Saturday, March 28, 2015

Historical Australian Quilts[1]
Art Quilts

Marie-Therese Wisniowski

Historical Australian Quilts
Aboriginal women were the first Australian women to make patchwork quilts in the form of cloaks and blankets using possum and kangaroo pelts. Sometimes the skins were sewn together whole; others were roughly cut into rectangular pieces and stitched together with “bone needles” or awls. These were poked through the hide and then the sinew from kangaroo legs was pushed through holes, stitching the pieces together. Sometimes these early cloaks or quilts were decorated on the inner surface by scouring or slashing the chamois to make patterns.

Aboriginal possum skin coat - the first Australian patchwork. The inner surface was scratched and painted in totemic designs.
Courtesy of National Museum of Victoria (Australia).

Smithsonian Institute, Washington DC, Registration No: 5803.
Animal: Possum.
Place: Australia near Sydney (Probably from the Hunter River area).
Collector: Wilkes exploring expedition.
Date: 1838 - 42.
Size: Length - 58 inches; Width - 57 inches.
Description: Features rectangular pelts the skins are laid in 4 rows of six skins each, and sewn on the back, edge to edge with very fine overhand stitching of cotton cord sinew. Fur has been left on and the backside of the skins are completely covered with large diamond shaped designs made by scrapping up a thin layer of the skin so that it stands up in a little curl.

Victorian Koories (aboriginal tribe) of the Upper Yarra Valley (Victoria, Australia) in 1858. Those standing are wearing possum-skin patch-worked cloaks while those seated have European blankets.

The tradition of European quilting and patchwork originally came to Australia from England during transportation of convicts to its Sydney colony (NSW) in the 19th Century. There are some reports that Elizabeth Fry gave women who migrated to Australia material patches to produce quilts during their voyage to NSW. Many of the early 19th Century quilts in Australia obviously travelled here with families; however, the practice continued in Australia by the Europeans out of necessity as well as custom. The early quilts made with patches of fabrics were generally of log cabin, central medallion or hexagonal designs.

Patchwork log cabin design - silk, velvet and brocade.
Mary Anne Abigail Montgomery from Sunny Corner (Bathurst, NSW) was born ca. 1840. She had her first child in 1863 and then a further nine. She made a patchwork quilt for every daughter. Above are cushions she made for her newly born daughter after her mother’s death in 1920 from left hand-sewn quilted sections.
Photograph Courtesy of K. Atkinson.
Courtesy of reference[1].

Corner of one of Mary’s quilts. Although faded and torn with use and age, it still remains beautiful.
Photograph Courtesy of K. Atkinson.
Courtesy of reference[1].

Patchwork quilt of log cabin design composed into a checkerboard pattern. Made by Sarah Monument between 1910 and 1928.
Size: 155 x 141 cm.
Collection: Australian National Gallery.

Hexagonal design patchwork rug possibly made for a miner’s bed, early in 1900s ( Melbourne, Australia).
It is made as a cylinder in a continuous narrow piece without side seams. It was made in the early 1900s in Melbourne (Australia) and may have been used on a miner’s couch. The fabrics used were an array of men’s ties, dress materials, men’s suitings and trouser material and woven skirting.
Photograph Courtesy of H. Herbert.
Courtesy of Pioneer Women’s Hut Museum, Tumbarumba, NSW (Australia).

Detail photograph of the inner filling of the above the quilt (i.e. an old blanket, a bedspread and a strip of ticking).
Photograph Courtesy of H. Herbert.

Quilts as an art form were recognized late in Australia compared to the US. In 1985 the Australian Wool Corporation, in conjunction with a women’s craft group “Running Stitch” put together an exhibition of wool quilts, old and new, serving as a timely survey of traditional quilt making in Australia as well as a presentation of the art of contemporary quilting.

View of the "Running Stitch" collection on display at the National Wool Museum.
The founding members of “Running Stitch” were Barbara Macey, Lois Densham, Jan Ross-Manley and Susan Denton, with Deborah Brearley joining in 1995. They all shared a collective passion for their medium and for our Australian quilt heritage.

To give a feel with respect to the nature of European quilt making in Australia, perhaps the address of Annette Gero (a textile historian) that was recorded in the catalogue of that exhibition gives an inkling of how quilts reflected the life of women who made them:
"Once they were regarded as bed covers. But they were never just bed covers. They were artistic expression of countless, anonymous women reflecting lifestyle around them. There were women’s political and historical statements. There were memories of the deceased, memories of childhood garments, memories of miscarriages, memories of weddings, memories of eminent people, and they generally reflected the lifestyle of women throughout every era.".

Her historical observations are particularly apt for patchwork quilting, since it used pieces of material with long associations in the household. Hence patchwork quilts were memory warehouses for the generations who witnessed them later; family members could point to old fabric in the quilt they recognized as having been made up of old curtains or a woolen insertion from grandfather’s trousers etc.

Patchwork quilt cover made for a holiday cabin by Isabel Bellingham (ca. 1943, Sydney, Australia). It was made from scraps of old material including silks, cottons, dress lengths, tea towels and curtains. The quilt contains simple designs such as boats, fish and floral materials of the 1920s. Her quilt provides almost a history of Australian fabric over three decades from about 1910 to 1945 when it was made. It is backed with a simple rug and has no filling.
Size: 200 x 120 cm.
Photograph Courtesy of M. Courtney.
Courtesy of reference[1].

