How does a successful businesswoman who was a household name in Australia and New Zealand for close to a century nearly slip from history’s grasp?
Polish clothing pattern designer Johanna Weigel started Madame Weigel’s pattern business in Melbourne in 1878.
In its 90 years of operation, the business printed 9,000 patterns, from high fashion designs to everyday clothing.
“She provided patterns for the entire family right across the entire lifecycle from babies to matrons, which was her term for the mature woman who would often become, and I quote, ”stout’. Her designs ranged from underwear, millinery to outdoor clothing, sportswear, nightwear, shoes, and little slippers.”
In 1915 alone, 1 million Madame Weigel patterns were sold.
The key to her success were the hundreds of shopkeepers throughout rural Australia who acted as her agents.
“Her reach went into the far extremes of every colony or state, usually along the railway lines, sometimes along the roads, sometimes along the rivers, and often up, up the coast by the steamer, and it’s astonishing just how many agencies she had,” Dr Lampkin said.
Uncovering the mystery
Dr Lampkin’s fascination with the entrepreneur was sparked 14 years ago after she bought 22 old paper patterns at a market stall.
“They start around 1904 and end around the late ’20s, and I can’t tell you how thrilled I was when I found them because they’re so hard to find,” Dr Lampkin said.
Curious about the delicate relics, the librarian wanted to know more about Johanna, but the woman behind the brand-name proved an elusive subject, with few personal details on the public record and not a single verified photograph.
Dr Lampkin’s amateur sleuthing kick-started many years of academic research, resulting in a PhD thesis and four books.
“When I started my doctorate in 2007, I got a strong sense that she’d just about slipped away from the historical grasp, partly because she didn’t have any children and I think partly because she was a woman.”
Dr Lampkin hit research gold at The Victorian State Library, which had a collection of “Weigel’s Journal of Fashion” from 1884 to 1950.
A cross between a newsletter and a magazine, each issue of the monthly publication included up to eight patterns, and women across the country were avid readers.
“It might be a couple of months before the post would come, and there comes your Madame Weigel’s journal. Can you just imagine sitting by the lamplight when the children were in bed and really drooling over this book and imagining how that (pattern) could be utilised?” said Iris Skinner, a volunteer at the Templin Historical Village Museum in Templin, an hour and a half south-west of Brisbane.
Madame Weigel’s patterns
After reading Dr Lampkin’s book, Mrs Skinner and fellow sewing guild members realised Templin’s vintage clothing and sewing collection held some very old Madame Weigel patterns.
“There were 10 patterns and 10 of us in our sewing guild, and so we took one each to make them up, and that’s when we had problems,” laughed Iris Skinner.
Dr Lampkin encountered the same problems.
“Many of her instructions were very brief if you got any at all, as there was a huge assumption women knew just what to do.”
The talented guild sewers struggled with the patterns but eventually cracked the cryptic notches and holes and produced clothing spanning 90 years of changing styles and fabrics.
Their garments were recently exhibited in Beaudesert, alongside precious home-sewn vintage Weigel’s from the Templin Museum’s collection.
The show was a huge success, and Dr Lampkin’s books sold out.
“People were buying all three books, coming back for more, bringing back another person,” said Irene Girsch-Danby from the Scenic Rim Regional Council.
“It’s not fine art in any way, but it is so grassroots, it’s so accessible to everybody, and [visitor] numbers were staggering: we were overwhelmed.”
Sewer Jennifer Shead said it was important for women’s history to be told through the lens of home dressmaking and domestic crafts.
“It was very hard work, and I certainly wouldn’t like to be a housewife a hundred years ago, and if they were fortunate enough to have a maid, [it was a] very hard life for maids.”
Dr Lampkin has not stopped her research and hopes increased awareness about the groundbreaking entrepreneur will encourage those with patterns or old clothing to preserve them.
Her biggest hope is someone has a photo of the woman she’s spent 14 years getting to know.
“It’s very sad that she turned into Madame Weigel the forgotten, but the collaboration with Templin has brought her alive again, and she’s certainly well on her way now to a revival.”