About weaving

Works in fibre from the Maningrida region are widely recognised as some of the finest in Australia. Artists confidently push the boundaries of fibre craft and cultural expression, adapting traditional techniques and forms to produce strikingly inventive and aesthetically exquisite artworks.

Weaving here takes many forms: utilitarian and decorative, ceremonial and sculptural. Fibre objects include mats, baskets, dillybags and string bags; flattened wall-hanging interpretations of subject matter usually rendered on bark paintings; ceremonial regalia such as armbands and dancing belts; and the sculptural forms of conical fish traps.

Commonly used fibres include the leaves of pandanus (Pandanus spiralis), and palms (Livistonus), mírlírl (burney or jungle vine, Malaisia scandens), and the inner bark of kurrajong and stringybark eucalyptus trees. Weaving is physically hard work, now done only by women. They colour the pandanus using natural dyes made from the roots, leaves or flowers of plants within the weaver’s clan estate.

The art of fibre has a long history in Arnhem Land as evidenced by the many depictions of fibre objects in the rock art of the escarpment plateaus. There are also spiritual dimensions to weaving, which vary according to the materials used and the totemic significance of the object made.

In the late 1980s, Maningrida artists were closely involved in bringing together a collection of works representative of fibre production in the region, including bark paintings that depict the ancestral origins and use of fibre items. This important collection of approximately 600 works is held in trust for the Maningrida community by the Museum of Contemporary Art.


Artists weave many different kinds of mats. Conical mats were traditionally used to shield babies from mosquitoes. Long flat mats were used for blocking creeks so that fish would be diverted into fish traps. A small triangular mat made of pandanus fibre used to be worn by women during ceremonial gatherings, tied around their back and covering them at the front. Mats are also used for wrapping and rinsing food in water.

Artists usually use ngarakáya, pandanus spiralis, to weave fragrant, decorative round or oblong mats, as well as the less common triangular and conical shapes. The radial woven patterns of the finest round mats appear to vibrate with colour, sometimes regarded as an aesthetic manifestation of deep cultural meaning, as there is a significant spiritual dimension to pandanus mats. Leading artists in this genre include Freda Wayartja Ali, Bonnie Burarn.garra, Doreen Jinggarrabarra, Lorna Jin-gubarrangunyja.


Béla (dillybags) are collecting bags traditionally used in food and medicine gathering, as well as ceremonially. They are carried by placing the string handle around your forehead, so that the dillybag rests down your back.

Both kinds of béla have a characteristic domed shape and are usually made of fibre from the leaves of the ngarakáya (pandanus plant, Pandanus spiralis). They can be woven in an open twine to allow the circulation of air, so that they are good for carrying food such as shell fish, or woven so finely and tightly that they are leakproof, and thus useful for collecting sugarbag (native honey).

The handles of béla are made from string that is rolled from the fibre of the inner bark of trees such as márno (kurrajongs, Brachychiton diversifolius and Brachychiton paradoxum).

Huge dillybags, yángkaba, were used for carrying large catches of fish. This type of dillybag is usually made from mírlírl (burney vine, Malaisia scandens), a strong pliable plant that grows along the floor and into the canopy of monsoon vine thickets. Yángkaba are crafted in an open twine, and they are very strong and durable.

Ceremonial dillybags are used by men in ceremonial contexts. They often have decorative features, such as a ring of parrot feathers near the brim and strips of fabric woven in with the pandanus fibre at regular spaces. Variations in the decorations, such as the presence or absence of tassels, have spiritual meanings. These meanings are secret and are usually specific to one clan or group of clans that share ceremonial privileges.

Artists today make dillybags in many sizes and they are sold as elegant art pieces as well as functional objects for storing items and dry goods.

String bags

String bags are used for collecting and carrying food such as mud crabs and shellfish. They are flexible and made in a net-like weave from string that is rolled from fibre gleaned from the bark of trees such as kurrajongs (Brachychiton diversifolius and Brachychiton paradoxum) and nja-djéngka, the white fig (Ficus virens). The fibre may be dyed with natural pigments from plants.

