Tartan skirt worn by Sarah Thomas

Contributed by: Tongarra Museum

Skirt - Front Skirt- Front Detail Skirt - Back Skirt- Back Detail Sarah Thomas
  • Australian dress register ID:

  • Owner:

    Tongarra Museum
  • Owner registration number:

  • Date range:

    1838 - 1878
  • Place of origin:

    Albion Park, New South Wales, Australia
  • Gender:

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Object information

Significance statement

This skirt was made by Sarah Thomas en route to Australia from England in 1838.  Sarah wore this skirt from its date of manufacture until her death in 1878. Sarah Thomas, nee Waller was born in Kent England in 1808. In 1828 she married William Thomas a carpenter, also from Kent. William, Sarah and the first four of their ten children immigrated to Australia in 1838. They lived at Log Bridge Farm, near Albion Park in NSW were they ran a farm a well as a small carpenter business. In total Sarah had ten children and this is most evident in the large number of residents in the Albion Park region who are her direct descendants.

This skirt is part of a larger collection of objects that paint for us a picture of the life of Sarah Thomas. This skirt reflects the starting of a new life and a desire by Sarah and William Thomas to peruse for themselves something better for their family than what they could achieve in England. The construction of this skirt also tells us important information about Sarah herself. The gathering at the centre back suggests that the skirt was designed to be taken in and out; perhaps a reflection of her changing shape through pregnancy. This is also confirmed by the three rows of needle holes around the skirt. This suggests that the bodice was sewn on to adapt to a older or pregnant body shape or for a different wearer.

Although the original bodice for this skirt has not survived this is an important example of early Nineteenth Century costume in the Illawarra region on the South Coast of New South Wales. It tells us intriguing information about the wearer as well as what was fashionable dress in the region during the 1840s.

Author: Rebecca Evans, 1st October 2008.


Long Silk taffeta skirt, lined with unbleached calico. Fabric is of a tartan design in deep purple, white and green. This skirt is high waisted and is full in its silhouette. The skirt has eight handmade green fabric buttons down the front with three decorative pleats either side of the row of buttons.  These buttons are purely decorative as the skirt has an eye and hook and an opening at the back of the skirt to fasten the wearer in.

The full skirt is attached to the waistband through rough pleating with two sections of gathering at the centre back. Down the front of the skirt there five bias cut folded strips of fabric extending from the waist to the hem and down the central strip there are eight fabric covered buttons. Typical of the style of dress at the time we believe that there was a bodice worn with the skirt. This can be seen through three rows of needle holes extending around the top of the skirt. These rows extend in a straight horizontal line around the skirt but come together at a distinctive V-shape at the centre front. This tells us that that the bodice was V-shaped at the front, typical of 1840s fashion.

History and Provenance

Births, deaths, marriages, children or family information

Sarah Thomas, who wore and made this skirt was born in 1808 in Kent, England to

John and Sarah Waller. In 1828 she married William Thomas at the age of twenty.

Sarah had ten children in total;

1. John born 1828

2. Clorinda born 1833

3. William born 1835

4. Ann born 1839

5. James born 1843

6. Elizabeth born 1846

7. George born 1849

8. Charles born 1851

9. Henry born 1853

10. Maria born 1855

In 1838 she, her husband, William and the first four of their ten

children immigrated to Australia. They lived at Log Bridge farm located near

Albion Park, NSW. Sarah died in 1879 and was buried at Brownsville Church of

England Cemetery, Dapto, NSW.

Do you have any stories or community information associated with this?

The owner of this skirt, Sarah Thomas has many descendants who still reside within the Illawarra region. Many members of this extended family are also currently involved in the various local history bodies in the Shellharbour region.

How does this garment relate to the wider historical context?

This skirt symbolises the start of a new life for Sarah Thomas and her family. The fabric for the garment was purchased in England while the skirt was constructed by the hand of Sarah Thomas en route to Australia. In the same way a bride chooses her trousseau for married life Sarah has brought the fabric in preparation her new life in Australia.

The style of design that Sarah has chosen is also a fashionable form for its date. Although the Tongarra Museum only has in its collection the skirt, it is most likely that it was completed with a jacket in the same fabric. We can also see from this skirt that Sarah Thomas was a fashionable woman, who despite being the wife of a carpenter wished to look stylish.

Another aspect worth noting about this garment is its impracticality for the Australian climate. The heaviness and high quality nature of the fabric make is unrealistic for the life of a working class woman whose role in Australia was largely consumed by domestic and farm labour. This skirt, therefore was not only impractical for the Australian environment but also for the role and position in society in which Sarah Thomas held.

There are many reasons for this, one being that Sarah would of purchased and constructed such a garment so as to retain many of the customs of her homeland in a foreign country. It is also to demonstrate social position and status.

  1. Place of origin:

    Albion Park, New South Wales, Australia

  2. Owned by:

    Skirt owned by Sarah Thomas, 1838-1878.

  3. Worn by:

    Sarah Thomas

  4. Occasion(s):

    Formal/ Sunday best wear.

  5. Place:

    Albion Park

  6. Made by:

    Sarah Thomas, 1838

  7. Made for:

    Sarah Thomas

Trimmings / Decoration

Eight decorative handmade fabric green buttons down the front of the skirt.


There are three pleats on either side of the line of buttons down the front of skirt.

Fibre / Weave

Fabric is a crisp silk woven taffeta in a tartan design of green, purple and white. Lining is of a cotton calico

  1. Natural dye
  2. Synthetic dye



Evidence of previous repairs with the use of button hole stitch to prevent fraying.

  1. Hand sewn
  2. Machine sewn
  3. Knitted
  4. Other


  1. Bias
  2. Straight


  1. Hook and eye
  2. Lacing
  3. Buttons
  4. Zip
  5. Drawstring


Waist 640 mm
Hip 730 mm
Hem circumference 304 mm
Front waist to hem 110 mm
Fabric width 900 mm
Convert to inches

Buttons: 2cm diameter

Pleats: 9.05 cm width

Dress Themes

Formal / 'Sunday best'

Additional material

Other related objects

1. Lock of Sarah Thomas' hair,

2. Cotton Scarf of green and blue,

3. Paisley Shawl of purple, pink and purple made to match the skirt,

4. Hat Pin,

5. Amethyst brooch,

6. Suitcase which was used to immigrate to Australia and

7. A photograph of Sarah Thomas.

Link to collection online


Tartan skirt is in a good condition. There is evidence of previous repairs with the use of button hole stitch used to prevent fraying in sections. There are numerous holes around the hem of the garment and especially surrounding the fastening at the back of the skirt. There are slight stains on the front of the skirt and inside the lining. Overall the fabric has retained its vibrant and beautiful colours.

Evidence of repairs

Evidence of previous repairs with the use of button hole stitch to prevent fraying.

Insect damage


Mould damage



  1. Excellent
  2. Good
  3. Fair
  4. Poor
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