Aboriginal Fibre Craft
In the range of twined, coiled, woven and knotted objects that comprise the fibre arts of the whole continent, there is a wide diversity in techniques and materials, as well as great variety in the forms of the objects themselves. Natural fibres were used not only for baskets but for ceremonial objects, and for body adornment; in combination with other materials they were also used for clothing, for shelters, shades, fishing nets, fishing lines, sieves and canoe sails. Bark, human and animal hair, palm leaves and many varieties of vines and roots were all spun into strong twine.
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The ancient and ingenious fibre arts show the balance and natural ease of the relationship between Aboriginals and their landscape and its plants. At one time, every Aboriginal woman across the north of Australia, through Queensland, New south Wales, Victoria, Tasmania, South Australia and parts of Western Australia carried her belongings in a netted bag or used twined or coiled baskets to gather shellfish, berries, roots or even wild honey. around the camps of south-eastern Australia, it must have been common to see women sitting and making string bags, or twining reeds together; this is often seen in Arnhem land today.
Each Aboriginal group used locally found materials. even the men and children knew the nature of these materials and where they could be found, and the finished works reflect their areas of origin. for instance, the finest and most complex touch string for large bags appears from Cape York, where cable-line twine for dugong and turtle fishing was also made. all over the north, pandanus palm is used for making twined and coiled bags, mats and sieves for soaking fruit. At Aurukun, Cape York, women still practise the traditional craft of spinning the fibre from the shoot of the cabbage tree palm, and various barks are used for making string in all northern traditional areas.
Weaving baskets and making bags were and are essentially women's arts. Men made stronger rope for fishing and occasionally objects associated with their own ceremonies, though even in these the women might have done a substantial amount of the basic production, including spinning. Writings on Aboriginals arts have revealed a lack of perception about fibre weaving bordering on complete apathy. Given the interests of predominantly male writers about Aboriginals, it is not really surprising that the arts of carving boomerangs, spears and shields were given great attention, while the parallel women's fibre arts were not considered particularly special. This was in line with the idea that objects of value lasted for some time, and also with the idea that men's weapons and utensils provided the basis of a primitive family's survival. However, even these notions can now he overturned; modern research (frequently carried out by women, at that) indicates that the women provided about sixty per cent of the daily food, bringing it to the family in their fibre containers and string bags.
In this sense, there is now a double reason for paying attention to the fibre arts of the Aboriginal people. Not only are they great works of art that originated in ancient times and are still made today, but they also had extremely important functions within the society from which they came. In recent years, the textile arts have emerged from the shadows of craft skills courses and are now represented in art galleries. This has led to a complete change in the way in which people perceive the arts of fibre weaving and basket making among Aboriginals. Baskets have come to be respected as a form of modular sculpture, the interaction of two linear elements creating patterns in colour, light and shade. Never has it been more clearly apparent that Aboriginal fibre constructions are unquestionably fine art.
In the ritual sphere, bunched clumps of neatly shaped bark bound with woven twine are used in northern ceremonies to represent totemic animals and plants during the dances, and in many of these, the form echoes the object represented. Some, with subtle bird heads and necks, are among the most elegant examples of fibre work that can be found anywhere on the continent. Particularly in relation to the work of the south-eastern peoples, we have only collections of baskets once made to show the extent of this ancient art. Museums amassed their collections from government surveyors, anthropological field workers and through donations from private individuals. Stored in trays and drawers, carefully laid out and smelling of age, rot, naphthalene and other insecticides, these beautiful works have lain for many years. although they have occasionally been taken out of their resting places to be displayed as examples of aboriginal culture, the collections of the bags and baskets of the south-eastern peoples are largely unknown as works of art in their own right. Lying hidden, in fact, is a treasure trove of forgotten cultural heritage, unique to Australia.
However, the introduction of European metal containers meant that Aboriginal dyers could extend their skills; the effect of European missionary encouragement was also profound. dyeing was encouraged, colours were major decorative features and prices paid for coloured weaving were higher than before. some of the women missionaries were skilled basket makers themselves. They encouraged not only dyeing but decorative stitching and experimentation with form. Today Aboriginal women weavers are immensely skilled dyers with new colours constantly being developed. for example, the colours that Arnhem land craftswomen use in weaving are immensely subtle variants of several basic dye sources. The range of hues and the colour intensity depends on the time of year the dye stuff is gathered, the addition of ash to the boiling fibre and in some cases probably the type of utensil used to prepare the dye bath. Colours most frequently obtained are bright yellow from the root of a small shrub and pink through to dark purple from the bulb-like roots of reedy grasses. The bark of some trees is used for red and brown.
