In our recent Pieced Together feature, we introduced you to the Templin Historical Village Museum, and its spectacular collection of fashion and textiles housed at the ‘Templin House of Fashion’. To further explore the realities of caring for a collection of this scale and significance, we interviewed two of the museum volunteers, Karen Douglas and Iris Skinner, who have a specific interest and dedication to the fashion collection.
The Fashion Archives: Can you shed some more light on how a small country town like Templin came to have one of Queensland’s largest public collections of dress? How did it all start?
Karen & Iris: The Fassifern District Historical Society was offered the site to create an historical village in 1974, when the Templin State School closed. Historic buildings from around the shire were moved there and the donation of items began. Since 1975 a vast number of textiles, ranging from clothing to household, birth to death items, have been donated. We probably now have about 3000 items in the textile collection.
Templin was predominately settled by Germans from the 1860s, and their culture was to hang on to things so they could be used for something or someone else. The early settlers had a respect for the workmanship and labour that went into producing garments. There’s was a waste not/want not way of thinking.
Many of the early settlers arrived with the barest minimum of belongings. Everything had to be carried here and life’s necessities—such as a spade or an axe or cooking pot—had to fit on the dray or wagon. People then didn’t own as much clothing, and what they owned had to last, as well as be suitable for all aspects of living out here, away from the main population settlements. Some women with a keen eye for fashion would construct clothes from pictures in the newspaper, but it all depended on family finances and the availability of materials. Living out here posed problems in terms of sourcing materials, and our textile collection holds some magnificent examples of ‘make-do and mend’. For example, we have a hand-made baby’s dress that used fabric from another garment (perhaps a woman’s petticoat) and doilies for a bonnet and bib. Another interesting item is a lady’s flannelette all-in-one undergarment that has been beautified with the addition of rows of bobbin (torchon) lace around the arms, legs and neck.
What are your roles within the historical society, and how have your backgrounds and interest in fashion and textiles informed the work you have been doing with the collection?
Karen Douglas is the Secretary of the Historical Society. Christine Titmarsh is the archivist and recorder, and Iris Skinner is the source of all information regarding fabric and stitches. Iris is also a long term member of the Queensland Embroiderer’s Guild and Christine has been a member of the Queensland Lace guild. Karen has worked for the Queensland Museum Cobb & Co Branch. Between us we have 133 years of sewing experience!!! The 3 of us work together sharing ideas, skills, hints and knowledge. Iris and Christine belong to a Ladies Craft group run by the Baptist Church in nearby Kalbar and the other ladies in the group are very generous in making shoe stuffers and hangers and other bits and pieces. These ladies are also very good at sourcing bibs and bobs such as buttons, threads, laces etc. from past eras.
What kind of facilities do you have, and how do you manage the specific environmental conditions we have in Queensland, such as heat and humidity?
In the early days of the Historical Society, members were full of enthusiasm, but perhaps they were lacking in museum knowledge and best practice. About 8 years ago, it was decided to tackle the growing textile collection and to look at conserving, cataloguing, storing and displaying textiles. About the same time Scenic Rim Council made a house on an adjoining block available to the Society. Funds were obtained through a Jupiter’s Casino grant to refurbish the interior and to construct display cupboards in three rooms as well as an air-conditioned, vermin proof (as much as conditions allowed) bio room in which to store the textiles. Along with cleaning and proper garment storage, we have also been recording any known details of the garment and its history as well as donor details and entering them on to a database.
In addition to the bio storage room, we use an old dining room with a huge table at which we accession items, lay them out for inspection and so on. The kitchen is used as a photo studio (which consists of a slide projector screen over which is draped a large piece of light grey sheeting and a tape measure and a tripod…primitive but effective). There are no facilities for us to clean garments so, against current recommended museum practice, the team has to take a couple of items home at a time to wash, repair and put into calico storage bags. We have a definite rule that items that have not been washed, or frozen or vacuumed do not go into the bio room. We have some sticky insect traps in the room and we also use containers of dehumidifiers (the ones you get at the cheap shops).
The collection is very broad, ranging from 19th and 20th century women’s clothing, to uniforms, wedding dresses, children’s clothing, swimwear, and domestic textiles. What kind of approach do you have to exhibiting the collection? For example, do you have temporary, rotating or permanent displays? What kind of themes and time periods do you cover?
As the collection is quite extensive, the opportunity is there for us to have rotating displays. To date we have had themes of Weddings, Show Time, Babies (timed to coincide with the opening of a nearby memorial to unmarked baby’s graves in the district), ANZAC Day, Lace, Beadwork, Hats, Sleepwear, and clothing worn to mark historical events within the district, Clothing Across the Eras.
