Weaving design into local materials
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have used grasses and reeds from wetlands for thousands of years. They used these materials for weaving to make many different kinds of useful everyday objects.
Traditional Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander crafts, design and technologies
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have transformed materials from their local environment using skill and innovation for many thousands of years. The process of making tools and complex objects for a specific purpose requires a high level of knowledge of materials, processes, and designs. One excellent example of this technology is weaving, using natural and renewable resources to create items such as baskets and traps1.
Baskets and traps were made with a very specific purpose in mind. For example, in north Queensland, bi-cornual baskets were made using a special design weave that allowed baskets to sit in running water to soak seeds for several days to remove toxins and make them safe to eat. This allowed people to eat a much wider variety of foods, including to prepare flours to cook with, that would otherwise have been poisonous. The bicornual basket also has an ergonomical design, made to fit securely and comfortably on the back whilst the handle part is hung from the forehead. From this position, the basket user could carry a controlled weight easily while having their hands free2.
Figure 1. Feathered basket Butjupuy batjkit, 2002, Ruby Gubiyarrawuy Guluya, Djambarrpuyngu, coiled pandanus, string and lorikeet feathers, from Arnhem Land, Northern Territory (Image: University of Queensland, UQ Anthropology Museum3)
Figure 2. Bi-cornual basket of lawyer vine, from Cardwell, north Queensland (1890s) (image: Government of South Australia4)
A wide variety of woven designs were used for fishing, gathering and storing food, and carrying water. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander weaving practices are intrinsically linked to the local environment as they are made from local materials. Examples from different regions include:
- Eastern Australia – wetland grasses and reeds, e.g. spiny mat-rush (Lomandra species) used to make baskets, traps, dilli bags and waterproof shelters
- Northern Australia - Pandanus (Pandanus spiralis), kurrajong fibre, feathers used to make baskets, mats, skirts, armbands, dili bags5- Figure 1
- North Queensland – lawyer vine used to make baskets to carry food, soak food items in water – Figure 2
- Tasmania – Kelp used to make waterproof baskets to carry water and ochre
- Torres Strait - Coconut leaf, pandanus6 used to make fishing nets, baskets
Baskets and other woven items were traded for tools and objects from other regions7, for example, baskets made from plants from wetlands could be traded to people in inland desert areas, where there are few wetlands, in exchange for things like spinifex resin (which is a very strong glue). Baskets were traditionally decorated with ochre in red, white and brown, and sometimes also with feathers from emu or parrots.
An example of a coiled basket weaving process can be found at:
Lomandra longifolia, Spiny-headed mat rush (image courtesy of Australian National Botanic Gardens8)
Lomandra species are common around creeks and wetlands on the east coast of Australia. This hardy plant often used in creek revegetation. It is not always ideal in terms of what was originally growing there, but they are a useful resource to weavers and can be used to demonstrate to students basic weaving. If available locally (outside of a national park), they can be used in the activity in this resource.
One of the benefits of using local natural materials are that this tends to be a renewable resource, in that if care is taken not to remove all of the plants, they will grow back for next time. Natural materials are generally compostable, and once the object is no longer of use, can be safely discarded to break down naturally. This is particularly relevant today, when many man-made materials take hundreds or thousands of years to break down in landfill. There is now beginning to be more focus placed on longevity of products and end-of-life disposal of designed products.
Designing and making objects from raw materials requires a lot of skill and time. A traditional handmade object such as a large basket would be looked after with a lot of care, unlike modern throw-away plastic bags, as it takes days or weeks to find, collect and prepare the materials, then weave the basket. Some materials are only available at a certain time of year, for example, some grasses are more plentiful during or after the wet season9. It requires a lot of skills and observation to find the right plants in season.
Wetland grasses and reeds were and are still commonly used for weaving many kinds of baskets and fish traps. Both men and women traditionally made woven objects10, although today mostly women carry on the tradition. Men made fishing nets, fish traps, and their own dili bags for carrying useful personal items or for ceremony. Today, more modern fishing equipment is used, and baskets tend to have more of an artistic function11, although still address themes of environmental sustainability. There is an art project from Western Cape York Peninsula in Queensland that uses discarded fishing nets that wash up on beaches in beautiful weaving art projects12. Weaving remains an important way of connecting to culture and country.
Case study - Weaving fish traps
Eel trap, made by people from Lake Condah, Victoria (image courtesy of Australian National Botanic Gardens14)
A barramundi trap as used by Burarra people in Arnhem Land (Image: Questacon13)
- Fish traps are an excellent example of highly skilled weaving. Fish traps are known from many places in Australia including Maningrida (Northern Territory), Marrunga Island in the Crocodile Islands15, and Victoria16. They are used in rivers, creeks, wetlands, estuaries, billabongs and lakes.
- The size of the weave is important: “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.”17
- “Take only what you need”(quote from Uncle Ken Murray18) is a very important rule in Aboriginal culture, and ensures there is enough left to keep the ecosystem healthy, and for other people.
