Story: Unpaid domestic work

Page 3. Making clothes and preserving food

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Until the second half of the 20th century various forms of ‘self-provisioning’ – including fruit preserving and jam making, sewing and knitting – made a significant contribution to New Zealand households. These activities were also an enjoyable creative outlet for some women.

Making clothes

Sewing and knitting skills were regarded as essential for girls and women. From the 1890s sewing machines were imported in large numbers and girls were taught to sew at school.

Many New Zealand women made their own clothes from fabrics and patterns bought in draperies and department stores. Old clothes were ‘kept going’ by mending and darning or were ‘cut down’ for children. Clothes were often ‘handed down’ within families and between friends and neighbours.

Women’s work


Journalist Rosemary McLeod wrote of the importance of housework and handcrafts to New Zealand women: ‘Our mothers and grandmothers and their grandmothers before them stayed at home all their lives, running households that relied on the thrift, ingenuity and housewifely skills they had learnt from their mothers to enable them to do more than just survive. The quality of their own families’ lives depended on those skills in their turn, and in their handwork, these women revealed dreams and aspirations that were seldom realised.’ 1


The economic depression of the 1930s and the Second World War enforced a mentality of ‘make do and mend’. The depression has been described as the ‘sugarbag years’ because of the way sacks were turned to all sorts of uses, including making clothes such as school gym frocks. During the war, material and items such as zips and elastic were very expensive and difficult to buy.

Preserving food

Most households grew fruit and vegetables, and commercially processed foods were expensive. Stocking the pantry with surplus produce from the autumn harvest was an important task. The fruit was ‘bottled’ in jars, and vegetables were bottled, pickled, preserved in crocks or, after the arrival of the household freezer in the 1960s, frozen. Fruit and vegetables were also made into chutneys, jams and jellies.

Eggs were also preserved. Before battery farming, hens laid in spring and early summer but not in winter. Surplus eggs were stored using a variety of methods to seal the egg from oxygen. J. T. Norton of Lyttelton produced one of the most popular brands of egg preservative – a compound which was painted on eggs, or in which they were immersed. These preserved eggs were used in baking.

Many New Zealand women continued to preserve produce in spite of the availability of canned fruit and vegetables in the 1930s and later frozen vegetables. During the Second World War sugar was rationed, but during the fruit harvest extra was available for bottling. The 1948 edition of the popular Aunt Daisy’s cookbook had 42 pages of recipes for bottling and preserving.

By the 1990s the necessities of bottling – specially designed jars with vacuum seals – had largely disappeared from supermarket shelves. But in the 2000s there has been a resurgence in bottling and other preserving methods, including dehydrating fruit and pickling vegetables.

Home-made alcohol

Home-made wine was also made out of surplus fruit from the garden or orchard – usually by a father or grandfather. Another mainly male pursuit was making home-brewed beer – often an absorbing hobby as well as a way of saving money.

  1. Rosemary McLeod, Thrift to fantasy: home textile crafts of the 1930s–1950s. Auckland: HarperCollins, 2005, p. 13. Back
How to cite this page:

Matt Morris, 'Unpaid domestic work - Making clothes and preserving food', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 19 July 2024)

Story by Matt Morris, published 11 Mar 2010