As well as these natural colours and others derived from plant roots and bark, an interesting greyish blue has recently appeared in central Arnhem Land string and pandanus weaving. After investigation, the colour was traced to the practice of boiling up numerous old cardboard cartons with blue ink lettering on them. The comments when the blue string appeared in craft galleries were reminiscent of the flurry of interest caused when some blue x-ray rock paintings were discovered about thirty years ago in what is now the kakadu National park. It seemed that Aboriginal artists had found a remarkable and unique blue pigment until the paint was traced to the use of Reckitt's Blue, taken from the laundry of friendly Europeans at the next settlement. The new string bags show that the search by Aboriginal artists for that elusive blue goes on.
The procedure for dyeing strips of pandanus palm in Arnhem land is very similar to that used for strips of cabbage tree palm in Cape York. In Arnhem Land, the pandanus shoots are gathered from the tall palm when green, and the centre strip is carefully extracted. This is split with the fingernail into several lengths of fibre, bunches of which are spread in the sun to dry or tied and hung on a tree branch. when they have faded from green to pale green or cream, they are ready to accept the dye. Occasionally, the fresh strips will be dyed when green, but in these cases the intensity of colour is lost. To obtain yellow, the freshly dug roots of the small bush Coelospermum retticulatum are scraped of their outer bark. The root is pale yellow, but the inner bark is chrome yellow. The bare roots and the bright yellow scrapings are immersed in the water to be used for dye. when dry, the bunch of pandanus is placed in a billy, old tin can or cooking pot and boiled with the dye stuff. The length of boiling will deepen the colour obtained.
At Aurukun, Cape York, the young shoots of the Livistona or cabbage fan palm are harvested for making into string. The bags that the craftswomen of the area are most enjoy making use the natural coloured string and two other dye colours, yellow and red-brown. The yellow roots used for dye are termed wayk. If a rust-red colour is wanted, a special ash is added to the boiling liquid towards the end of the process. The dye and fibre immediately change colour through the mordant action of the ash. (In general, mordants assist the dye stuff to adhere to the string or cloth being dyed.) In order to make the ash, the women who are skilled in the traditional weaving of Aurukun select a particular tree which has a bark with a bright red inner surface. The bark is burned in a heap in the centre of the small fire during the yellow dyeing process, then, when reduced to ash, used for the section of fibre in which red-brown is desired.
At Ramingining and elsewhere in central Arnhem Land, the vibrant tomato red of the swollen reed roots used for dyeing (Haemodorum coccineum) makes one expect a brighter hue than the resulting subtle rust-maroon. The colour achieved greatly varies with the season of harvesting the reeds. The roots themselves change from brown to red from the hot dry season to the steamy wet season.
In the art of spinning fibre into twine, the deftness and ease of movement of Aboriginal spinners are exceptional. They know the tensile strength of the fibre they choose for each type of twine and the resulting strings are strong and very neat. commenting on a variety of string bags in 1878, R. Brough Smyth stated that all the twine made was very 'durable, and well and neatly put together'. It is poignant to realise that only a century ago in Victoria, Aboriginal women were gathering the reeds (Phragmites communis) along the Yarra River and making them into twine. The twine for other bags in Victoria was made from bark fibre and from spun possum fur. Brough Smyth said he had observed that, in spinning possum fur the woman sat down, picked the fur off the animal and worked it into twine 'by rubbing it on the inside of her thigh'.
All over the north coast of New south Wales, bags were fashioned from hand-spun twine. This was generally made of bark, including that of the native hibiscus. Sadly, few of these bags survive in our national collections, with the exception of several in the Australian Museum. One obtained in 1896 at Nambucca shows a coarser, tougher twine than others, but its source is unknown. Possum fur string was also made in New south Wales. In the desert regions, women spun human hair and the fur of small rabbit-like marsupials known as bilbies, as well as wallaby fur. More recently rabbit fur replaced the bilbies as the introduced animals spread rapidly across the continent.