- There are different styles of fish traps to catch different types of fish. Eel traps are long and skinny with a funnel at the entrance to guide the eel into the trap. Barramundi traps are much larger, wider and have a one-way lip at the entrance so the fish can’t escape.
Classroom activity - Technologies (Design and Technologies) Years 3 and 4
Students will make plans for the design of a woven fish trap, making drawings and considering the size and shape of fish being targeted, and how this might influence details of their design. Students will bring small items from home, and make a small collection of found objects to incorporate into their own weaving project, which will be made on found sticks. This will include a walk around a local natural area, and discussion of potential materials and their properties. Students will use their weaving experience to reflect on their initial design.
This resource addresses the following content descriptions from the Australian Curriculum:
- Investigate the suitability of materials, systems, components, tools and equipment for a range of purposes (ACTDEK013)
- Generate, develop, and communicate design ideas and decisions using appropriate technical terms and graphical representation techniques (ACTDEP015)
- Evaluate design ideas, processes and solutions based on criteria for success developed with guidance and including care for the environment (ACTDEP017)
- Plan a sequence of production steps when making designed solutions individually and collaboratively (ACTDEP018)
This resource addresses the following excerpts from the achievement standard for Years 3 and 4 in Technologies (Design and Technologies):
- explain how products, services and environments are designed to best meet needs of communities and their environments
- describe how the features of technologies can be used to produce designed solutions for each of the prescribed technologies contexts
- explain needs or opportunities and evaluate ideas and designed solutions against identified criteria for success, including environmental sustainability considerations
- develop and expand design ideas and communicate these using models and drawings including annotations and symbols
Inquiry-based learning questions
Teachers should help students to address the following questions during the activities:
- How does the intended use affect the design of an object?
- How does the intended function of an object influence the choice of materials?
- In what ways can the choice of materials affect the sustainability of a product?
- How can making the object (a prototype) help refine and improve a design or plan?
- What are the benefits of working collaboratively with others?
Activity 1 – Designing a fish trap
Suggested timing for activity: two lessons; first lesson for investigation and discussion, second lesson for designing their own fish trap, plus discussion time at end.
Required resources: Handout sheet with pictures of fish traps, paper, pencils, notebooks
After looking at pictures of examples of fish traps students can draw designs of their own, considering the materials required, what size and shape fish they are targeting, and how this might affect their design.
- Discuss and look at pictures of woven fish traps such as those included in this resource. How do the designs differ, and why might this be?
- Students should describe the size and shape the fish they want to catch –
- Is it long and skinny like an eel, or deep-bodied like a barramundi?
- Is it in a river, lake, on a reef or at the beach?
- How strong is this fish? Is it spiky or does it have teeth?
- Students make diagrams of their own fish trap design, with a list of materials needed, and labels on features of the design, e.g. the opening, the size of the holes in the weave.
- Students can prepare, either as a group or individually, a series of steps detailing how they would prepare materials and how they might go about constructing the trap.
- Discuss potential environmental impacts:
- What is it made from?
- Is this a sustainable resource, is it renewable (i.e. does it use the whole plant, are there lots of these plants in the wild or on farms, is it good for the environment to use these, e.g. a common specie, weeds or recycled materials)
- How long the trap might last – can it be re-used? Is it recyclable or compostable, or does it use already recycled materials?
Activity 2 – Investigating weaving materials
Suggested timing for activity: two lessons; 15 minutes of discussion, 30-45 mins for outdoor component, plus homework if appropriate
Required resources: pencils, notebooks, baskets/bags to put found materials in, secateurs (optional)
- Teachers are encouraged to reach out to local Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander organizations for recommendations for the local area on plant use. In the classroom, look at some local plant books with traditional uses listed, e.g. Wiradjuri Plant Use guide19.
- Take students on a walk of the school grounds or other nearby natural area, keeping an eye out for potential weaving materials.
- Discuss what properties might make a plant suitable for weaving material. Consider things like flexibility, strength, leaf shape or ability to be torn into strips, waterproof properties, texture.
- Students can make a list of possible weaving materials. Many grasses and reeds growing in and around water are good candidates for weaving.
- Students may to collect some found objects they may include in their weaving project, e.g. leaves, feathers, seed pods.
- If there is no available resources within or near the school grounds, then the weaving material is encouraged to be ordered in from a supplier - rafia or dried grasses.
Note: Students should respect the “Take only what you need” principle, and make sure a plant is not removed from an entire area, or all leaves off an individual plant. Remember that no plant, animal or rock material can be removed from National Parks. If collecting Lomandra, it would be ideal to take some from school grounds or garden with permission, rather than local waterways, and under close adult supervision.
- Students can experiment with weed species, some make excellent weaving material once dried, e.g. cat’s claw (Dolichandra unguis-cati)20, keeping in mind careful disposal of unused material. Students can consider the environmental benefits of using a weed species.
