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Unpicked: Needlework in the Australian Colonies by Dr Lorinda Cramer

The discovery of gold in Victoria, Australia, in 1851 changed the lives – sometimes suddenly and almost always significantly – of many Britain-born women. The tantalising prospect of wealth through gold, land or business was a powerful lure for those contemplating emigration to Australia. Women left loved ones, travelling for months by sea to a new home from which they might never return. They bravely forged new lives for themselves and their families, setting up homes and establishing social networks. My research shows that the needlework skills they learnt as girls, along with new skills developed in the colonies, could make the world of difference to their experiences in Australia.

It’s easy to forget with clothes and household textiles so readily available today that needlework was a daily task for most women in the nineteenth century. On the one hand, large numbers of working women were employed as dressmakers, seamstresses, needlewomen or tailoresses. Needlework could be a source of independence or a shackle that bound them to a life of poverty. On the other hand, needlework – particularly decorative needlework such as stitching embroidered slippers, smoking caps or fire-screens – was a sanctioned genteel pastime and an assertion of leisure.

But the reality for many genteel women in Australia was something more complex when homes were transient or isolated and servants in short supply. They made white gowns and shirts for their babies and pretty dresses for growing children. They stitched simple garments for the poor. They hemmed curtains and cloths for the kitchen. They refurbished their gowns to keep them in good condition and looking fashionable, following news of stylish dress that spread across the Empire. They mended and darned their clothing, underclothing and household linen, an often-relentless task. They might even turn their hand to tailoring practical hard-wearing clothing for their husbands in their new roles as gold diggers or pastoral workers.

This sewing could be both a burden and a pleasure; a labour of love, proof of devotion but unrelenting in its demands; and perhaps even a skill that, when needed, could cross the work/leisure divide. For these reasons, needlework helps inform our understandings of nineteenth-century womanhood and constructions of gender and class identities. In my work I am particularly interested in the ways in which genteel women’s needlework can be analysed as a cultural performance: with needlework products cultural objects and needlework practices cultural behaviour in acts of identity formation.

Women’s sewing and the products of their needlework made powerful public statements. It resonated beyond their home’s walls to establish, assert or maintain social status. It is a curious entanglement – where some sewing derived its value from being visible to an audience of peers while other forms were better left concealed – that my work sets out to interrogate.

Publicly creating fancywork for husbands, friends or the charity bazaar strengthened constructions of gentility in Australia much as it did throughout the British world. Sewing clothing for children or simple garments for the poor extended this. The first reflected maternal care; the second public benevolence – critical when destitution was widespread among the most vulnerable in gold-rush society.

And while many women despised plain sewing and hid it from their peers, revised notions of genteel behaviour emerged in the colonies aligning colonial femininity with industry and purpose. The comfort of the home, cleanliness of the family and a modest, tasteful appearance were expected by observers even in unpromising circumstances – with women’s hidden plain sewing contributing to each.

Women set out to improve tents or rough wooden cottages with the addition of textile furnishings – where fabrics were available. Such work was deeply appreciated by those invited to enter, though their host might keep silent on the true extent of their work. Women, too, worked hard to ensure their family had a full complement of undergarments, though these were rarely discussed or seen in polite society.

Clothing, in particular, became a ready marker of status even as this was complicated by the sudden wealth of those who struck it rich and their much-remarked-upon predilection for fine dress. A range of sewing practices – some left unsaid except in diaries and journals – were employed by genteel women to extend the wearable life of their gowns. Dress was kept appropriate through simple maintenance. Changes to the sleeves or the volume of the skirt might transform the silhouette. It could be made fresh through the addition of new trim. And gowns – valuable even as they aged – could be passed down to sisters, daughters or even servants, with the bodice taken in or let out, the skirt hemmed to the correct length or through a range of other techniques that ensure good fit.

Some sewing practices in Australia then conformed to expectation while in certain areas, and often simultaneously, the boundaries of others were tested as women responded to the demands of colonial living, negotiated their place in a new environment and redefined their identities.

Dr Lorinda Cramer is Postdoctoral Research Associate on the Australian Research Council Discovery project ‘Men’s Dress in Twentieth-Century Australia: Masculinity, Fashion, Social Change’ at the Australian Catholic University. Her research in dress, fashion and textile history focuses on class, gender and material culture. She is author of Needlework and Women’s Identity in Colonial Australia (Bloomsbury), recently released in paperback, and has written articles on worn, everyday dress and what this might indicate about daily experience, men’s and women’s engagement with clothing in uncertain times, and needlework practices and products that defined colonial experiences.