In central Australia, a simple spindle is used to spin the hair and fur into hair belts and other items for ritual use. A twig frame is formed, consisting of two crossed arms inserted through a longer shaft about twenty-five centimetres from the end. The spindle shaft (inti) is rolled backwards and forwards on the thigh so the thread is twisted into strong one-ply thread. As each length progresses it is wound onto the spindle. Two strands of the one-ply hair string are joined and spun in the reverse direction to the original twists, producing two-ply thread. In Aurukun and Edward River on the western coast of Cape York women spin excellent, hard two-ply string, mainly from the young unopened shoot of the Livistona palm, although a softer string is also made from fibres stripped from the roots of a bush fig and a wild mango.
These ingenious containers are constructed from a single sheet of bark, broad leaf or plant substance which has been curved, folded and twisted at the sides and two ends to form a container shape. They are sewn, pleated or bound at each end, the shape subtly following the line of the natural grain and the texture of the fibre itself. Occasionally, a separate handle is attached, or the two ends may be bunched to form handles.
In Western Australia, the two main types of folded container are the anngum and the bucket, both made from bark. The anngum is a long semi-cylindrical container used to cradle babies and to carry food and other goods. The bark is stripped from the trees and cuts are made through the rough surface, but not right through the bark, some distance from either end. The rough bark is then stripped off from the cuts to the ends and the softened, thin bark at either end is gathered neatly upwards towards perpendicular stick handles. The ends are bound in place with hand-spun bush string. The bark has a natural tendency to return to the curved shape of the tree trunk, and it is this tendency that the Aboriginal craftswoman exploits so cleverly. The two ends are reinforced with eucalyptus gum.
Bark buckets have come to be so named because of their shape, and the vessels of early European settlers might have inspired a tradition of imitation. The bark equivalent of metal serves its purpose just as well. It even has an advantage in the hot dry climate of north-west Australia because it dos not conduct heat, so the water remains cool. The bark buckets are made by cutting a circular piece of bark for the base and adding a bark cylinder to form a container. The cylinder is sealed at the side and attached to the base by means of sewn seams of strong hand spun fibre. The seams are made by first puncturing the bark with a sharp tool and then, using a needle, sewing the pieces together. The seams are made airtight and waterproof by coating them with a thick supply of resin. Handles are attached and the outer bark surface frequently provides a ground for the artist to embellish with traditional symbols or designs, or occasionally just a subtle spray of white clay paint. Bark cylinders similar to the Western Australian anngum are also made in central Arnhem Land and in Cape York.
In central Arnhem Land and on the west coast of Cape York, the simplest forms of folded leaf containers are made from the cabbage tree palm. The huge leaf is wetted to make it pliable and to strengthen its natural creases, then the container is roughly formed by folding the edges in at the two ends and stitching them in place. The method resembles the usual technique employed to wrap a parcel; folding up the sides and then folding the corners over to meet each other, except that in this case the top is kept open. A handle of the same material is fixed to the basket simultaneously. The folded leaf containers were probably once found in all areas where leaves grew large enough to make them. A fine example of a folded leaf water-carrying vessel from the coastal area of New south Wales is in the collection of the Australian Museum, Sydney. This piece has strong and sturdy sticks inserted into the folds at each end, with a cross handle attached to them. The folded ends are stitched into place with cane strips. In the preservation of these temporary containers, some of the beauty that the fresh and supple green form had at the time of making a lost, and these containers become lifeless and rigid in a way that the woven structures do not. However, the few southern examples that have survived have enabled us to understand and appreciate both their form and techniques, an opportunity that would otherwise be lost.
At the present time, Aboriginal women of the north take great care with decorative elements in their bags, within the weave and through the use of dyes, the incorporation of feathers in the string and the addition of painted surface decorations after completion. When the patterns used in making the Museum of Victoria's string structures were examined, several categories were established. The knots were termed slip knot half-hitch appearance, complex knot, simple knot. The looping techniques included the simple loop, loop and twist, loop and double twist and hourglass stitch. Researcher Alan West added new looping patterns to these, calling them single interconnected looping, overlapping figure-of-eight, loop and double or triple twist. The method of support and frame used also interested West. He was able to categorise these techniques according to the frames used, i.e., whether the bag had been made on a circular or straight support.
