Bluey (not the cartoon)
JUST WHAT IT IS.
In the Tasmanian back blocks the “Bluey,” a sort of disreputable colonial offspring of the Irish “stone of frieze,” made “cheap and nasty,” without a particle of the artistic grace and beauty of its revered ancestor, is the overcoat a la mode. Nobody goes out without his “Bluey.” Advocate (Melbourne, Sat 22 April 1905)
A bluey is a basic overcoat/jacket made from a coarse wool or wool and polyester blend fabric popularised in Tasmania. The fabric, and the coats made from it, were both referred to as ‘bluey’, and were manufactured both in Hobart by Johnstone Bros., and in Launceston by the Waverley Woollen Mills.
Taking cues from the felted woollen jackets worn by convicts in the 19th century, the weather-resistant coats were originally popular with miners on the rugged west coast:
As the afternoon wears on, mud-sploshed men in blueys, and with dingy little non-descript rolls secured upon their backs by straps…enter the town in twos or threes from all directions. The Colonist Sat 6 Dec 1890
This was so much the case that the material was originally trade marked as “Miners’ Bluey”.
It afterwards came into popular favour for use by persons in other walks of life, such as carters, and as time went on it became known to the public as Tasmanian bluey. The Mercury, Wed 30 Apr 1924
By 1924, the fabric and coats were also being produced at various mills on the Mainland and marketed as ‘Tasmanian bluey’ - an affront to the millers of Tasmania:
The fact that there is such a quick sale on the mainland for the bluey that there is a tendency to palm off material as Tasmanian bluey which is made elsewhere demonstrates that “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery”…
Mr. Johnstone at once declared that he regarded such unfair practies as a distinct violation of his company’s legal rights. The Mercury, Wed 30 Apr 1924
Regardless of the push for specific branding for the bluey, they were produced in large numbers both in Tasmania and on the mainland by manufacturers such as Norwellan at Stawell in Victoria.
The Tasmanian textiles industry declined for a number of reasons including changes in import tarrifs in the 1970s, and it’s no longer possible to buy a new ‘Tasmanian’ bluey that is made in Tasmania in the original rough material and style. You can obtain a new coat from Waverley that bears tribute to the bluey, but it’s rather more refined than the original.
You can still buy something pretty close to the original thing made by Agmer, but few people would choose them as an everyday item: the winter coat of choice for Tasmanians in 2020 is a down-filled ‘puffer’ jacket. Nevertheless, it is still possible to find genuine Tasmanian blueys made by Johnstone Bros. for sale from time to time in secondhand stores and places like Gumtree and eBay, despite the newest of them being probably >30 years old.
Once a Tasmanian icon and now virtually forgotten, the bluey is a link to our past. If you’ve got one, wear it with pride.