The rags: paraphernalia of menstruation

Homemade napkins

Before manufactured sanitary napkins became available and affordable, women made their own by sewing or folding absorbent cloth into thick pads. They attached them to some sort of belt with loops, pins or clasps. The napkins would be washed and re-used many times. Sometimes they were made from purpose-bought fabric, but often women would cut up old and worn towels, nappies, sheets or pillow cases – in other words, 'rags'.

Woman's sanitary napkin

Woman's sanitary napkin, replica, cotton, handmade in the style of pads used in the Netherlands around 1930s-1950s, Australia, 2004.
Remembering how she made her napkins as a young woman in Holland, a Sydney woman in her 80s recently sewed this replica. Fabric from an old cotton pillow slip has been folded in four then stitched along the edges. There is a loop at each corner for the belt, which could have been a piece of pyjama cord or the belt from an old dress. Sometimes napkins had a piece of towelling inside, or they might have been made entirely from towelling. Used pads were soaked in a bucket of water then washed. They took a long time to dry because of their thickness. PHM collection 2004/135/1. Gift of Mrs Marianne van de Voorde 2004.

My great-grandmother travelled across the Blue Mountains as a young bride in the 1850s to meet her husband who had gone ahead … Her trunks of clothes and linen were passed down to me … I found these things, they looked hand sewn. They had a strip down the middle made of soft flannelly cotton about 20 inches long. On the sides there were cotton flaps. On the back of the middle strip there was a kind of felt. It had a loop of tape sewn at either end … I wondered what they were ... I made them into pot holders.
GJ, Lightning Ridge, NSW

Cloth used for sanitary towels

Cloth used for sanitary towels, linen, 1880-1900.
This length of 115cm-wide white cloth is woven in a diamond twill pattern. Because it makes the fabric particularly absorbent, this kind of weave has commonly been used for towelling and other domestic textiles. The cloth came to the Powerhouse from the Australian Costume and Textile Society, where it had been catalogued as 'White cotton fabric used for sanitary towels, late 19th century'. It is not clear whether the term 'sanitary towels' referred to women's menstrual towels, or whether it might have meant hygienic hand-drying towels, such as 'roller' or continuous towels. PHM collection 85/2922. Gift of Australian Costume and Textile Society 1985.

To make [sanitary] towels we tore up old sheeting or pillowcases into pieces about 18 inches square, then folded them on the diagonal. They were very bulky. You could buy hand towels but they were not square and so they were harder to fold diagonally. We would wash our towels and hang them on the line.
SS, Sydney, NSW

Sanitary napkin with belt

Sanitary napkin with belt, handmade, cotton, Australia, [1940-1960].
This napkin is from the personal belongings of Ellen, a Sydney woman born in 1911. Hand sewn from an old baby's nappy, it has tape loops where a belt made from a pyjama cord passes through. Ellen learnt how to make napkins from her mother. In turn she taught her own daughter, Anne, insisting that Anne use homemade napkins even though by that time, in the late 1950s, commercially manufactured pads were freely available. Anne had to wash her own napkins but, unlike her mother, she had a commercially manufactured sanitary belt to which she attached the napkin by safety pins. PHM collection 96/189/2. Gift of Mrs Ellen Stephenson and Mrs Anne Smith 1996.

In the 1950s my sister and I had to use homemade towelling napkins. I remember the awful buckets with napkins soaking in them before they got boiled in the copper. Afterwards we dried them in the cupboard with the hot-water heater. We used a bought belt with a safety pin. You could always tell when our teachers were having a period because they couldn't disguise that bulky bit with the safety pin.
GC, Sydney, formerly Hastings, NZ