At Aurukun, three types of string bag are made at present. The waangk onyan (in the Wikmunkan language) is made by a knotted netting technique also used for scoop fishnets. This bag is made using a perpendicular stick as an anchor for the string in the early stages. Waangk waangkam are looped string between the two posts. The looped pattern is then formed around this string, making the first circular row of the bottom of the bag. Waangk mee is another type of looped string bag that uses a loop and a twist technique. The knotted bag, onyan, is used for fishing nets and carrying large objects but is fixed in capacity; the waangkam and the mee, however, can stretch and extend as foodstuffs are inserted. Off-centre handles allow the bags to be easily filled when strung from the head or shoulder.
At both Edward River and Weipa, two other Aboriginal communities in Cape York, these three types of bag have been made in recent times. Another bag with a much closer mesh was made to soak wild bush yams. The yams or tubers were crushed, placed in the bag and soaked in a stream. This was commonly done by all Aboriginal groups to leach out acids and food substances that were poisonous or that irritated the digestive tract. A group of women from different families in Aurukun has been encouraged to continue making string bags, even though their daily need for them has decreased. The bags are made with pride to be exhibited and sold as works of craft. Two of the women have visited a crafts congress in the United States, and this visit has given the other women a wider perspective from which to view their tradition al skills. Not only do the sales of their bags provide extra money for the family, but a very large group of people appreciate the worked as fine craft as well as functional carriers. String bags continue to be made by women throughout the coastal areas of the Northern Territory and the settlements around Bamyili near Katherine. At Ramingining, central Arnhem Land, the bags are made from a number of fibre sources. Old women who are prolific string makers but who have lost their teeth frequently give the eucalyptus bark to the young children for chewing before spinning. The bark has a delightful sweet taste, not unlike chewing gum, and the children happily co-operate.
The surprising and fascinating aspect of string bag making here is that the women still prize a pair of long, skinny legs to serve as a frame. The women sit on the ground with their legs straight out in front of them and the bag, open at either end, is made in a tubular form around the legs. One stout woman, knowing she was being watched with interest in weaving, pointed out a young woman walking past, saying, 'She is a very good string bag maker, look at her legs.'
In south-eastern Australia, many types of string bag were made. One interesting piece held in the collection of the Museum of Victoria is known as a beelang and was used by the people living along the Yarra River. Most string bags were made with a long handle, suitable for supporting the bag on the head or carrying over the shoulder. The beelang is very wide, though not very deep. It has a short handle and it must have been carried in the hand or looped through a belt. When full, it could also have been balanced on the head rather than strung from it. Commenting in 1878, R. Brough Smyth stated that these beelang were made in all sizes, some as small as purses, others the size of fishing nets. This desire for variation in size depending on need is still evident at Ramingining, where women make very small string bags as well as others 76 centimetres deep and 46 centimetres wide. Small string bags are made and carried by young girls.
Although string bags were once found in most parts of Australia, the area of their making and use has now shrunk to the Northern Territory and a small section of Cape York. The strength and survival of bag making as it is practised in these remote places forms a repository of skill and information that can never be replaced. Functional string bags wee once found in most parts of Australia, the area of their making and use has now shrunk to the Northern Territory and a small section of Cape York. The strength and survival of bag making as it is practised in these remote places forms a repository of skill and information that can never be replaced. Functional string bags were made predominantly by women, but string was also spun by men, usually as part of their own hunting needs or ceremonial responsibilities. Medicine men generally carry small skin or string bags made with string spun with feathers or packed with feathers after completion. Inside these the small tools and magical objects that are associated with the practice of traditional medicine and sorcery are stored.
'Feathered string', made by both men and women, is used in Arnhem Land today to make young boys' head and arm bands for initiation ceremonies; it is also used in rituals such as the morning star ceremony. For this string, the small orange neck feathers of the rainbow lorikeet and larger white feathers from other birds are incorporated into the twine during spinning. More elaborate feather constructions using string as a base are made for body adornments, such as arm and tassels and head tassels. The use of feathers in spinning and weaving usually adds a magical or religious content; some properties of spirit contact or 'power' are given to the object. Early ethnographic reports of Arnhem Land describe men wearing small string bags around their necks, which hung on their chests like ties. When angered or in a fight, the men bit hard on the bats. Similarly today, men clench feathered bags (usually twined pandanus) between their teeth during powerful ceremonial dancing.
