From Macramé to Digital Looms: Threads of Australian Identity

There is nothing in a caterpillar that tells you it’s going to be a butterfly.

Buckminster Fuller

Ned Kelly’s armour is one of our most iconic objects. It tells the story of innovation and defiance as one man stood up against the full force of the law. Less well known is the ornate green silk cummerbund that he wore under the armour. The cummerbund had been a reward for saving the life of a drowning boy. The kind of story it tells is a very different one of compassion and sensuousness. Metal and textiles represent quite opposite experiences of the world. Yet a rich culture finds expression through the full diversity of materials. While we are most familiar with the depiction of Australian life in film and painting, crafts offer a more immediate tactile experience that reflects the rhythm of work and care for things. In the art of textiles, we have a distinctive language of shelter, comfort, gender, growth and decay.

A collection such as that of Ararat Regional Gallery plays a critical role in maintaining this idiom.[1] With an economy that has ridden ‘on the sheep’s back’ for so long, fibre deserved a cultural voice of its own. Through this collection, we can experience key works in the development of our capacity as a culture to clothe our identity. We witness a metamorphosis in which inherited textile traditions are destroyed in creative experimentation, only to be re-constructed in a language more appropriate to the medium and its context. We see the transformation of the caterpillar into a butterfly.

Prior to the 1960s, textile arts in Australia were quite underdeveloped. A number of active community associations had been established, such as the Country Women’s Association and local guilds. In the trying circumstances of European farming in an antipodean environment, needlework has provided a critical creative activity to cope with the hardship and uncertainty of life on the land. No matter how severe the drought, you could always embroider floral patterns. But until the 1960s, this work was yet to find a place in art galleries.[2] Things were about to explode.

The Experimental 70s

Textile arts were undergoing a revolution by the mid 20th century. Previously bound to tradition and tied to the loom, weaving was experiencing its moment of liberation as artists began experimenting with ‘off the loom’ techniques. In the visual arts, sculptors like Eva Hesse were eschewing the fine materials of tapestry for anything that was cheap and pliable. Artists like Magdalena Abakanowicz were effecting a change in weaving parallel to that of abstract expressionism in painting. This was a move away from illustration to a more tactile form of expression with three-dimensional fibrous works.

1976 was a watershed year for textile arts in Australia. In this year, the Victorian Tapestry Workshop opened, providing a critical platform for the sustainability of weaving skills. The workshop represented a renaissance model of weaver as interpreter of painting. By contrast, in that same year, the Polish artist Mariana Abakanowicz visited Australia to demonstrate the value of textiles as an autonomous medium.

The 1970s was a period of intense experimentation as Australia re-discovered itself through the arts, particularly film, music and theatre. A new generation of textile artists emerged to meet the challenges laid by overseas artists like Abakanowicz.

In the mid 70s, the Ararat collection really began to ‘take off’ with the acquisition of works that liberated themselves from the gallery wall. In 1974, the gallery purchased Amanda (1974) by German-born Jutta Federrsen. This quintessential work of ‘soft sculpture’ expresses the materiality of jute, sisal and feathers in a suggestive form.[3] Another ‘off the wall’ piece was purchased in 1976; Wool Corporation, made by English-born embroiderer Heather Dorrough, is an iconic work that connects this exuberant energy with Ararat’s role in the national economy. The piece strongly reflects the merino pride of the region, using woollen blankets to construct six fully-fleeced rams.

The exuberance of the time is epitomised in the ‘born to be wild’ work by English-born Vivienne Pengilley. Ducati Trip (1977) is defiantly constructed of chrome, mylar, rabbit fur and padlock. Suspended from the ceiling, Pengilley’s work could not be further from the traditional image of the weaver, patiently tied to the loom. We see a slightly more demure expression of this exuberance in the later work by Julie Montgarrett, Fleeter (1985), dedicated to her elder sister using the textile medium to express the fluidity of dance.

Meanwhile a quieter rebellion was brewing in basketry with experiments in use of local materials. Jean Lange was one of the pioneers, having developed techniques by herself in the Barossa Valley. She is represented by a basket of watsonia leaves, which incorporates elements of Australian nature within a traditional form.

This scene was given a significant boost in 1981 with the arrival of Douglas Fuchs from the USA. Fuchs was deeply influenced by indigenous traditions, listing as inspiration Philippine fish traps, Gullah baskets and the woven sheath of a Jivaro head-hunter’s knife. In Australia, he championed a fibre primitivism, declaring that ‘I saw Dilly bags in the collection of the National Museum in Victoria that were as sophisticated and complex as any Picasso.’ On arrival, Fuchs travelled immediately to central Australia in order to steep himself in Aboriginal culture. His Kurrajong Totem offers an interpretation of traditional forms such as eel traps and employs an encyclopaedic range of indigenous materials.

