Three women from Atherton

Three women from Atherton outside their hut, making baskets. Although people have few possessions, every hut has these five main items: a grindstone, a bark water container, one of these large baskets, the large battle sword, and a large shield.

Aboriginal women utilise a range of bags, baskets and containers to carry food and other items. These include:

  • Soft string bags or dilly bags made from woven bush string.
  • Stiff baskets made from bulrushes, strips of palm fronds, and strips of cane.
  • Baskets made using a coiled technique.
  • Wooden coolamons of various shapes, sizes and depths (particularly in desert regions).
  • Elongated bark containers with pleated and tied ends (known in the Kimberley as anggam, and used as food and baby-carriers).
  • A container made from a thin piece of bark folded in half and sewn along its edges (found in northern Queensland and on the Tiwi Islands north of Darwin, where it is known locally as a tjunga, pronounced choon-ga).

At the top, two plant fibre string bags for carrying food and other items. Below left, a headband. Below right, a stiff fibre bag used for straining food, such as yams after they are washed.

Cane basket made from split Lawyer Cane / Vine (Calamus caryotoides). Usually called a “bicornual” basket, the correct term is “bicornuate” basket, named after its two horn-like pointed corners. Cedar Creek, north Queensland.

A decorated  tjunga (folded and sewn bark container) from the Tiwi Islands, north of Darwin, Northern Territory.

(David M. Welch Collection)

The type of carrier depends on locally-available natural bush plants.

Across northern Australia, trees such as the Banyan (Ficus virens virens), Kurrajong (Brachychiton paradoxum), Grewia, and some Hibiscus species have bark with stringy fibres suitable for teasing out and making into bush string. This string is then woven to create soft dilly bags used as general carryalls. These string bags continue to be made to this day, both for domestic use and for sale to tourists.

In the Kimberley region of north Western Australia, the roots of young boab trees are dug out and stripped to make string, which is then woven into bags. The boab has particularly fibrous roots, and grows only in north-western Australia.

Manuella Punan digging out boab roots in order to make bush string. Kimberley coast, Western Australia, 1990.

(David M. Welch Collection)

In swampy areas of Australia, native bulrushes and sedges are woven to create stiff baskets. A particular style of weaving, known as coiled basketry, was originally employed by south-east Australian women, using various native sedges.

The coiled technique was previously absent in the centre and north of Australia. Margaret (Gretta) Matthews learned this weaving technique from Aboriginal women in South Australia, and in 1922 moved to Goulbourn Island in Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory, where she worked as a school teacher. She introduced the coiled technique to Aboriginal women there, who used strips of Pandanus leaves to replace the rushes and grasses used in the south-east. By soaking the fibres in natural dyes, Aboriginal women across Arnhem Land produce beautiful colourful baskets.

A coiled reed basket from Tambo, central-west Queensland, acquired 1937, in the Australian Museum, Sydney.

Photograph by David M. Welch

In the arid regions of Central Australia, plants with fibres suitable for string-making and basketry are rare and Aboriginal men and women in past times created containers for food, water and other items by carving solid wooden bowls, known generally as coolamons.

However, in recent decades, the coiled technique of basket-making has been introduced to Aboriginal women in Central Australia, and spinifex grass is now used to make open baskets for the tourist market.

Water Carriers

Traditional water carriers used by Australian Aborigines include:

  • Water containers made from large baler and syrinx shells.
  • Water containers made from folded and pleated barks and palm fronds.
  • Deep wooden coolamons.
  • Bark buckets sealed with native beeswax.
  • Tightly woven baskets lined with native beeswax.

Bark water container, sealed with native bees wax. Malanda, south of Cairns.

The type of water carrier used was dependent on the availability of natural resources, and varied throughout Australia. In coastal areas, large shells suitable for carrying fresh water were found washed up on beaches. The central whorl was broken away with a small stone, to clean the shell and open it up, allowing more water to be carried. On large shells, a thumb hole was created to allow the shell to be easily carried. From the coast, these shells were traded to inland tribes.

Across northern Australia, soft paperbark (Melaleuca species) and stiffer stringy bark (Eucalyptus tetrodonta) were folded to create shallow trough-like water containers. Their ends were pleated and tied with bush string. Thick sections of palm fronds were similarly folded and pleated to create water containers.

Other Forms of Weaving

Other forms of traditional weaving, carried out by both men and women, were employed to produce men’s biting bags (small spherical spirit bags used to carry precious items), larger sacred bags (used in boy’s initiation ceremonies), and a wide range of hunting nets, fishing nets, fish traps, and eel traps.

A fish trap woven by Arnhem-Landers, Northern Territory, 1952. (Photograph by Axel Poignant, from Encounter at Nagalarramba.)

Across Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory, a large slightly-conical mat was used to cover babies and protect them from the sun and biting insects. Following the influence of white civilisation, Aboriginal women changed their technique of manufacturing these conical mats in the mid-1900s, and now make them completely flat so that they can be traded, sold and used as decorative mats and wall-hangings.