We know little about the financial situation of New Zealand women during the Great Depression in the 1930s; work statistics were kept only on men. But as the depression began to bite and unemployment rise, thriftiness became a vital domestic skill.
For many women, their crafting was of a practical kind, based on necessity. Lacking disposable income, they focussed on recycling and repurposing what few resources they had at hand.
By Rosemary Mcleod
Wealthier New Zealand women could afford to practice popular leisure crafts involving some financial investment. Fifteen such crafts were outlined in one craft book of the period, from spinning and weaving to leathercraft, lacquer work, pottery and enamelling. “It is hoped that this book will play its part in the great revival of handcrafts which is taking place today”. But this sentiment was intended as a call to the conceptual underpinnings of the Arts and Crafts movement, and was possibly beyond what ordinary New Zealand women would attempt.
Most women would have been trained in childhood in basic needlecraft and embroidery stitches, darning and mending, but the challenge now was more demanding than they could have expected, and solutions more ingenious. Partly that may have told a personal story of rising above circumstances, and partly a wish to make a home, however poor, look as cheerful and welcoming as women’s magazines exhorted them to be. “Nowadays when all the world is learning to understand that cheerful rooms make cheerful people, anything that can brighten our lives is good news.”
Worn-out adult clothes were taken apart and re-sewn into children’s garments, by hand if a woman had no sewing machine. Men’s jackets and trousers became shorts and jackets for boys, whose shorts were lined with flour bag cotton. Dresses were either refashioned and patched, or taken apart and remade into girls’ frocks. Any scraps remaining were cut into strips to make rag floor rugs, or were pieced with other rags as interlining to make a quilt warmer. Old socks and un-mendable woollen pullovers went the same way.
Men’s worn-out shirts joined women’s ragged cotton dresses in patchwork garments, cushion covers, quilts, curtains, or cloths to decorate tops of furniture. Where men fashioned improvised cupboards from wooden fruit crates, a scrap of printed fabric could be tacked across the opening as a curtain. Women’s wrecked stockings and everyone’s underwear could finally be useful for rag rugs. Old curtains could become half aprons, table mats and tray cloths.
Meanwhile worn out sheets were cut in half lengthwise, the worn middle part cut away, and resewn with a French seam. When these wore out they could become handkerchiefs. Darning of socks and woollen garments continued as usual at that time, and as a last resort pullovers and cardigans were unpicked and rewound, to be knitted up again into something new. Women with access to fabrics used by menswear makers prized sample squares and offcuts they could turn into patchwork quilts to use as blankets.
The harshest fabric used for Depression craft was sacking, otherwise known as jute or burlap. A plain heavy sack would often become a door mat for a back door or shed, but sugar sacks of the Colonial Sugar Refinery were of lighter hessian, reserved for use as full aprons for heavy work like laundering and gardening. These aprons were often decorated with strips of dress fabric around the edge, and embroidered roughly with coloured wool. Fancier examples might be sold at charity fundraisers. The stamp of the sugar refinery can often be found on the back.
Hessian also lent itself to making duster bags and laundry bags with fabric trims and images of cheery black people appliqued onto them. There was as yet no awareness of causing possible offence. Golliwogs were a popular home-made toy for children at the time, as were true rag dolls. Empty wooden cotton reels became toys for children, either simple necklaces on string, or snakes to pull along.
Rag rugs, made from cast-off clothes and other household textiles, were worked on old sacks, by both men and women, while some people could buy hessian ready-stamped with a design. The rugs were already a long and admired tradition in America and England, and one writer felt the need to explain, “It is unfortunate that rugs made from waste material have been loosely termed ‘thrift rugs.’ This description has given many people the impression that such rugs are inferior substitutes for worked wool rugs, should the worker be too poor to buy rug wool, and implies that the finished article can only be fit for the kitchen hearth.” 
Such a class divide in Depression crafts would have worried nobody who was struggling to get by, and proud of their efforts. In any case World War II swiftly followed the Depression, and such economies would be practiced for years to come, by a widening group of women affected by import restrictions and rationing.
One such woman was the future pioneer Wellington art dealer Helen Hitchings, who owned some of the popular Dryad Handicrafts leaflets popular at the time, Cord Knotting, Fabric Printing with Indigosol Dye, Make Then from Raffia, and Netting. Like many other stylish women interested in craft she was proud to make her own hats and accessories.
Header image: Apron made from a hessian, unknown maker, c.1930s.