Karen, you had an opportunity to travel to the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney to be mentored specifically about the ins and outs of caring for fashion and textiles in a museum setting. How did this experience impact the approach that you, Iris, and others at Templin have taken with your own collection?
Karen was fortunate enough to be awarded a grant to spend a number of weeks in the textile conservation section of the Sydney Powerhouse Museum and the Australian Dress Register. Museums and Gallery Services Qld are to be thanked for their foresight in using the mentorship program to get people like Karen from the rural areas into learn from established museums such as the Powerhouse and to tap into the expertise of the staff in their regional services. This experience enabled Karen to bring back ideas and other examples of best practice in regards to textile collections. It was also an opportunity to discuss specific questions regarding storage of hats and other garments. Karen was also introduced to the work of the Australian Dress Register and was guided to enter a garment onto the Register. The textile conservation staff led Karen though the process of measuring a garment from all angles and completing all the fields and then photographing the gown before it went online (view it here: http://www.australiandressregister.org/garment/362/) .
Your collection is very well housed—you have followed as closely as possible the institutional advice on how to store clothing and textiles, for example, using washed calico garments bags, padded hangers, garment boxes with acid free tissue paper, etc. How difficult has it been to meet these standards given the scale of your budget and the fact that you are a volunteer run organisation?
We are trying our best to follow good museum standards but it can be difficult in terms of having sufficient funds. We’ve had to become quite creative in sourcing funds or materials. For example, with around 1000 items hanging in calico bags, we go through our fabric supply very quickly. In the past, we’ve approached some of the service clubs in our district for funds to purchase calico, and have been supported by Rotary and Lions. Many of our friends supply us with their offcuts and the local quilting ladies give us their Dacron trimmings used to pad our hangers. We have also sourced many second hand mannequins and made them a body covering of stretch cotton to cover up cracks and dents in their plaster. We are also very good at begging! We have invested in buffered and unbuffered paper and we received a small local grant that enabled us to buy some textile storage boxes with trays for the more fragile garments that cannot be hung. We found that by putting a donation box in the House of Fashion and spending time with visitors leads to a small steady supply of donations. I must admit that we do tend to buy some things ourselves but we do that because of our passion in seeing the collection cared for.
When we needed a supply of metal zippers (so that garments could be fitted with fastenings from the correct era), we ran a story in the local newspaper asking for community donations of old metal zippers. We ended up with about 400 zippers of all colours, shapes and sizes. In fact, they have become a collection in their own right.
We had the opportunity to select just 5 garments from your collection in our Pieced Together feature, but there were so many others we could have chosen! Can you tell us about a few examples of some other items in the collection that you feel are particularly noteworthy or significant?
We have a number of significant items of interest to Queensland history, such as an academic gown made by Rothwells in Brisbane. It was worn by Miss Maggie MacKenzie, who in 1916 was one of 2 female science graduates from the University of Queensland. We also have a large collection of documents, papers, scientific notes and drawings of hers. In 1927 a local Boonah lad Alfred Betts went to Gatton College when it was an Agricultural High School. We have his blazer, as well as Alf’s grandmothers riding outfit for a side saddle, Alf’s army uniforms, his wife Bessie’s Army nursing uniform (in which she was married) and Donegal tweed riding jackets that belonged to two of his triplet children as well as a great deal of documents and photographs that corroborate the connection to these garments.
We also have wedding dresses dating to the 1880s worn by women whose descendants are still residing in the district. In fact, we have some mothers and their daughter’s wedding gowns.
Boonah had a number of tailors and notable dressmakers who sewed their labels into garments that were worn by locals and have since been donated to us. Miss Cecilia Christensen was a dressmaker of reknown throughout the district. Some of our donors recall being taken as young children to be measured and fitted for a winter and summer outfit each year.
Please don’t think we only have women’s items in the collection. Though it is a small part of the collection, we are fortunate to have a number of military uniforms from WW1 to Afghanistan, and everything from pyjamas to formal evening clothes, underwear to outerwear.
Exhibitions of fashion and dress are very popular with museum audiences. What are your future plans for the collection?
Publicity is a double-edged sword, in that the more we promote our collection, the more items are donated from the area. We could easily fill an entire building if someone had one to donate!
Our future plans for the collection are to identify duplicates and more robust garments that we can use in displays at local events. Iris has also made some copies of garments in the collection that can be lent for display purposes. Most urgent for now, however, is the need to raise funds to build another air-conditioned store room to house the ever-growing collection.
Upcoming exhibitions at the Fashion House include ‘50 years of State Emergency Services in Boonah’, a display of aprons from all walks of life, and then one on ‘winter warmers’. We are currently planning an exhibition of wedding dresses, and for 2015, a tribute to WW1.
Published in Issue 10, on March 11, 2014.