Left: an image from our Rare Books collection. Right: part of a garment made by Donna Sgro

Left: A plate from An epitome of the natural history of the insects of New Holland, New Zealand, New Guinea, Otaheite, and other islands in the Indian, Southern, and Pacific Oceans by Edward Donovan, 1805. Right: Part of a garment from Donna Sgro’s Making in Pieces exhibition for Craft Week Sydney 2018

Image: Australian Museum, Donna Sgro
© Left: Australian Museum. Right: Donna Sgro

How do artists and designers draw inspiration from our collections? Earlier this year, fashion designer Donna Sgro visited the Rare Books and Entomology collections to study butterfly specimens. Below she tells us about how they informed her most recent design project, Making in Pieces, as she incorporated the wing structures of butterflies into textiles and a finished garment.

In my work I explore understanding wing structures through directly manipulating my fabric through cutting and stitching, to translate the patterns and formation in the butterfly wings I have documented first hand. This method of looking closely through cutting and stitching, together with drawing analogies and analysing these structures when designing, results in a finished garment through which the vein structures are both translated and transformed.

Aiming to advance and deepen my research for design using the subject of butterflies, I approached the Australian Museum to access the Rare Books and Entomology collections. Particularly useful to my exploration of wing structures was a diagram I located in the text of Bernard D’Abrera (Butterflies of the Australian Region, 1971 p. 16). This was supplemented by some of the research I conducted with the butterfly specimens in the Entomology Department collection, specifically, the Hypochrysops anacletus specimens.

Accessing the Australian Museum’s collections enabled me to expand my understanding of these insects, to learn about this major insect collection in Australia and books which reveal the history of representation of Australian butterflies since colonial times. Resources including rare books by John William Lewin, E. Donovan, and the Scott sisters, Harriet and Helena Scott, reveal an early fascination by colonists with the distinctive insects of Australia, and provide an account of the fascinating lifecycles of butterflies and moths they could observe.

I became fascinated with the detailed descriptions and analysis of individual life-cycles written to accompany the Scott Sisters’ illustrations by their father, A.W. Scott, in Australian Lepidoptera and their Transformations (1899). This is developed through a visually descriptive, evocative language, detailing the miniature lives of caterpillars, chrysalides, cocoons, butterflies and moths which influenced how these creatures were understood by later natural historians. As a fashion and textile designer who attends to working closely with colour and form to facilitate communicating unique emotional experiences through garments, the descriptions immediately conjure images to mind, which are enhanced by the actual illustrations of the butterflies they accompany, but also point towards the imaginative wanderings and wonderings which happen as the design research process unfolds. In my mind I wonder about how I can use these descriptions to evoke a design response during experimentation with future making; what if I isolate tracts of descriptions, how can I use them? What insights might they enable me to generate during the design and making process?

For example:

‘When adult the prevailing colour is of a light shining velvety green, merging into blue along the back. Each segment is encircled by six elongated, equidistant saturnine tubercles, tipped by cobalt blue, and emitting star-shaped tufts of yellow hairs.’ A. W. Scott - entry for Antheraea Eucalyptyi

Such descriptions, when isolated from the accompanying illustrations and text, convey a sense of magic, of insects so dazzling and precious; a joy to behold.

Dr Donna Sgro is a fashion designer and creative pattern cutter working as a practice-based researcher in the School of Design, University of Technology Sydney. She recently exhibited Making in Pieces at Gaffa for Craft Week Sydney.