Column #116

Wagga—The Bushman’s Quilt

Elderly Swagman, ca. 1901, Photographer unknown, New South Wales Government Printer

While today we are used to viewing quilts as pieces of art, throughout the history of quilting they have had more utilitarian purposes. Some were even used by men living and working outdoors. Australians had a type of quilt that was used in these situations: the wagga.

Waggas and soogans share many characteristics despite originating halfway around the world from one another. Not the least of which is that both waggas and soogans were frequently made and almost always used by men whose occupations kept them on the move outdoors. Waggas were initially made by Australian bushmen and others such as sheep shearers, wheat harvesters, fence builders, or herders.

Like the American cowboy, the Australian bushman has taken on a mythical status, which the Australian Government has described this way: “Around 1900, the bush was seen as the foundation of nation's greatness when the features of bush life—sleeping in the open air, learning to ride and shoot, fighting bushfires—were seen to prepare people for battle. This fused Australia's bush and military traditions when it seemed to prove itself…in World War I.

“The 'bushman' was seen as a resourceful, independent man who trusted only his mates. The bush was a symbol for a national life and yet, by 1910, most Australians were urban. The bush myth has endured as novelists, poets, and artists continue to use it for inspiration. Elements of bush culture have been absorbed into mainstream Australian life through music, pop songs, clothing, slang, arts and architecture.” (Cowboys, also seen as loners, had a military connection as well, in that many were veterans of the U.S. Civil War, and the American West holds a similar symbolic function in U.S. society as the bush does in Australia.)

Waggas were originally made by using twine to stitch together unopened 150-pound flour bags made of jute, and it is thought that their name was derived from the Wagga Lily Flour sacks used by the Murrumbidgee Flour Milling Co-operative in Wagga Wagga, New South Wales.

According to Wendy Hucker, writing for Australia’s National Quilt Register, “There is anecdotal evidence that the Wagga Flour Mill late last century [19th} and early this [20th] had a special place where staff put flawed wheat bags and 150 lb. 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.”

Waggas were made not only from flour bags, but all sorts of agricultural bags, while batting consisted of other bags, old clothing, sheared wool, or whatever else the maker might have had on hand.

The term “wagga” in the Wiradjuri aboriginal language is thought to mean crow, and Wagga Wagga, means many crows. A wagga is sometimes referred to as a “wagga rug” and as is the case with soogan, the term has a variety of spellings, including wogga or wogger. Waggas were also known by other names such as “bluey,” “bush rug,” “Sydney blanket,” or “Murrumbidccsgee rug.”

All of these various spellings and nicknames refer to “traditional waggas,” since the term wagga was also for quilts made later, according to Dr. Annette Gero, one of the world’s foremost authorities on waggas and author of The Fabric of Society: Australia’s Quilt Heritage from Convict Times to 1960 (The Beagle Press, 2008).

Dr. Gero has classified waggas into three time periods: “traditional waggas” made by bushmen from wheat or flour sacks beginning in the late 1800s (the focus of this article); "depression rugs" made from scraps during the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s; and “domestic waggas” made from swatches carried by traveling salesmen.

“[Traditional waggas]...were carried on horseback and in bullock wagons, trains and riverboats, and on foot, slung over a shoulder and incorporated into a swag. They provided protection from the crippling cold of winter and a barrier against the fiery heat of summer.” (Annette Brown, Museum of the Riverina, Wagga Wagga, New South Wales, Australia). A swag is the Australian bushman’s equivalent of the American cowboy’s bedroll.

Crafted from necessity, traditional waggas were rough in nature and were intended strictly for warmth and utility with little or no thought given to aesthetics. Nevertheless, they speak to the quilt’s most basic function and to the quilter’s seemingly endless resourcefulness.


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