The mysterious Madame Weigel: The household name that was forgotten

Until a group of regional sewers and a history professor brought her back to life...

Long before it got fast, fashion was slow. For colonial women, who waited months for letters, parcels, journals and newspapers, it moved at a glacial speed.

By the time the latest Paris and London trends had landed, they were already out of date.

Fashion, for the average woman with a family to clothe, was the least of her concerns.

Right up to the 1940s, women made all the clothing for their family, along with soft furnishings – rugs, cushions, napery and tea cosies. No fabric was wasted.

Garments were handed down, unstitched, turned, patched, repaired and altered, particularly during wartime and the Great Depression.

Old curtains became dresses and coats, sheets were restitched, and wedding dresses remade into underwear, sleepwear and babies’ clothes.

“It wasn’t high fashion,” says Iris Skinner, Templin Historical Museum’s House of Fashion curator and member of the Common Threads Chapter of the Australian Sewing Guild.

“It was everyday mums trying to keep their family decently dressed.”

Then, in 1861, New Yorkers William and Ellen Demorest hit upon an idea that would revolutionise home sewing – paper dressmaking patterns.

Butterick, McCall’s, Simplicity and Vogue patterns quickly followed.

Hugely popular in the US and England, the patterns now enabled women to dress themselves and their families stylishly and economically.

Yet unlike their US and British sisters, Australian women had no access to patterns, and drafted clothes from what they already had or pictures they saw in newspapers and journals.

It was Melbourne couple Oscar and Johanna Weigel who made paper patterns available to Australian women.

And when they went on sale in 1878, they were an immediate success.

Madame Weigel

“When Madame Weigel introduced paper patterns, the feminine world was first amazed and then delighted,” wrote Punch magazine in 1907.

Right up to the 1960s, Weigel’s produced over 9000 patterns, from baby’s clothes to workwear, hats, gloves and even slippers.

The patterns chronicle not only changing fashions – from an 1880s ladies’ walking costume through to a 1960s pleated skirt – but the status of women.

Yet, despite Madame Weigel’s phenomenal reach and output – over a million patterns sold in 1916 alone – the woman revered for “clothing the colonies” fell through the cracks of history and almost disappeared.

Enter the women of the Common Threads sewing guild, the Templin museum, and academic and biographer Dr Veronica Lampkin.

Through hours of painstaking needlework, books and exhibitions, these women have ensured Madame Weigel’s place in Australian history and kept her extraordinary legacy, as entrepreneur and champion for women, alive.

Passion for patterns

Originally European immigrants, the Weigels met in New York where they both worked for McCall’s.

Madame Weigel

The newlywed couple sailed to Melbourne in 1877 for a six-month visit, and soon became fixtures on the local social scene.

Women were impressed by Johanna’s fashionable, expertly tailored outfits, especially when they discovered she’d stitched them herself.

“Women asked me to show them how to make dresses like mine,” Johanna said later, “and in a moment of weakness I cut some patterns for them.”

Astonished by the popularity of her patterns, and realising the business opportunity it presented, Johanna and Oscar decided to stay in Australia.

A year after they arrived in Melbourne, Weigel’s Patterns opened in Richmond, and their Journal of Fashion was published soon after.

The monthly publication included paper patterns, fashion tips, observations, social jottings and general household advice.

“It would not be in good taste,” Madame advised L.E in 1881, “to trim a coloured dress with black.”

Madame Weigel (left) with her travelling companion, Miss Sarah Nielson. It’s believed this is the only known photo of the talented businesswoman.

By the turn of the 20th century, Madame Weigel’s influence was widespread, with agents dotted around Australia and New Zealand.

For country women on lonely farms, the Journal was a lifeline.

“It is most appreciated far from ordinary civilisation, and where there are no shops available,” wrote the Richmond Guardian. “There are subscribers in most inaccessible places.”

“They would only get the mail service every three months,” Iris explains.

“It would be absolutely thrilling for the mailman to come, and here is your Madame Weigel’s Journal. Can you just imagine her sitting by the lamplight, when the children were in bed, really drooling over it?”

“Madame had a keen empathy with the women she served, knowing of their occasional extravagance but more importantly their thrift,” Dr Lampkin wrote in her book, Madame Weigel’s Patterns.

“They had to make the most of what they had.”

