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essays about quilts

Wagga Rugs

by Wendy Hucker, Pioneer Women's Hut, Tumbarumba

Australia has an important heritage of 'quilts' made by men. This heritage is in danger of being lost in the current wave of interest in old functional quilts made by women. I am referring, of course, to Wagga Rugs or Woggas or Woggers or Waggas. Of course the men didn't call them quilts. You can't quite imagine the blokes up in the shed saying "It'll be a cold night going round the traps, we better take our quilts".

The original Waggas were made from wheat bags or 150lb. jute flour bags. The men would sew 4 or 5 unopened bags together along the long seam using a bag needle and lengths of twine found in every shed. The Australian National Dictionary, the 1988 dictionary of Australianisms on historical principles [EDITED BY W.S.RANSOM. OXFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS] defines a Wagga blanket or rug as 'an improvised covering usually of sacking' and of the many historical quotes refers the reader especially to the Sydney Bulletin quote of 9th August 1906 "This is the only genuine Wagga rug. Take 3 wheat or corn sacks and sew them together with packing needle and twine. Nothing more is needed".

This reference to 3 bags was intriguing as our research at the Pioneer Women's Hut indicated men used 4 or 5 bags. We thought perhaps men were shorter in 1900 or more stoical and needed less covering but there was a more logical answer. Bushel is a measure not a weight so the 4 bushel bags from the 1890s were a standard size irrespective of what went in them. In practice, with grain, about 60lb. of good wheat goes to the bushel so the standard 4 bushel bag of wheat weighed about 240lb. Jack Eisenhauer of Temora NSW was about 14 when he first started driving a team of horses. When he was a young boy he used to yoke up sticks as horses with binder twine and use sheep's heads as horses heads. Jack made and used Wagga rugs when he went away share farming. He always slept in a shed but also used Wagga rugs in the house. Jack recounted that the 4 bushel bags were in until about 1906 when they were considered far too heavy and the 3 bushel bags became compulsory. [INFORMAL DISCUSSION WITH JACK EISENHAUER TEMORA 14.2.2000].

John Moten wrote in his diary in Hawker, SA between 1898 and 1901 "Another thing that happened at Hawker was that I hurt my back lifting a bag of wheat about 150lbs before the days of the Chapman bag". [QUOTE COURTESY ANNE MOTEN CANBERRA 1 AUGUST 1996]
Stories of men making Wagga rugs are legion but few actual rugs have survived even though they were certainly made and used well into the 1960s.

storing the harvester

Original photograph by Charles Kerry Studio, courtesy of the Powerhouse Museum Tyrrell Collection No 55/99

Why did they take their name, probably late last century, from the Riverina town of Wagga Wagga? We can only speculate. By 1890 wheat production in NSW resulted in 3 times the harvest of 1860 due mainly to increased mechanisation. In 1885 Hugh McKay of Henty in the Riverina, NSW invented a harvesting machine that, for the first time, combined threshing, stripping and harvesting wheat in one operation. It was marketed under the name 'Sunshine Harvester' and revolutionised wheat production. At the same time the Murrumbidgee Milling Company, a Wagga Wagga flour mill, was in full production in the 1890s, requiring large quantities of wheat. This was now possible because more land was under production and there was greater mechanisation. By this time all wheat was bagged.

The shearers' strike and the terrible depression of the 1890s meant there were many itinerant workers on the wallaby. There is anecdotal evidence that the Wagga Flour Mill late last century and early this had a special place where staff put flawed wheat bags and 150lb. jute flour bags that couldn't be reused. The men were welcome just to collect these. One way or another opportunity and necessity in the Wagga district reflect the origin of the Wagga.

Wagga flour Mill

Flour Mill at Wagga Wagga, from the Sydney Mail of 19 July, 1890

The original Waggas are an important part of our quilt history and with our gendered perspective on quilts let's really acknowledge and research these men's quilts that will soon be at the edge of living memory. It is particularly important because wheat bags have become much scarcer since the gradual introduction of bulk wheat after World War 1. It is essential to separate primary accounts, that is, direct recollections of someone who actually made or used a Wagga from the plethora of secondary accounts by someone who knew someone who made a Wagga. In the National Quilt Register the men's Waggas are referred to, and appear in the Quilt tree as 'Traditional Waggas'.

Towards the end of the last century domestic life gradually changed for many rural families. Kerosene lamps replaced the erratic slush lamps, iron water tanks helped free women from drawing water from the creek (though they still did this for washing), for some cast iron stoves made cooking easier and sewing machines became just affordable. For the first time many goods were packaged especially flour in 25 and 50lb. calico bags and 150lb. in jute bags. [IT IS IMPORTANT TO REMEMBER THAT FLOUR WAS IN CALICO BAGS UP TO 150LB. AND THESE BAGS WERE OBVIOUSLY NOT USED FOR WARMTH, BUT 150LB. OF FLOUR WAS TOO HEAVY FOR CALICO AND SO CAME IN THE JUTE BAGS]. White sugar came in 70lb. bags of jute but made with a fine tight weave and they were a fraction the weight of the bags used for the men's Waggas.

Women were very adept at using bags which were, in a sense, free both on farms and in towns. Wheat bags and sugar bags were especially popular for the centres of functional quilts. The most common version was for the sugar bag to be washed until it was soft, opened out and used as a base on which the maker stitched pieces of clothing often including parts of matted jumpers. This centre that provided the warmth then had a covering of patches of material or perhaps cretonne which was readily available. If heavier wheat bags were used by women there was often just a top covering.

All the stories indicate these quilts made by women, developed quite separately from the men's Waggas, but that they too, were a pragmatic solution to a need. In the National Quilt Register these women's Waggas are called 'domestic Waggas'. By clicking on the term in the Quilt Tree you will see many examples.

Elsie Bennett of Ariah Park NSW in a letter to the National Quilt Register wrote:" I just thought I'd write to let you know that around 1952 I made one [domestic Wagga] from wheat bags and made a cover of patchwork pieces from frocks I had made for my daughter or worn out pillow slips or other items. The patchwork is not in patterns but whatever shape suited the bit of material. I still use the Wagga rug on my bed. It is a three quarter bed size as that was the size bed we had in the spare room when we were first married and since the death of my husband I moved into that size bed. Best wishes etc etc".

Max Robertson's wagga rug

Max Robertson's Wagga

In the National Quilt Register there are some interesting examples of traditional Waggas that become domestic Waggas! Max Robertson's is a good example. Norman Robertson, Max's father, worked on properties in the Coolamon district of NSW and also at Pike's Four Mill. One of his jobs was sewing up bags of wheat on farms. He made a traditional Wagga from 4 jute wheat bags and it was used in their home in Coolamon. Max (born 1933) also used it on his many motorbike trips around Victoria and usually carried it in another wheat bag. In the mid 1950's Mary, later Robertson, purchased a new sewing machine and decided to cover the Wagga rug. She bought striped cottage twill at Kelly and Cunningham's in Wagga and made a wholecloth cover. In 1960 Max and Mary were married and they took the Wagga rug, now covered in the twill, in their panel van. The Wagga rug remains in the family, is valued and was used until about 1995.

The family still has the old style bag needle that was used in making the Wagga rugs.

The term 'Wagga' or 'Wogga' or 'Wagga rug' is now often used, especially by quilters, as a sort of generic term to refer to any improvised, functional quilt but if there is no narrower definition it becomes a very subjective judgment of what is, and is not, a Wagga and we are in danger of completely losing an important part of our quilt heritage as Australians.

Wendy Hucker, Wagga Wagga, NSW for the National Quilt Register

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