INDIGENOUS WEAVING TRADITIONS
In 1836 there was a rich tradition of Indigenous weaving along the length of the Murray River making objects for use in daily life and in ceremony. The English term ‘weaving’ has been adopted by Indigenous Australians to refer to the construction of coiled and netted baskets, mats and nets replacing the many more specific words used in the complex network of Indigenous languages along the Murray. eg.‘to knit or to make a bag’ was called ‘tangyále’ in the Njarrindjeri language. (Taplin, 1879, p169-178)
The rich and fertile lands along the Murray River provided a ready source of food and plant material for basket making and a relatively settled life for the many language groups living on its banks. Coiled baskets were made from native sedges to hold food, as scoops to catch small fish or winnow chaff from seed, and as traps to catch eels. Near the mouth of the river, Narrindjeri people wove mats to sit on and to wear as cloaks when the weather turned cold. They also wove burial mats to hold the bones of the deceased.
Along the river plant fibre string was made from animal fur, human hair, native grasses or the bark of trees softened through chewing. The string was used to knot great nets for catching fish or ducks, and bags for gathering food or holding possessions. Belts, sashes and ceremonial objects for initiation ceremonies were made from string as well as ornaments strung with hollow grass or reed stems worn in the hair or around the neck. Hair-string games were used to tell stories by adults as well as children. (Hemming, Jones & Clarke, 1989, p19).
These weaving practices bound the communities together and to their country in daily and ritual activity. Some of these Indigenous practices survived the destructive forces of colonisation and are still practiced along the river, revitalised and strengthened through the work of Narrindjeri artists like Yvonne Koolmatrie, whose work was selected for the Venice Biennale in 1997, and Kerry Giles, who curated (with Diane Moon) the important exhibition Two countries, One weave showing the connection between coiled weaving from Central Arnhem Land and the Murray.
In addition to these traditional skills, the European textile skills of plain sewing, crochet embroidery and knitting that Indigenous women were taught on the missions to fit them for their roles as domestic servants, have been taken over and developed into vibrant local traditions like the knitted Beanie Festival that now extends from Alice Springs to Melbourne, in much the same way that Indigenous Australians have changed syntax and vocabulary to create a distinctive Indigenous form of ‘English.’
SETTLER TEXTILE TRADITIONS
Australia’s colonisation after the Industrial revolution meant that the British settlers did not bring skills in cloth weaving to the new country. In fact the Australian colonies were regarded as suppliers of primary products and markets for textiles manufactured in Britain, so no settler tradition of hand-weaving was established.(Cochrane 1992, p49) Non-Indigenous textiles in Australia were essentially domestic, made by women for their families and the home. Plain sewing, crochet, knitting, embroidery and patchwork were practiced across the country in cities and in rural areas. Even ceremonial textiles for institutions like the Church or Parliament, tended to be made by highly skilled volunteers rather than by professionals.