AliPink recently posted a photograph on Facebook of a throw she had made in the tradition of a ‘wagga quilt’. Having never heard the term before I immediately googled it and was fascinated to learn about an Australian quilting tradition that dates back to the late 1800’s. If you, like me, believed our quilting traditions could all be traced back to European, American or Asian backgrounds then you may be surprised to learn that not only does Australia have its own quilting history it is one that was practiced by men.
Wagga quilts were made by men working on the land. The men opened up readily available jute wheat bags and wool bags. Using twine and a packing needle they would stitch them together to create a blanket. As areas wore thin the men would sew another bag over the top in a similar manner to the Japanese tradition of sashiko.
By the time the First World War started the making of the wagga had shifted from the men to the women. In the spirit of making do when resources were scarce women began re-do the wagga. The women found the jute bags rough so they washed calico bags until they were soft. Then reusing woolen suiting, jumpers, socks and clothing they would quilt the layers together, more often than not by hand. Placement of fabric was not dictated by aesthetics but by practicality. If a piece of fabric fitted the area then that was where it was stitched.
While the term wagga is easily attributed to the town of Wagga Wagga this type of rug was found across the entire country. They were also known as a Sydney blanket, bush rug and a bluey. My own mother still has old grey army blankets that her family was given during the Second World War. These blankets were always called blueys when I was a kid. Needless to say I was confused about that at the time. Mum recalls that some of the blankets they were given ‘had seen better days’ so my Nana stitched on clothes that her girls had outgrown. Poppy always referred to them as blueys so all the old grey army blankets were called that.
Today there are few surviving waggas from those early days. The National Wool Museum in Geelong has some as does the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney. The stories accompany these waggas are as interesting as the quilts alone. Like Ali you can make your own wagga by repurposing discarded jumpers. Revive an Australian quilting tradition today.