- Lomandra can be torn into strips longways then soaked overnight prior to use to make it more pliable.
Activity 3 – Weaving from nature or recycled materials
Suggested timing for activity: one lesson, followed by 15 minutes of discussion
Required resources: thick cardboard rectangle (one per student), string or twine, masking tape or sticky tape, weaving material (e.g. wool, raffia, lomandra, recycled fabric strips)
Students can try a basic square weave. These activities can be built on by a visit from a local weaver or representative from an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander community organisation.
- Take cardboard rectangle, approx. 20 x 30 cm, and tape one end of a length of string or twine in the top left corner.
- Wind the string around the board until you reach the bottom right corner (Figure 1). Tape it down. Children may need help with this part.
- Turn your board over.
- Take a length of wool/raffia/etc, and tape one end to the board. (If using wool, tape around the end with tape a few times like a shoelace end to make threading easier)
- Thread your material above and below each string (Figure 2). When you reach the end of a row, return back the other way continuing the above-below pattern. Push each woven row down towards the bottom for a tighter weave.
- You can alternate colours and materials (Figure 3).
- When your weaving is finished, turn board over to the side with the tape. Cut the strings in the middle of the back, then tie them together top and bottom, or simply tape in place (Figure 4). You can display at home as a wall hanging (Figure 5).
- Begin a class discussion about the weaving process:
- What objects did they chose to include and any significance they have?
- Reflect on the time and effort involved; how weaving is a skill/technology
- Reflect on earlier designs in previous activity – is there anything they would change?
There are a number of alternative simple weaving activities online, for example see: https://www.snaicc.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/02516-1.pdf
1 Science principles in traditional Aboriginal Australia (2012) https://blog.qm.qld.gov.au/2012/08/01/science-principles-in-traditional-aboriginal-australia/
2 Science principles in traditional Aboriginal Australia (2012) op. cit.
3 Women with Clever Hands past and present. (2019) Retrieved from http://www.anthropologymuseum.uq.edu.au/women-with-clever-hands-past-and-present
4 Australian Aboriginal Culture. (n.d.) Retrieved from http://www.samuseum.sa.gov.au/collections/digital-collections/australian-aboriginal-culture/details?id=A2580&term=&category=&state=&people=&categoryTerm=Basket&pageIndex=1
5 About Weaving (2019) Retrieved from https://maningrida.com/artworks/weavings/about-weaving/
6 Basket (n.d.) Retrieved from https://catalogue.anthropologymuseum.uq.edu.au/item/15039?search_result=41
7 Indigenous science: Australia had ancient trade routes too. (2012) Retrieved from https://blog.qm.qld.gov.au/2012/05/16/indigenous-science-australia-had-ancient-trade-routes-too-2/
8 Aboriginal plant use in SE Australia (2012) Retrieved from https://www.anbg.gov.au/aborig.s.e.aust/lomandra-longifolia.html
9 Williams, A. and Sides, T. (2008) Wiradjuri Plant Use in the Murrumbidgee Catchment. Retrieved from https://archive.lls.nsw.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0009/495261/archive-wiradjuri-plant-use.pdf
10 Aaberge, B., Barnard, T., Greer, S., Henry, R. (2014) Designs on the future: Aboriginal painted shields and baskets of tropical North Queensland, Australia. etropic, 13.2: pp. 56-74. Retrieved from https://researchonline.jcu.edu.au/36680/1/Designs_on_the_future.pdf
11 Anu, H. (2018) Fibre Art and Fashion. Retrieved from https://www.sea.museum/2018/07/13/fibre-art-and-fashion
12 The Ghost Net Art Project (n.d.) Retrieved from https://www.ghostnets.com.au/ghostnet-art/
13 Fish Trap: Catching Barramundi (2019) Retrieved from https://www.questacon.edu.au/burarra-gathering/extra-information/fish-trap
15 A brief history of Indigenous fishing (n.d.) Retrieved from https://aiatsis.gov.au/exhibitions/brief-history-indigenous-fishing
16 Aboriginal plant use in SE Australia (2012) op. cit.
17 Tunstall, E. D. (2015) Be rooted: learning from Aboriginal dyeing and weaving. Retrieved from https://theconversation.com/be-rooted-learning-from-aboriginal-dyeing-and-weaving-45940
18 A brief history of Indigenous fishing (n.d.) op. cit.
19 Williams, A. and Sides, T. (2008) op. cit.
20 Cat’s claw creeper (n.d.) Retrieved from https://weeds.brisbane.qld.gov.au/weeds/cats-claw-creeper
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The development of these resources was funded through an Australian Government initiative delivered by the University of Melbourne's Indigenous Studies Unit. The resources include the views, opinions and representations of third parties, and do not represent the views of the Australian Government. They have been developed as a proof of concept to progress the inclusion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander content in Australian classrooms. In drawing on the material, users should consider the relevance and suitability to their particular circumstances and purposes.