Baskets

Aboriginal peoples and Torres Strait Islanders make and use a variety of baskets with distinctive structures, diverse raw materials and varying designs. Baskets are woven, twined or coiled containers that support themselves. Aboriginal Peoples and Torres Strait Islanders make their baskets from a variety of fibres derived from the diverse plant life of particular geographic regions of Queensland.

Cultural variation

Baskets vary between major cultural groups and can generally be distinguished according to the community that made them. Each different cultural group uses particular materials, designs, colours and shapes.

Women from south east Queensland produce a distinctive style that incorporates an ornamented diagonal pattern of knots, made from the bark fibre of hibiscus or Moreton Bay Fig.

Baskets from the East Cape York Peninsula are often patterned with stripes of varying colours obtained from dyes extracted from roots, barks and leaves.

Puunya

At Lockhart River, a few women continue the practice of weaving puunya, a traditional carrying basket. They are quite flexible but the structure still holds a basket shape.

Puunya are made from watul grass (Lomandra longifolia) which grows prolifically in the local bushland.

The long blades of grass are collected and then the fibre is split and dried. The dry fibres are then dyed by immersing them in boiling water infused with scrapings from the inner bark roots of plants. For example, wuyku (Merinda reticulata) produces a vibrant yellow colour.

The coloured fibres are then twined over warp strands in a circular motion. Other colours are prepared and later incorporated into the body of the basket to create a pattern of bands.

Rainforest Weavers: Men and Women

Basket weaving is often regarded as a woman’s task, but both men and women from the rainforest groups of Queensland practise weaving. 

The baskets from this region have a unique bicornual shape. Bicornual (also known as bicornute) simply means that it has two horns. They are used for leaching toxins from poisonous plants, for fishing, for carrying babies and as trade items.

To make the baskets, the prickly outer casing of lawyer cane (Calamus caryotoides) is removed and the fibre split. Several strands of split cane are strung like a bow to produce the foundation for the basket’s crescent shape. Two continuous strands of finer fibre are twined across the foundation, and worked up the vertical strands to develop the basket’s shape. Rings of cane are then attached to the interior of the basket at regular intervals to strengthen it. Two handles of thicker cane are attached to the mouth of the basket, one short handle for carrying by hand and another much longer one for carrying around the forehead.

Rainforest basket fibre is never dyed in preparation. Rather, coloured decoration using natural pigments like ochres used for ceremonial or sacred purposes is painted onto the basket after it is completed. 

  • Rainforest groups around the Daintree River use fibres from grasses and the Black Palm (Normanbya normanbyi) to make bags and baskets.
  • Kuku Yalanji women from the Cape Tribulation area make dilly bags called bajli, using fibre stripped from the dense narrow leaves of a tufted perennial grass-like plant, Lomandra hystrix, heated over the fire to become pliable. The fibre from the Black Palm is still used to make the traditional kakan basket.

Beginning from the bottom with several thicker base strands, two continuous strands of fibre are each twined over the thicker filaments, working in a circular clockwise motion to build the body. Binding the top with strips of the fibre to form a rim then finishes the basket.

Change and Innovation

Basket weaving has changed over time to reflect cultural differences. It has also changed to incorporate new technologies, techniques and materials. For example, rainforest colours were traditionally only obtained from the bark of Wattle trees (Acacia flavescens), where the stripped fibre would turn red after being immersed into brackish water for a few hours. With the introduction of metal containers following the arrival of the missions, Aboriginal people began to dye the fibres using an infusion of natural materials in boiled water.

Specific examples of these changes include:

  • Wik and Kugu groups from Aurukun produce five different types of weaves in their bags and baskets depending on their purpose. Aurukun women predominantly weave baskets from pandanus or cabbage palm fibre, using a technique introduced by missionaries and influenced by island traditions. The coiled basket begins with a central ring and spirals outward with the weft fibre catching each preceding row. They can take on a variety of shapes depending on the tension in the weave. Baskets from Aurukun often incorporate innovative patterns and colours. Traditional dyes are extracted from locally grown roots and leaves.
  • Weavers in Yarrabah, south of Cairns, embraced a coiled technique introduced to the community by a Saibai Islander in 1908. Weavers from Yarrabah use yagal, pandanus fibre, to produce highly innovative coiled baskets. The pandanus species available on the mainland becomes brittle as it dries, so the fibre is split fine for weaving. The split fibre is rolled up while still green, dried and dyed with natural dyes from roots and other resources found in the area. It is then coiled onto a framework of lawyer cane, taking many weeks to complete. If the fibre is not to be dyed, it is woven green, and as it dries it enhances the basket rigidity. The women continue to push boundaries with each new basket, often introducing found material such as clay beads and feathers into the weave that are a reflection of their diverse interests in all craft.

Contemporary weavers throughout Queensland continue to embrace new materials to interpret traditional techniques and skilled women and men encourage younger people towards these practices. What was once a versatile functional domestic object and valuable trade item, now has a presence on the current art market.

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