The bag begins as several strands of string or fibre, which is looped around the weaver’s legs as she sits on the ground and then commences to loop string in a spiral from the brim of the bag towards the base. The string bag develops as a woven cylinder until the bottom edge is brought together and secured. A basic looping technique is used for string bags, but sometimes a weaver will modify it by adding an extra twist in the loop. A weaver might also add feathers to string as she rolls the fibre, to create a decorative feathered bag.


Coil basketry is a well established fibre art in the Maningrida region, especially for women from the Kuninjku, Rembarrnga, Ndjèbbana and Nakkara language groups.

Artists make coiled baskets of many shapes and sizes, ranging from small round baskets to large oval baskets that were used to carry babies. Mostly they use pandanus fibre that is dyed with natural pigments. Bundles of fibre are formed into coils and the coils are covered and stitched together with strands of fibre threaded onto a needle. The basic stitching technique is a close blanket stitch, but often weavers use variations and add elements such as rosettes for decorative effects, combining colours and patterns to create intricate graphic patterns.

The technique of coil and stitch basketry is believed to have been introduced to Arnhem Land by Greta Matthews, a missionary on Goulburn Island in the 1920s. She had probably learnt coil basketry from Aboriginal people in the south-east of Australia, possibly Murray River people such as the Yorta Yorta or the coastal Ngarrindjeri. The coiling technique spread quickly from Goulburn Island to people on mainland Arnhem Land.

2D artworks

In 2003, Kuninjku artist Marina Murdilnga brought a revolutionary new form of pandanus weaving to Maningrida Arts & Culture: a flat yawkyawk made from knotted pandanus on a jungle-vine frame, painted with natural pigments. She next explored using dyed pandanus and feathers in this way. Murdilnga’s innovation inspired many other weavers, who are producing an array of beautifully resolved flat figurative works (stingray, butterflies, spiderwebs) and spiritual figures and Ancestral beings. Alongside Murdilnga, leading artists of this form of fibre art are Anniebell Marnngamarnnga, Frewa Baradluna and Rembarrnga artists Vera Cameron and Maisie Cameron. Lulu Larandjbi is weaving interpretations of the rock pools at Kobumi where Ngalyod (the Rainbow Serpent) entered and died.


The weavers of Arnhem Land use their extensive knowledge of plants to impart a wide range of dyes to the fibres they use. The same dye bath is often used to dye a number of batches of fibre, with variations in the colours depending on the time spent in the dye bath and the potency of the bath. The women skilfully use salt and wood ash as mordants and colour enhancers.

During a dyeing session at her home at Wurdeja outstation, east of Maningrida, Laurie Marburduk uses one dye bath to produce three different colours: orange, yellow and red. The main ingredient for the dye is the root of the plant Pogonolobus reticulatus, a straggly, shallow-rooted shrub.

Marburduk prepares the root by peeling off its outer skin and cutting it into smaller pieces. The pieces of root go into a billycan in preparation for boiling with the raw fibre. The first batch of fibre is cooked for about an hour to produce a deep orange colour. After removing the first batch of fibre, Marburduk places a second batch in the billycan and stirs it around for a few minutes before quickly removing it. This yields a bright golden yellow colour. For the third and final batch of fibre, Marburduk adds ash from the wood of the gumtree Eucalyptus alba to the dye bath. She then places the third batch of raw fibre in the billycan and stirs it around. This yields a rich pinky-red colour.

Source: Margaret Carew, 1996, from MAC website, 1997.

Caring for woven objects

The locally sourced fibres used by Arnhem Land artists are strong and supple. Like all organic fibres, they will naturally deteriorate over the years. The best way to maintain the good condition of your woven object is to:

  • Place it somewhere airy (especially if in tropical climates);
  • Keep it dust and insect-free by shaking it out regularly;
  • Minimise exposure to direct sunlight when not in use; and
  • Keep it out of reach of any pet or baby that might want to chew on it!