Indigenous Textiles

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have always made a variety of objects from animal and plant fibres. These items were always made with a purpose. This included basket weaving, knotting and utilizing skins for warmth as well as other ceremonial items and decorations. Today these items are often viewed as crafts and are used and admired simply for their incredible beauty. In recent years a range of other crafting techniques have been adopted by remote Indigenous communities including the creation of textiles. It was during the mid 20th century that nuns in Northern Australia began to allow Indigenous women to create their own textiles. Since then many new textile techniques have been introduced and the vibrant designs of the Indigenous artists have captured attention nationally and internationally.

Tali at Kungkayunti Fabric by Lisa Multa (Ikuntji Artists). Image sourced from Ikuntji Artists.

Today the key textile techniques that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists use include: painting, resist dyeing, batik and printing. Free hand painting is used as a free and adaptable way to add colour and pattern to cloth. Resist dyeing also known as batik is a clever technique that uses wax or stitching and tying the cloth so that only specific areas are dyed. This process creates gorgeous, one of a kind patterns. There are a number of printing techniques that Indigenous communities utilise including transfer printing, block printing and most commonly silk screen printing. Screen printing is a simple stencilling process that creates beautiful, bold multi coloured prints. This technique is commonly used by communities in south-east and far northern Australia. Often repetition is used within these prints to reinforce the significant cultural iconography of their specific region and to create powerful designs (NGA, 2020). 

Raiki Wara batik by Yilpi Admson (Ernabella Arts). Image sourced from Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences.

Printed textiles created by Indigenous artists are highly regarded in the same way that woven fibre works have always been admired. These textiles are made for both functional and decorative purposes. Batik is a textile technique used all over the world that was introduced to the Ernabella Indigenous arts community in the 1970s by craft advisor Winifred Hillier. It was quickly adopted and came to replace many of the laborious weaving traditions. Batik is transportable and easy to make, it incorporates the use of wax and dyes which are easily heated outside in the desert heat. Interest in batik quickly spread to other surrounding communities including Utopia where Ernabella artists came to teach. The introduction of batik allowed Aboriginal women influence within their communities and also captured the attention of the wider Australian population. These textiles are breath-taking in their cultural association, aesthetic power and technical skill (Powerhouse Museum).

Bush Couture by Linda Jackson. Image sourced from the National Gallery of Victoria.

From the 1980’s when Indigenous textiles truly began to flourish, fashion designers began to take inspiration from Indigenous designs and work with communities. One such designer is Linda Jackson, one of Australia’s most significant designers and makers. Jackson sold her creations through Flamingo Park Frock Salon and also had her own design studio, Bush Couture. Linda Jackson went on numerous trips to Central Australia including a trip to Utopia Station. Here she learnt about the Indigenous artists' use of batik technique. Through inspiration from these travels she created a collection of textiles and garments inspired by the Central Australian landscape. Another textile and fashion designer inspired by Indigenous crafts is Rebecca Paterson. Paterson is best known for her innovative experimental approach to design, she has always aimed to blur the boundaries between fashion and art. She taught silk screen printing in Aboriginal communities and this allowed Paterson to gather knowledge of traditional Indigenous crafting techniques and artistic practices (Powerhouse Museum).

Seed Pods dress by Grace Rosendale, Hopevale Arts and Cultural Centre X QUT Fashion. Image sourced from Bendigo Art Gallery.

Hopevale Arts and Cultural Centre is another community art centre that has embraced textiles and also fashion. The centre is located in Far North Queensland and was started in 2009 so that local community members could pursue their interest in art. Through collaborating with QUT (Queensland University of Technology) fashion students they have created whole collections of textiles and fashion that have been showcased at the Cairns Indigenous Art Fair. Most recently their designs were displayed as a part of the show “Piinpi: Contemporary Indigenous Fashion” at the Bendigo Art Gallery. The exhibition brought together a selection of garments and textiles by First Nations designers and artists from around Australia. Hopevale’s artists have created some truly unique textiles and designs that capture the beauty of their natural surroundings and Guugu-Ymithirr culture. You can check some of their beautiful designs here.

It is wonderful to see First Nations continue to grow and capture the world’s attention. Indigenous artists' use of colour, pattern and textile techniques are truly unique. The designs represent country, culture and stories. Stories that are shared through textiles and fashion.

For more gorgeous Indigenous textiles check out Ikuntji Artists.