Aboriginal Textiles

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Sometimes, cultures are introduced to new materials and ideas and completely restart their artistic programs. Other times, they don't. In this lesson, we'll look at one of the oldest artistic cultures in the world, and see what it looks like today.


It is believed that sometime between 40,000 and 80,000 years ago, enough of Earth's water was frozen into glaciers to lower the sea level so much that some islands actually became connected to the mainland. That's the theory about Australia. When this massive landmass was suddenly connected to Asia via an exposed land bridge, people and animals wandered on over. Then, the glaciers melted, the sea level rose, and all these people and animals were trapped in Australia. This had some interesting results. You know those adorable Australian animals like kangaroos and koalas? They are completely unique after having evolved away from other mammals for tens of thousands of years. Human societies in Australia also ended up isolated from the world, and thus created some cultures that are pretty unique.

Collectively, the ancestrally indigenous peoples of Australia are called aborigines, which is technically a colonial term introduced by the British. So, it's a bit problematic, but is still widely used. Australia's Aboriginal peoples thrived without contact from anyone outside of Australia for up to 40,000 years, and in that time developed some distinct artistic traditions. Perhaps due to the lack of outside contact, these traditions were maintained with shocking consistency. In fact, scholars have identified artistic motifs still used by Aboriginal communities today that have appeared in the archaeological record for up to 30,000 years. That has given Aboriginal art a reputation as the oldest living artistic culture in the world.

Traditional Aboriginal Textiles

A lot of Aboriginal art has been widely studied and documented, but one area that is growing in popularity is textile art. Textiles (cloths or fabrics) are an important part of many cultures, but since they are generally made of organic materials they're not always the best preserved. Additionally, many Aboriginal societies wore minimal clothing in the hot Australian deserts.

So, few examples of ancient Aboriginal textiles have survived, but thanks to these cultures' practices of maintaining traditions for millennia at a time, we've got a good idea about what their textiles looked like. Most Aboriginal textiles were made in one of three ways. First were animal skins, processed and turned into blankets or cloaks. Certain animal skins may have been reserved for ceremonial cloaks used for special occasions. The insides of these skins were often painted with dyes produced from local minerals like ochre.

Possum-skin cloak with designs

The second common material was bark. While Aboriginal people used a variety of plant fibers, bark was amongst the most common, and most versatile. Expert weavers learned to strip the bark into long threads that were woven together in various styles. Sometimes the bark was dyed before being woven to allow artists to create patterns, and sometimes the weaving was done in intricate patterns where the knots and braids themselves were the focus. Bark weaving was done by hand and utilized for everything from baskets and bags to items of clothing.

Weaving is often done with bark strips

When you brush your hair, chances are some falls out and you throw it in the trash, however, instead of throwing it out, hair was used by Aboriginal artists as well. They did use animal hair, but were also very successful at using human hair to create strong and versatile threads. The hair was spun into yarn, sometimes alone and sometimes mixed with bark, which could be woven into clothing items, blankets, bags, and other items. While this idea may make some of us uncomfortable in the modern era, using human hair was an extremely practical and resourceful way to create strong textiles. In the ancient world, Aboriginal Australians weren't the only ones to utilize it.

Aboriginal Textiles Today

Many of these traditions are maintained by Aboriginal communities today as a form of cultural continuity. Like we said, this is one of the oldest continually practiced artistic cultures in the world. However, it's also a living culture, which means that these artists have never stopped innovating or finding new ways to translate these traditional motifs. This has had a substantial impact on Australia's textile industries.

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