The Significance of Traditional Indigenous Fibre Crafts

First Nations people have an incredibly rich history of crafts, particularly woven crafts. The distinct designs of many Indigenous crafts have remained the same for tens of thousands of years. For example, the ‘dilly’ bag is a woven object that can be traced back to 50,000 years ago (ADC, 2019). Indigenous woven crafts are closely linked to both ceremonial rituals and daily life, and thus, serve both spiritual and practical purposes. For Indigenous culture, weaving is an important form of storytelling. Since written language was not recorded for millennia, the arts and crafts have always been used as an alternative way of passing knowledge down through the generations. Traditionally, weaving has always been a craft with “strong links to female experience and are utilised for womens’ business” (MCA, 2020). Weaving is often physically demanding, and requires a high level of skill and knowledge of traditional techniques (ADC, 2019)

“Throughout Australia the techniques used to produce fibre works as well as the objects made, the plant materials used and the significance of the woven objects varies from region to region” - (Groot, 2009)

Arnhem Land has a long history in the art of fibre craft. Hence, the region is renowned for its weaving traditions and talented artists. The prominent type of weaving technique used is called ‘coiling.’ A ‘foundation coil’ is usually created from a bundle of fibres, string or cane, and is then woven together to create an end product. This technique is often used to make a Bamagora, which is a “conical mat that, when open, forms a large wide-mouthed basket. When closed, it can be used as a flat surface to sit or sleep on, or to cover the body” (MCA, 2020). Other common woven objects include dillybags, string bags and 2D artworks/wall hangings. In order to create these artefacts, fibres used include: the Pandanus (Pandanus spiralis), palms (Livistonus), Mírlírl (burney or jungle vine, Malaisia scandens) and the inner bark of Kurrajong and Stringybark Eucalyptus trees (Maningrida Arts and Culture, 2020). 

"Bamagora" by artist Mary Walatjarra. Image sourced from Museum of Contemporary Art Australia. 

Woven conical and long mats were used all across Australia as they served an array of practical purposes in the daily lives of the First Nations people. Bamagoras were traditionally used to shield babies from mosquitoes, and long mats were used for blocking creeks, so that fish would be diverted into special woven fish traps (Maningrida Arts and Culture, 2020). Wiradjuri Elder, Darren Wighton, describes how his people would use the ‘long mat’ (woven fish traps) along the Murray River: 

“They were made so the little fish could escape while keeping the big ones to feed your family, so that way we still looked after the rivers.” 

These woven artefacts unveil the Indigenous peoples’ deep connection and care for the land and animals; as in the words of Harry Whiting (2018), a Gamilaroi and Yuin clan man: “We don’t own any land..we’re one with the land, there’s no ownership in our old ways.” Thus, the First Nations people ensure that there is a balance between their use of resources and maintenance and care for the land. 

Woven fish trap form Maningrida. Image sourced from Japingka Aboriginal Art.

Dilly originates from the Jagera word ‘dili,’ which refers to the Pandanus genus plant and the bag from which it is made. The dillybag is used for food transportation and preparation purposes. The dillybag is carried in a very intriguing manner, whereby the handle is wrapped around the forehead. This carrying technique forces the wearer to maintain a good posture as the bag rests against the neck and back of the wearer. Dillybags are either woven slightly-loose in twine to allow for air circulation, or woven tightly so that they are leak proof, and thus are perfect for carrying honey. Ceremonial dillybags are used by men and usually incorporate decorative features such as colourful feathers and strings. These ceremonial objects are still used in Northern Australia, and the specific spiritual meanings vary between clans. 

“Fibre objects are incorporated in the complex spirituality imbued in Indigenous culture and some sacred woven objects are known to be the embodiment of ancestral figures.” - (Groot, 2009)

Traditional woven dillybags. Image sourced from Western Australian Museum.

Similarly to paintings and other forms of artistic practices, weaving is an incredibly important part of cultural continuation. It is significant that these cultural traditions continue to be shared, so that future generations can connect with their ancestors and land. 

If you are interested in learning more about Indigenous weaving traditions and keen to see some of these incredible creations, “Long Water: Fibre Stories” will be exhibited at the Institute of Modern Art from September the 5th to December the 19th. The exhibition focuses upon the  spiritual, ancestral and physical connections to water through fibre practices. It features artists from Yuwaalaraay (North West NSW), Quandamooka (Moreton Bay, South East QLD), Kuku Yalanji (Far North QLD), Zenadh Kes (Torres Strait Islands, QLD), Yurruwi (Milingimbi Island, NT), and surrounding homelands.