Madame Weigel

“Mind the purse,” Madame would extoll her readers. One issue in 1894 featured instructions on how to cure, tan, colour and purify the skins of “opossum, kangaroo, bear, platypus, emu, sheep, and birds’ feathers”.

In 1899, a correspondent from Tasmania asked how to prepare sheepskin to make a boa. In 1910, an experienced rabbit trapper gave advice on how to tan skins for homemade furs.

A labour of love

Fifteen years ago, Veronica Lampkin was at a market stall when she discovered a stack of paper patterns dating from the early 1900s.

Intrigued by the delicate relics, Dr Lampkin wanted to know more about Madame Weigel, but struggled to find any details about her, or even a single photograph.

Over many years, Dr Lampkin’s research into the mysterious Madame revealed an enterprising businesswoman. It also resulted in a PhD and four books.

Meanwhile, at the Templin Historical Museum two hours south of Brisbane, Iris Skinner was going through the museum’s collection for an upcoming exhibition of Australian fashion.

She recognised that a number of items were Weigel designs, and contacted local craft and sewing groups for any Weigel patterns, journals or vintage clothing the museum could display.

Madame Weigel

“Some of the ladies got quite excited, so we ended up with quite a hoard of Weigel’s items,” laughs Iris, 83, who has been associated with Templin for two decades. “Then, when we were delving through all the stuff, we found 10 dressmaking patterns.”

The find coincided with the launch of Dr Lampkin’s book, Madame Weigel: The Woman who Clothed the Australasian Colonies.

“Suddenly we had all this historical information at our fingertips,” Iris continues. “There were 10 patterns and 10 of us in our sewing guild, so we decided to take a pattern each and make them up.”

But, despite their experience, the sewers were perplexed by a series of notches and holes that featured on the patterns.

“The tissue paper had no information, and there was little instruction,” says Iris. As most women of the era knew how to sew, Madame assumed a reasonable level of expertise.

The clever sewers soon cracked Madame’s cryptic code and made the garments, which they added to the museum’s existing collection of Weigel items – tea cosies, rugs, cushions and clothes.

Around the same time, Veronica Lampkin was speaking at a conference on textiles in Brisbane, and the guild members eagerly attended.

Iris Skinner (seated) holds the pattern book featuring Madame Weigel’s blue sunflower dress. Lyn Gordon (standing) is the seamstress who made the replica.

Chatting to Dr Lampkin afterwards, the women mentioned the museum’s 300 Weigel items. The idea for an exhibition, in collaboration with Dr Lampkin, was born.

Templin’s Weigel exhibit was a huge success and attracted busloads of visitors. The show then travelled to the Liverpool Regional Museum in Sydney, and on to Beaudesert, south west of Brisbane, where it drew fashion enthusiasts, tourists and history buffs in droves.

One exhibit reduced an older gentleman to tears. “When he was little he’d visit his grandmother for afternoon tea,” Iris explains. There, before him in a glass case, was the exact replica of his grandma’s knitted tea cosy.

Free to move

By the time Oscar died in 1915, Weigel’s Patterns had become so successful that Madame had retired from managing the business, devoting her time to leisure and travel.

At a time when most women didn’t have lives outside the home, Madame Weigel thrilled readers with her adventures.

When women were discouraged from vigorous activities, Johanna drove a car, went skiing, cycled and swam in the sea. Such pursuits, she realised, required women to move freely, unhindered by restrictive clothing.

One of Templin’s prized Weigel items is a ‘divided riding skirt’. Up until the late 1880s, women rode side-saddle – an extremely dangerous practice – as to sit astride like a man was considered immodest.

Madame Weigel

The ‘riding skirt’ – an early version of culottes – allowed women to ride in comfort and safety.

It also pushed the boundaries of what was considered decent.

A feminist who used her journal as an agent for change, Johanna saw a life for women beyond home and family. “If a girl has another talent than cooking, I see no reason why she should not develop it in preference to house and kitchen work, which can be learned when necessary,” she wrote.

In 1940, Madame Weigel died, aged 92. Her business continued until 1969, but as more women entered the workforce and mass-produced clothing became cheaper and more available, home dressmaking declined.

For almost a century, Madame Weigel helped Australian and New Zealand women clothe themselves and their families stylishly and economically.

Along the way, she revealed a world where women were unconstrained by cumbersome, impractical clothing, her patterns a template for freedom.

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