We began on Saturday by handling Sue's collection of Aboriginal string bags and looking at their construction, noticing the differences between looped (like the one that sparked the idea for the exhibition) and knotted. We saw the differences between fixed and suspended knots and between simple looping, loop and twist, and figure of eight loops. Sue said that the older bags in her collection from the 1970s were bought quite cheaply but there is now an increased appreciation of the skill and the bags are more sought after and expensive.
All of the bags were subtly different, the form dictated by the fibre and purpose - whether for the Aborigines own use to carry particular items, or to sell on to tourists. The bags are more rigid than the crocheted string bags that have once again become popular as environmentally friendly alternatives to plastic. Some were constructed from top to bottom and some from bottom up which sparked a discussion about weak points, where and how to join string and attach handles as it's not possible to work with long lengths on your needle. The traditional bags were made from hand spun plant fibres and the Aborigines would just attach more length as needed, generally without the need for knots. However, some bags did have knots and long threads were left hanging. Most of us found this strange and a bit disturbing, particularly as they were on the outside of the bag.
|Some of Sue's collection, note the bag on the right with hanging threads|
At the talk the other week, Sue had explained that there are hundreds of different tribes and languages and a great deal of secrecy among the Aborigines so it is very difficult to get accurate information about their lifestyles and craft. We do know that they tensioned the bag structures using their legs as a frame and as there were no chemical dyes available to them, the only colour seen on some of these bags is yellow ochre. No containers for holding dye were available either so it's likely they coloured the string using their hands covered in earth.
After a look around the exhibition, we got set up ready to have a go at a looped technique first. First we choose some string. I had brought some ordinary parcel string but after looking at the bags decided to buy some hemp twine as it seemed to hold knots better. We used G-clamps to attach warp posts to the table about 1.2m apart and tensioned a thick piece of string between them, making loops at each end that would allow the work to be removed and rotated at the end of each row. Unfortuntely, although we were essentially working a blanket stitch, the first few rows are the trickiest and I cursed my left-handedness, struggling to reverse the diagrams from the handouts in my head. Waiting for help at the end of each row as I couldn't fathom the corners got pretty frustrating. My first attempt had very uneven tension and was pretty odd-looking with funny knots in random places.
|Attempt 1. It toook about 2 hours just to do this!|
As starting was the difficult bit, Sue suggested we practised this again on a new sample. Attempt two was going better and I took it home with me to work on. This time I tried a tighter tension to see what a denser fabric would look like. Back at home I scannned, reversed and coloured the handouts and understood them immediately! I worked a few more rows, feeling pretty pleased I finally twigged what I was supposed to be doing. Then disaster! I hadn't pulled a knot tight enough and when I trimmed it, it began to unravel. Determined not to be defeated, I strung up attempt three and by the early hours of Sunday morning I had a more or less, bag shaped thing, even with knots (pullled very tightly!) lined up as intended.
|Getting the hang of it now|
Back at Bankfield after a too-short sleep, I had a go at hand spinning with raffia. Sue showed us how the Aborigine's would do it but as it was a cold day, none of us had bare legs exposed and it didn't work too well. Then another lady on the course who was a basket weaver showed us a technique she used with day lillies to get exactly the result we were after using just our fingers. Two strands of raffia were dampened very slightly with a water spray to make them easier to work with (too much and it becomes sticky). A knot was held in one hand. In the other, the back strand was twisted tightly away, then moved over the front with the index finger pushing tight in the space between the two. I found it quite enjoyable - something you could do without concentrating while you were watching T.V. I reckon it would take months to make enough for a bag though.
|Hand spinning with raffia|
Next we got set up ready to have a go at the knotted bag technique. The netting needle is wound with string so there are not so many joins to make and a lot less string is used overall. I was surprised how far my hemp was going, so apart from the time it takes to make these bags, material-wise, it's a very economical way to make really strong structures.
I managed the knotting itself ok. This is essentially the same technique as making fishing net but my tension was all over the place as I struggled to get the netting needle easily through the loops. I think that the ruler I was using for a mesh stick was a bit too narrow. My holes were pretty irregular and the knots moved more than they should. Again when making a bag, starting off was the most difficult bit as the size of the loops needed to be different to create the base and curved shape. Some loops had three knots and others four. We used thread to mark the ends of the base to help us identify them but again I found the right-handed diagram on the new handout very diffucult to follow in reverse.
|Knotting, using a netting needle and ruler as a mesh stick for spacing|
We were showed some different ways to finish our bags and we talked about which bags we thought had been finished most sympathetically to their shape. Some bags had one simple drawstring thread through the top loops as a handle while others were one thicker piece of spun string or a number of strings and some had wrapped areas. Finally those who had finished hung up their bags and we admired our creations before taking them home to show to a quite unimpressed family!
|Finished sample bag, just right for carrying my apple!|