sewing machine

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.


From rags to stitches

From rags to stitches I

Hugh Ramage has prepared a fascinating display entitled Back Stitch: Recollections of Wanganui’s Rag Trade. And he’s just the man to do it. He has also written a book, but we’ll get to that.
The museum display consisted of sewing machines from Hugh’s collection, technical manuals, accessories, photographs, advertising posters and clothing produced by some of Wanganui’s factories.
Hugh’s story follows closely the weft and warp of the rag trade itself, beginning with his stint at the Chilco factory. Hugh had left school and this was his first job back in 1957. His boss was Eric Healey and the factory occupied the building known as Druids’ Hall in Bell St. He was there for more than six years, learning his future trade, maintaining and repairing industrial sewing machines and equipment. Hugh says the biggest thing he had to learn was how to interact with huge numbers of women. Having no sisters and being shy, he says he had to put aside his embarrassment and learn to listen to the machinists when they had a sewing machine problem.
From Chilco he went to Manawatu Knitting Mills in Palmerston North as a sewing machine mechanic. He was there for two years. “I found I was running backwards and forwards between Wanganui and Palmerston North, doing work here [Wanganui] at the weekends, so I took the plunge and went out and worked for myself,” says Hugh. He started Ramage’s Sewing Machine Service, offering a freelance service to the clothing trade.
This brings us to Hugh’s book: In the midst of the boom! Wanganui Clothing Factories 1966 and beyond.
Hugh still has his first sundry debtors’ list from his first year of trading. In effect, it’s a list of Wanganui clothing manufacturers from 1966 and he has used this as the basis of his research. He has compiled stories and facts from each factory, found photographs and interviewed people to make this a fascinating study of Wanganui’s manufacturing history from a unique perspective. It took him six years to put together and it also ties in nicely with his display at the museum. “The book homes in on the period when I started work but it also indicates the boom that was happening in clothing factories,” says Hugh.
Before long, Hugh was offered the Bernina agency and later opened the Bernina Sewing Centre at 138 Victoria Ave. “There was also a boom time in domestic. Machines had been hard to get after the war and Swift, Bernina and other brands were making quite an impact and people were spending money on home sewing machines,” he says. Things went well and he moved into bigger premises next door.
In 1985, he sold up and concentrated in the industrial business once more, until 1993 when Hugh and his wife Elaine opened a store in the Bridge Block (where Jolt is now), selling various brands of domestic machines.
They traded until 2000 then did another five years at an upstairs premises in Drews Ave. By then Hugh had built up an impressive sewing machine collection and Elaine was teaching sewing classes. This place gave them room to move. The collection of some 50 domestic machines – all restored and most in working order – is destined to be shown someday, perhaps as part of Ed Boyd’s museum complex, which is where they’re stored.

Union Special Overlocker

Union Special Overlocker

In the exhibit on display, the museum has supplied a dressing gown, a dress and petticoat, as well as a Union Special overlocker. Hugh says those machines were still in service when he started work.  Hugh Ramage’s book is a good read and is available from The Wanganui Regional Museum, Maxilab, Nu-Way Dry Cleaners, Lindsay’s Lotto Post and More and Aramoho Mags and Lotto.


Original article appeared in the Wanganui Midweek in April 2010.  Reproduced with permission from the Publishers.