“Crazy” patchwork was widely popular in Australia from 1880 until World War I. Rich, heavy fabrics with sheen, such as plush, sateen and brocade, were cut into haphazardly shaped pieces and then joined together in a jigsaw fashion to a background fabric. Surfaces tended to reflect the Victorian love of ornate decorations as the edges were further embellished with embroidery in herringbone or featherstitch. Australian touches can be seen in many small, surface types of embroidery, often worked in chenille thread, which featured items like wattle, emus, wallabies or coat of arms.

Detail of a bed-size crazy patchwork quilt in the collection of the Art Gallery of South Australia.
It includes Australian imagery of a billy (i.e. black kettle) and emu.
Photograph Courtesy of S. Schrapel.
Courtesy of reference[1].

Shelf runner of crazy patchwork made by Ellen Stone, Melbourne (Australia) ca. 1892.
Photograph Courtesy of H. Herbert.
Courtesy of reference[1].

Historical quilts in Australia divided into two groups: waggas, bush rugs and patchwork (the “waste not want not” tradition) and decorative quilts (reflecting local history, mottos or stories in the folk art tradition).

“Time” patchwork, applique and embroidered quilt, signed by M.J.H. (1924).
In the folk art tradition.
She appears to be farewelling her loved ones with portents of her future death:
O tis a lovely little flower,
That blue forget me not
We see it blooming on the grave
Of one who seems forgot
Size: 164 x 154 cm.

The origin of the word "wagga" was thought to be derived from the finely woven "Wagga Lily Flour" sacks made by the Murrumbidgee Flour Milling Co-operative in Wagga Wagga, a rural town in NSW (Australia). However, they were made known across Australia and were given different names such as a “bluey”, “bush rug”, “wogger”, “Sydney blanket” or a “Murrumbidgee rug”.

They all seem to share the same construction methods and were made mostly by men living “on the road” and working in itinerant occupations on the land such as shearing, droving and fencing. Waggas were made of materials commonly found in a shed such as jute wheat bags and wool packs, opened out and stitched together along the seams with twine.

Calico and hessian produced bags ca. 1915 – 1950. These were opened and the stitching removed. They were used as inside covers of bush rugs or as the backing to a patchwork upper surface.
Photograph Courtesy of H. Herbert.
Courtesy of reference[1].

During the 1930s, the domestic burden carried by women was huge. Family survival often depended on women's initiative and skills to clothe and feed the family, furnish the home and literally “make the bedding”. Women made domestic waggas for use in the home, which could be as simple as wheat or chaff bags stitched together and enclosed within a cotton cover made of simple patchwork. Otherwise, pieces of old clothing or bedding were laid flat and roughly stitched together, sometimes making quite a heavy quilt. Often these waggas or quilts were made with some thought for an aesthetic design however humble the intent.

Bush rug from suiting by Minnie Stewart of Jamberoo, NSW (Australia) ca. 1920s.
Photograph Courtesy of H. Herbert.
Courtesy of reference[1].

One unique quilt - known as the Fitzpatrick inn quilt - is one of the most remarkable decorative embroidered bed covers. The quilt is composed of squares of bright red cotton sewn together. These are embroidered with thick white cotton thread in a raised technique akin to Mountymellick work. Each square, with its own image, is arranged around a central motif of the embroidered portrait of Queen Victoria, crown and holding a sceptre. She is set in a garland of roses (England), thistles (Scotland) and shamrocks (Ireland). The word “Victoria the Good 1900” are embroidered, as well as the crown above her head with the initials “V.R.” signifying Victoria Regina.

Queen Victoria Quilt 1900 – 1903, patchwork and embroidery.
Courtesy of reference[1].

The quilt offers images of rural domesticity, with farm animals and with intriguing adages such as: “When a woman throws herself at a man she seldom hits the mark”.

Details of the sometimes intriguing thoughts of the quilt maker.
Photograph Courtesy of L. Zeng.
Courtesy of reference[1].

Knitting can be described as “…the making of rows of loops with continuous thread”. Generally knitted curtains and valences have not stood the test of time. Bedspreads, often still in use have with the antimacassars and d’oyleys the best of the lot. The “Edis quilt” has been preserved and kept for successive generations. It is a fine example of the hand knitted white bedspreads of the 19th Century. It was made by Miss Selina Edis when she lived in Kyabram, Victoria (Australia). Due to her brother having three marriages which ended in tragedy (all three wives died in succession leaving him to bring up his children on his own), she decided to forgo a married life and help him care for his children.

Knitted quilt by Selina Edis (ca. 1890).
Courtesy of reference[1].

Photographs of Selina (left) and her brother’s children (right).
Courtesy of reference[1].

[1] J. Isaacs, The Gentle Arts, Ure Smith Press, Willoughby, 1991.


Breaking Mad said...

When the earliest forms of Aboriginal Art were found on cave walls, these were little more than a handprint or footprint. But the paintings became more elaborate with time.

Alex de Ravin said...

I have from my grandmother a similarly posed (and western named) photograph of Prince or King Charlie's Loddon or Jajoweroung Tribe, Boort Creek 16Nov1863.

Art Quill Studio said...

What a wonderful piece of history from your grandmother . . . a photograph to be treasured for future generations !

Alex de Ravin said...

yes, and we have a collection of mid C10 boomerangs and stones axes - not sure how these were come by.