This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (MUP), 2005
Johanna Wilhelmine Weigel (1847-1940), paper-pattern manufacturer, was born on 11 February 1847 at Bromberg Stadt, Posen (Posnan), Prussia (Poland), second of five children of August Astmann and his wife Emilie, née Sachs. As a young woman she went to the United States of America and in New York worked as a designer at McCalls, a leading paper-pattern establishment, where she met August Louis William Oscar Robert Carl Weigel (1844-1915), an engineer who had been born in the German dukedom of Brunswick. In 1876 she and Oscar married in New York; they travelled to Melbourne for their honeymoon, arriving in March 1877 in the Mysore, intending to stay for six months.
By her own account, after many requests from friends who admired her dress sense Johanna Weigel started to cut patterns from her own clothes and give them away. The easy-to-follow instructions for measuring, cutting and sewing made the patterns popular and their increasing success led her and Oscar to start their fashion business in 1877 in premises in Lennox Street, Richmond. They imported all their printing machines and tissue paper and soon established offices in central Melbourne and Sydney and agencies throughout Australia and New Zealand.
In 1880 they started Weigel's Journal of Fashion, a monthly subscription journal that claimed to be the first fashion magazine to be designed, published and printed in Australia. It included illustrated fashion articles, housekeeping hints and serialized fiction. The impact of her patterns and journal on women and their families, particularly in country areas, was considerable. Miles Franklin later wrote that her mother was a regular subscriber to the Journal:
It was an 'elegancy' to which she clung through the leanest lean years . . . Mother always dressed herself and us by Madame W's paper patterns . . . Madame Weigel was to me a figure of legend as Mrs Beeton or 'The Ingoldsby Legends'.
In 1893 Oscar (and therefore his wife) was naturalized. In 1890 they had built Drusilla, a two-storeyed house with twenty-six rooms on twenty-seven acres (11 ha), at the foot of Mount Macedon, where they developed a substantial garden. The house burned down in July 1903. They subsequently moved to South Melbourne. The Weigels were frequent contributors to charity, much of their philanthropy being anonymous. On 7 February 1915 Oscar died at Los Angeles while he and Johanna were on a business trip. Johanna returned to Australia in April with Oscar's ashes. His estate in Victoria was sworn for probate at £32,740.
After her retirement from active association with the business, Weigel travelled extensively overseas. In U.S. shipping records, she was described as blonde, blue-eyed and 5 ft 2 ins (158 cm) tall. For the last twelve years of her life she and her friend and companion Sarah Neilson lived at the Oriental Hotel in Collins Street, Melbourne. Madame Weigel died on 10 January 1940 and was cremated. When Oscar had died during World War I there were difficulties in transferring money to Germany. The same problem arose with her estate, which was sworn for probate at £71,844. In addition to legacies for family and for friends in the U.S.A., England and Australia and for her former cook, she bequeathed £20,000 to be invested in the Oscar Weigel Charitable Trust with the income to provide exhibitions for engineering students. A committee of the heads of faculties of engineering at the University of Melbourne and Monash University and the Victorian State College awards Oscar Weigel exhibitions to outstanding students each year. The residue of her estate was left to the employees of Madame Weigel Pty Ltd, which continued until at least the 1960s. On the death of the last surviving employee in 1972 the final distribution of her estate was made to five hospitals named in her will.
Deirdre Morris, 'Weigel, Johanna Wilhelmine (1847–1940)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/weigel-johanna-wilhelmine-13242/text5071, accessed 9 December 2013.
This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (MUP), 2005