or other cheap material. In one home I saw Wagga rugs on every bed’.
In Australia the Wagga is encountered first for many in the very special Australian poetry of Henry Lawson and Banjo Patterson.
The facts surround whether they emerged out of the town of Wagga Wagga in NSW I leave to quilt historians to sort out. So many conflicting reports have been thrown up by research.
My focus is inspired by the society they helped.
My family came from the land, and my Nan a single woman struggling to bring up her children after her husband died, often used to tell me about the extraordinary periods of deprivation they went through without giving up hope.
Waggas emerged out of hardship on the land where drovers carried them in their swags on their backs.
They were very basic covers to help to keep themselves warm when on round up or walking along the road, going from town to town or sometimes to the big city, seeking work.
The idea was also taken up in times when the economy was depressed, pieced together from anything that came to hand, including chaff bags.
Ladies in the towns looking to use up samples of dress fabrics provided by travelling salesmen, joined together to produce many utilitarian quilts.
Many Waggas do look like amateurs made them, while yet others reveal that someone began thinking about their design, despite restraints of funding and materials. Some included cast off clothing in their linings.
Their were some who changed their focus to ensuring their Wagga no matter how humble, celebrated the beauty of life; hoping it would break through the sadness and pain to change the world for the better.
Groups gathered together under the auspices of charitable institutions such as the Red Cross, CWA and St Vincent’s de Paul to organise making a Wagga, with members of the local community pitching in to help.
In a sense of camaraderie and through unity so much more can always be achieved together.
They became a tad more sophisticated as time went on, with immigrants from traditional tailoring and textile families from Europe embracing the idea and joining in.
I loved the Wagga made from Italian ‘suiting’ fabric samples during the depression, which has a backing of a sugar bag and was made by ladies looking to help those more needy than they were.
The superbly produced catalogue for the exhibition reveals some simply amazing stories about how Waggas with ‘notable design’ emerged.
It showcases specific examples including a ‘patchwork quilt’ Wagga, c1925-35 lent by the Powerhouse Museum and Edie Chignall’s beautifully constructed Medallion depression Quilt.
While it was made of salvaged off cuts, it embraces the social, cultural and economic realities of its days, while feeding into the idea that out of adversity can come hope when fashioning a design.
Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2016