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History of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander textiles
Paperbark woman: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander fashion design

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders make a variety of objects from animal and plant fibres. Their skills in basket weaving, knotting and utilising animal skins are evidenced in everyday tools such as baskets for collecting food, nets for fishing and skin cloaks for warmth. They also make ceremonial items such as headgear.

While these traditional crafts are still practised, the arts and crafts of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have expanded to include textile techniques such as rug making, hand-painting fabrics, screen-printing and batik, to name just a few.

Arts and crafts were encouraged on some of the missions. Ernabella, for example, was established as a mission station in 1937 by the Presbyterian Church. Unlike on many other missions "there was to be no attempt to break down and destroy the traditional lifestyle, customs or values of the Pitjantjatjara people…" (Hilliard, 1992: 32). By making available "new media which, combined with the traditional skills and art forms of the Pitjantjatjara, were used to produce works of outstanding beauty." (Hilliard, 1992: 32)

In the 1970s a system of appointing craft advisers or arts coordinators was established to foster Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander arts and crafts Australia wide. This system still operates in many communities.

In 1981 the acrylic paintings of the Papunya Tula artists from Western Desert were shown… The abstractly coded, and yet personally and socially symbolic dot-and-circle Aboriginal paintings were received as valid contemporary international art, and rapidly became sought after in international exhibitions and Australian and international collections. (Cochrane, 1992: 326)

This international acceptance of Aboriginal motifs and designs allowed the development of a financially viable arts and crafts industry.

At the same time as white Australian artists were seeking to be considered as workers, with the expectation of some economic viability through their art, Aboriginal artists over a number of decades had also been adapting traditional forms and motifs to make objects which, through sale, would contribute to economic independence. For many communities art products made for an external market provided the main source of independent income. (Cochrane, 1992: 327)

The eighties saw the expansion of a number of important economic enterprises where traditional art, often using new materials, was adapted for an outside market:

  • workshops run by the Tiwi people expanded the range and quality of their work.
  • a screen-printing and sewing workshop was established at Jilamara Arts and Crafts at Milikapiti on Melville Island.
  • batik production expanded at Utopia and Ernabella in Central Australia
  • screen-printing was introduced to Oenpelli in Arnhem Land.
  • batik, silk painting and screen-printing were introduced to Daly River.

    Adapted from (Cochrane, 1992: 328)

String bags
String bags are used for the storage and transport of food and other materials including personal items and tools. They are also used as sieves in the preparation of food, for example, when water lily seeds are separated from their capsules.

These bags can be distinguished by the type of stitch used to make them. Some are made with knots, mainly sheet bends, but not always so; others with looping stitches, the main varieties being simple loop, loop and twist, and hour-glass or figure-of-eight. (ATSIC, 1998: 4)

Making a string bag
Making a string bag using figure-of-eight stitches (Photo: A. L. West)

Write a list of advantages and disadvantages of using a string bag.

Baskets made by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists are of two main types, those made by a weaving technique and coiled baskets. There are varieties within each main group.

With the coiling method, as the name implies, the maker forms a foundation coil from a bundle of fibres, string or cane. In indigenous coiled baskets a working strand of fibre makes a series of button-hole stitches along the foundation which is shaped into tight coils or spirals as the work proceeds. Each button-hole stitch not only encloses a foundation coil but catches through a button-hole on the coil beneath. Flat or conical mats can be made in this way, or baskets if the coils are forced into the vertical as the work progresses.

This method of weaving baskets and other fabrics is known as weft twining. There are two sets of elements, a warp set made of bundles of fibres or a split cane, and a weft set usually with two working strands that interlace with the warps. In some baskets, the makers occasionally use three-weft strands as a decorative device. Three-strand twining results in a noticeable cording effect on the surface of the fabric. (ATSIC, 1998: 4-5)

To obtain a copy of the ATSIC Fibrecrafts brochure phone 02 6121 4000.

Pandanus weaving
The 1992 VicHealth National Craft Award was awarded to Elizabeth Djuttara from the Ramingining community. The term used for weaving in this community is buyu. Buyu-dhamuk means close weave and buyu-gadagada means open weave.

The three youngest branches of leaves from the top of the Gunga (pandanus spirifis) or Screw Palm, are hooked down by a long stick and the prickly edges stripped off with the thumbnail. On returning from the bush the women strip the long leaves into several fibres, bundle them up and hang them to dry. Weaving may commence at this stage, and the finished article left white or decorated with ochres, or the fibres are beautifully coloured with the natural bush dyes, then woven. (Djuttara, 1992: 34)

Ceremonial items
Not all Aboriginal objects made from or incorporating fibre are for use in everyday life. Beautifully crafted, ceremonial fibre objects are still made and used in northern Australia. These include sacred strings incorporating colourful parrot feathers; ceremonial twined baskets decorated with feathered string and hung with feathered tassels; and ochred poles, for example Morning Star dancing poles which are decorated with feathered string and bunches of feathers. These tall, magnificent poles are used in mortuary ceremonies. Other ritual items are shaped from paperbark bound with string and decorated with ochre to resemble totemic birds and animals. The costumes and head dresses of dancers are also mostly made from fibre. (ATSIC, 1998: 9)

In some areas introduced fibres (for example, strips of nylon from onion bags) are used in the making of bags and baskets - though some of the older, more traditional workers, at least in parts of Cape York Peninsula, discourage this practice. European dyes are sometimes used. In central Arnhem Land a blue-grey colour has appeared in string and woven objects. Apparently the dye source is a printers' blue ink obtained by boiling up old cardboard items with locally gathered fibre. (ATSIC, 1998: 9)

Ceremonial head dress
Ceremonial head dress worn by men in circumcision ceremonies on Mornington Island, Qld. It is made from paperbark and human-hair string and decorated with emu feathers and ochres. Photo: courtesy Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission.

Scraping a root of the dye plant
Scraping a root of the dye plant Coelospermum reticulatum (Photo: A. L. West)

Animal skin cloaks
While you may be familiar with the traditional textile arts of quilting and patchwork you may not be aware of a similar craft carried out by Aboriginal people using animal skins. An article about Aboriginal animal skin cloaks by Fabri Blacklock, Assistant curator, Koori History and culture, Powerhouse Museum can be found at:

Aboriginal skin cloaks and skin quilts can also be seen on the National Quilt Register Tree: Further information on skin cloaks can be found at:

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