The other day I found my self in the position of sensing that I recognised a contemporary wagga but when I stopped to think about it, I did not have a clear definition of a wagga to describe why I thought it was a contemporary wagga.
I was looking at the memorial quilt , Allison Aller has made. Apart from the very touching story that is associated with these quilts, I found myself saying this is a contemporary wagga but stalled on the term.
The term Wagga dates back to the 1880s. Across Australia these textiles are known by different names. ‘Bluey’, ‘bush rug’, ‘wogger’, ‘Sydney blanket’ or a ‘Murrumbidgee rug’ are a few of the local terms. Historically Waggas are a style of ‘make do’ quilts, often done by itinerant working men in rural occupations such as shearing, droving and fencing. There are numerous stories about these quilts which were originally made by sewing grain sacks together. Later on heavyweight quilts were made of woollen suiting samples, or salvaged squares of old woollen blankets. Later on again, particularly during the depression women made domestic waggas of recycled materials like old clothing, curtains, old bedding and anything that was to hand that could do the job. So Waggas were born out of need and desperate poverty.
As you can see here Australian quilters claim the wagga as being a typically Australian Quilt. The look of a Wagga can range from something like the Wilmington Wagga (if this link does not work do a search on the National Quilt Register for quilt no 129NWM) to something like the quilt made by Zumma Carraro and her mother Emma and sister. (if this link does not work do a search on the National Quilt Register for quilt no 835AG)
Annette Gero in her book Historic Australian Quilts recounts a tale which describes the process of making a wagga.
About 1922 I can remember my mother still making them. She would take an old blanket that was too worn to use on the beds, she would then gather together old jumpers, cardigans and other items of knitted wool and cut them up to produce flat even pieces of material; even the sleeves would be opened out flat. She would then hand “tack” the pieces to the blanket on both sides until it was completely covered.
Waggas also had multiple layers as if one area of the surface wore thin, another piece of fabric was simply added to the top. This made for a heavy quilt but a warm one! An example of this is in the National Quilt register. Take a look at the quilt made by Anna Bishop (if this link does not work do a search on the National Quilt Register for quilt no 320BVS)
You can see a number of waggas in the National Quilt Register simply type in Wagga into the search field and numerous examples will come up. If you browse I am sure you will discover the problem with defining what a wagga is. I was left with a sense that a wagga is not so much a particular technique or that it is associated with using particular materials but defining what a wagga is, is more about the reason behind the making.
There is a revival of interest in waggas. I think there is a few cultural drivers that are influencing this. Australians celebrate their ability to ‘make do’. Something in the down to earth practical approach to solving problems creatively and reusing something to do the job appeals to the national psyche. I will leave the question as to weather we are particularly innovative or not aside. The point is we like to think we are.
Today need still dictates interest. We are aware of the need to protect the environment. I am sue everyone has heard the slogan “Reduce, reuse, recycle”. So the drive to create waggas is still driven by need but a different one. Today it is the need to be responsible in the way we consume, what we use and what we dispose of in our daily lives. Currently Linda at Chloe’s place is making a wagga. It still fits a definition of a wagga as it is made of woollen and suiting scraps stitched to a foundation fabric. Linda has not said so, but I sense the desire to use recycled fabrics is also a component of Lindas quilt.
Another reason that I think curators are looking again at Waggas is that the sparse yet haphazard nature of Waggas can have the look of contemporary art. A sparse aesthetic dominates contemporary art practice. Artists strip back to a bare statement due to contemporary philosophies but waggas were created out of need and they are sparse as a result of a harsh existence. Everything was stripped back to bare necessities, a bare truth if you like. They are a product of this truth, not a mere reflection of a philosophy which is worth remembering if we view them through contemporary eyes.
Waggas can still speak to us of truths and reflect back to us on a number of levels what it is to be human. Of course the obvious is the basic need for warmth and protection against the elements but on another level waggas also tell us of the need to create objects that are useful yet have some aesthetic appeal. Creators of Waggas were driven by need, but often the covering they produced also has, or attempts to have some aesthetic appeal. In other words as everyday objects they fed the soul too.
I know that Australian Quilters titch at one another about the definition of a Wagga, but I see quilting as a living developing and growing tradition so perhaps my definition is particularly fluid. Allison’s and Lindas quilts had me thinking about just how fluid my definition was. Sure, as quilters we look to the past to understand the tradition but oft
en for me, we look to past more to understand ourselves today than to freeze an activity in time. We always see the past through a contemporary filter but in making linkages with the past, I can place a personal activity within a greater cultural context. In the process, I find I always discover something about myself and something greater than myself – something outside a small individual life. Placing something in an historical context or linking it to an historical tradition connects the small individual activity to the greater sweep of our culture, our cultural past and our present.
Finally I find I must agree with the point that Wendy Hucker makes in her article 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.”