construction

Hidden in the Seams

The Whanganui Regional Museum houses a textiles collection with about 3,600 items ranging from early pieces of clothing, including dresses, skirts and shirts, jackets, hats, gloves and lingerie, as well as samples of needlework, lacework and embroidery. There are also domestic items such as tablecloths, quilts, tea-cosies and household linens. Add tapa cloth and mats and rugs, and the range is significant. The items provide important information about their role in different eras, and in the skill required to create them.

1. Silk dress

 Silk taffeta dress from around 1860. Ref: 1968.13.1

The way a garment is constructed can tell a lot. The choice of fabric, the quality of materials used, style, silhouette and colour combinations can offer hints about the era when it was made and about the person who wore it. Even something as simple as the stitching can tell a story.

The craft of sewing by hand was a necessary skill for women settlers in colonial New Zealand. Sewing materials like thread, fabric and needles arrived in Church Missionary settlements as early as 1820, and the ability to create, mend and repair textiles was essential. Dressmakers and tailors started to arrive by around 1840 and offer their services, but many people were in isolated areas or simply could not afford to have clothing made by professionals; therefore, sewing from home remained an essential part of life for women and girls.

As a seamstress, a woman was required to know a myriad of stitches for different purposes: hem stitch, top stitch, straight stitch, blanket stitch, tack, chain stitch, darning stitch, slip stitch, pad stitch, buttonhole stitch, to name but a few.

For many years clothing was either prohibitively expensive or fabrics were hard to source. Sewing was important in making clothing last longer, let alone creating something from scratch. Mending was an art. When clothing was faded, it was taken apart and sewn back together wrong-side-out, or the fabric used as trim or lining for new clothes. When the fabric wore out it was reused to make quilts or other functional items. These settler people understood Reduce, Reuse, Recycle out of pure necessity.

2. Inner of silk dress

 Lining of the same dress showing its hand-sewn construction.

In time, the arrival of retailers who sold ready-to-wear men’s and young children’s clothing made clothing the family easier. For many years, however, the intricate design, shape and fit of women’s clothing meant mass production was not viable. Even with the availability of more widely used domestic sewing machines in the mid-1880s, the skill and ability to sew by hand was still required. Many New Zealand women were involved in the handcrafted construction of clothing until well into the 1950s and 1960s. Thereafter the practice of home sewing started to decline, due to the availability of factory-produced and relatively cheap clothing.

In comparison to today’s world, sewing an item of clothing was a hands-on, intimate, lengthy and skilled process. Today as a society we do not have much of a connection to what it takes to make a garment, because much of the manufacturing involved is offshore and very much an industrialised process. It might even be fair to say many people today would struggle to be able to thread a needle.

 

Rachael Garland is the Events Coordinator at Whanganui Regional Museum.

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The Architect and the Artisan

With the refurbishment of the Whanganui Regional Museum now approaching half-way, considerable attention has been paid to the design and construction of its buildings. The 1928 building’s stripped classical architecture and pre-Napier construction have caused the bigger challenges to seismic performance, with a lot of steel and timber bracing now installed.

The Māori Court building, designed by Don Wilson, has also received earthquake upgrades, but mainly it is undergoing repair and restoration of many of its original features. Wilson’s Whanganui work, including the Museum, was celebrated in a well-received talk by architectural historian Mark Southcombe at the Davis Theatre on Tuesday 19 September. Investigation of the building’s origins has also revealed fascinating stories about the people who worked on it.

1. Basil Benseman

Basil Benseman

An important collaborator with Don Wilson, and a key contributor to the structure and appearance of the 1968 building, was master brick and block layer Basil Benseman. Bas arrived in Whanganui as a child and after leaving school, worked as a truck driver. He served as an anti-aircraft gunner and truck driver during WWII in Egypt, Palestine, Syria, Tunisia and Italy before returning to an apprentice training scheme in Wellington. Before long, he had established B E Benseman Bricklayer, which from 1946 to 1985, built a significant portion of Whanganui. Bas worked on many landmark buildings around the city including the Embassy Cinema, St Marcellin School, Whanganui Intermediate, the Government Life and State Insurance buildings, the War Memorial Hall, Power Board Building, Queens Park steps and the Whanganui Regional Museum, among hundreds of others. He didn’t spend much of that time in the office; he was too busy on site, laying hundreds of thousands of bricks and blocks himself.

Don Wilson’s modernist architecture made frequent, often innovative, use of brick and concrete, and Bas often provided the craft needed to realise his designs. The Museum project used conventional blockwork in many parts of the structure, as well as stone facing around the Davis Theatre, an unusual, vertical application of decorative brick on the exterior walls and a lattice of stacked breeze blocks on the end wall, echoing a similar pattern on the War Memorial Hall across the square. Don Wilson, though, had an even more challenging role in mind for his long-time collaborator.

2. Mural

The Whanganui Regional Museum mural, made of Italian glass tiles.

The south side of the building presented a new face to the city and Wilson wanted to make the most of it. He designed a mural, based on rock drawings, to be rendered in Italian glass tiles. The biggest problem was the lack of anybody in 1968 Whanganui with the technical know-how to realise it. With complete confidence he turned to Bas who, despite his protests that he had never attempted such a thing before, was eventually persuaded to set to work in yet another medium. Over 10 months of painstaking work he invented his own mosaic technique which has weathered 50 years of Whanganui rain and sun and remains a shimmering tribute to a great partnership – the architect and the artisan.

 

Frank Stark is Director at Whanganui Regional Museum.