In central Australia a very strong net used to be made, combining spunfibre string with twined wallaby or kangaroo sinew. some of these nets are particularly elegant. The so-called 'butterfly fish nets' of Arnhem land comprise two knotted string nets suspended on wooden frames and joined together at one side. They are used in a scoop into action that imitates the flapping of a butterfly's wings. If one watches a fisherman at sunset standing to his knees in still water that reflects not only his image but the delicate lace-like pattern of his net as he slowly guides it through the water, one is left in no doubt about the appropriateness of elevating a simple, hand-made fishing net to a fine work of art. Another scoop fish net constructed from knotted string is still made at Aurukun. These are single scoop nets of rectangular shape with rounded corners. although used in pairs, they are not hinged.
The twining technique was widely used in north and south-eastern Australia. However, it was not consistently practised over the whole south-east. Twined baskets were common in Tasmania, but only a few have been reported in South Australia, Victoria and new south Wales. In Arnhem Land, missionaries gave the term 'dilly bags' to the conical pandanus bag usually strung over the head or shoulders. The term is still in customary use and these are made today in exactly the same way as they have been for many centuries. Ancient rock paintings in the Kakadu national park, some of which have been dated to possibly 22,000 years old, show thin red ochre figures wearing conical bags strung from their heads. The tradition is therefore timeless, for the bags have not lost the use and cultural relevance since those ancient paintings were made.
Twined bags were and were used for carrying the daily food back to camp. At Maningrida at the mouth of the Liverpool river in Arnhem Land, Aboriginal women frequently come to the arts and crafts store to purchase well-made dilly bags for their own use, and most carry one with their personal possessions inside as they move around the town. The filly bags of Arnhem land are mad of fibre from the fronds of the pandanus palm. pandanus is gathered from the palm when green and the centre strip is carefully extracted in split with the fingernail or a sharp point into several lengths or bunches of fibre. These are usually set aside to dry in the sun before dyeing. some strips are used in their natural colour. The bags can be tightly or loosely twind; the tighter the twine, the more rigid the bag. such gags may be so tightly twined that they can be used for gathering bush honey.
Occasionally bags are made in which decorative effects are achieved by varying the weave. Areas of warp are left exposed, crossed and then picked up again by the twined weft at set intervals to make an open pattern. Decoration is also achieved by varying the colour of the warp and weft, sometimes producing horizontal stripes that my range through the full dye potential or may be limited to one or two colours. Twined bags may also be over-painted after completion. Occasionally newly created patterns in ochre clays repeat figurative designs found on similar pandanus bags early this century other painted patterns are simple geometric motifs. some of the beautiful painted dilly bags re housed in on in the Museum of Victoria and in the Australian Museum, Sydney.
Traditional coiled baskets were originally confined to eastern Australia and South Australia, various coiled bags were made and coiling was also used for large mats worn by women to support and protect a baby being carried on the back. flat, short-handled baskets consisting of two discs joined by rows of coiled foundation were once common in south Australia. The southern weaving tradition continued until very recently in the Aboriginal community at Point McLeay on the edge of the Coorong, south Australia. Skills are still remembered but the impetus and incentive to continue making the baskets have gone. In Arnhem Land, contemporary baskets are made from split pandanus leaves, frequently dyed in bright colours. Purple, pink, ochre, chrome yellow and brown are all obtained from natural sources. Bunches of pandanus form the foundation, which is stitched together with a pandanus binder. Handles are either sewn onto the basket or incorporated into the last three rows of the foundation. Occasionally, small handbag-like bags are produced in which the container is made by upending two coiled discs and binding them together, very like South Australian and Victorian examples.
At Aurukun, Gowanka Golpendun, now a woman in her sixties or seventies, has recalled her first lessons in mat making during her schooldays in a mission dormitory with other girls of her own age. 'Lydia Motlup learned it to me. She was sent from Mobiae, Thursday Island, to here for tempting a white man. Then she showed me two to make big mats from coconut leaves. After I learned that then I got the idea when I went to Cloncurry hospital. I learned myself to make the pandanus mats and bowls. Mrs MacKenzie and Mr and Mrs Owen bought them. Then I taught the girls.' The modern Aurukun pandanus weave is of the coiled style, but floated binders in decorative patterns are superimposed. some pieces remind one of the southern style of weaving.
Perhaps in the long run the impact of individual pieces is less apparent than the patience, industry and skill that have been part of the Aboriginal presence in Australia for so many centuries. By surveying the basket and weaving from the past to the present we can participate in the gentle, peaceful manipulating that not only produced beautiful objects, but also served the needs of the family and community, and continues to do so.
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