Closely associated with Fuchs was the local weaver John Corbett, who was also Abakanowicz’s assistant during her Australian visit. His Hammock (1976) uses a South American form to express the tactile quality of fleece. This dangling form is strikingly at odds with the taut structure of traditional weaving. Fuchs also inspired one of Australia’s most important basket makers, Virginia Kaiser, who is well represented in this collection through both acquisitions and the Victorian State Craft collection. Dragon’s Blood (1987) is a wonderful example of how basket makers can take a wild feature of Australian flora and transform it into a complex decorative pattern.

Bush matter is an enduring source of inspiration for artists in Western Australia, thanks to individuals like the late Elsje King. King helped establish the legendary annual bush camps at Edith Cowan University’s Textile Department where students and staff ventured out into the ‘wilderness’ and learned to make works of art only from the materials that they could find around them. More recently in the career of Nalda Searles, King’s influence has expanded through Western Australia into various poetic uses of the bush and collaborations with indigenous artists.

While experimenting with materials that could be found in nature, there was also exploration of materials from the body, such as hair. Just before becoming inaugural director of the Victorian Tapestry Workshop, Sue Walker produced a surreal combination of domestic implements out of crocheted horsehair. Afternoon Tea in Horse Hair (1975) takes the spirit of experimentation with materials into the domestic realm. The following year, the gallery purchased another horse hair work in explosive colours. The renowned Colombian textile artist Olga de Amaral constructed her epic Coraza in Dos Colores (Shield in two colours, 1973) out of pink handspun wool and horsehair.

In later years, the spirit of experimentation moved beyond materials themselves to explorations of fantasy in textile art. Inga Hunter’s Robes of the Imperium series (1986-89) were constructed around an entire universe of textiles, in which planets’ names were Japanese textiles spelt backwards, such as Irasaq (Kasuri). Nola Jones Rhinegold (1987) inspired by Wagner’s operas, reflects an unbridled theatricality.

Soft sculpture also began to encompass figurative work. Ewa Pachucka’s Woman with Python (1978) was invented from crochet and polypropylene. Fibre works such as Pachucka’s use the figure of the human body to animate materials that otherwise are mere matter. Having arrived from Poland in 1971, Pachucka was one of many migrants who were instrumental in developing textile art in Australia, with a particular vision for folk textiles in Tasmania. The scope of textiles went far beyond domestic crafts: ‘I want to see craft coming from the very roots of the people.’ A more introspective turn towards self and identity is reflected in Pam Gaunt’s The Shape of Things to Come (1987) and Tass Mavrogordato’s It’s Different for Girls (1993).

As well as foreign influences arriving on Australian shores, there was also a strong interest in traditional cultures beyond. Wendy Stavrianos Wedding Dress (1975) is a costume made for her own wedding from curtain fabrics and inspired by the robes of Greek shepherds. The collection features a strong Latin American theme, reflecting the discovery of pre-Columbian textiles. Ann Greenwood’s Three Mamucanas (1982) draws from her experiences in Peru and relates to the matriarchal transmission of weaving skills in traditional Aymara culture. It is fitting that these South American references are crowned in this collection by Juan Davila’s School of Santiago (1993) which ornaments an icon of Western culture (Van Gough painting) with a crochet border.

The formative 80s

Out of this period of rhizomic experimentation, a new tradition of Australian textiles began to crystallise. This is reflected first in a more developed thematic focus, and then in a more professional approach to textile art.

Textile art began to tell a distinctively Australian story. We glimpse the beginning of this in more traditional weavers such as Jess Brookes from the Handweavers and Spinners Guild. The canvas broadens with the ‘patchwork impressionism’ of Lois Densham’s Wheatfields (1981), which celebrates a working rural landscape. In Gippsland, Annemieke Mein developed a distinctive language of three-dimensional embroidery for representing Victorian nature, as in her Pink Emperor Gum Moth (1982). Having just arrived from Scotland, Valerie Kirk began a series of explorations through the Australian outback and became particularly interested in the story of opals. In Story of the Opal (1985), Kirk uses patchwork techniques to incorporate a variety of perspectives including palaeontology, mining and Aboriginal mythologies. She also uses textiles as a medium to bridge cultures in her work for the Victorian sesquicentenary in Possum Skin Cloaks became Patchwork Quilts (1985). Not all works were celebratory. Rosalie Cogan’s Luck of the Draw (1987) used the issue of national service to evoke the practice of needlework as a salve for those awaiting return of their loved ones from the theatre of war. And Tony Dyer’s Tourist Trap (1989) employs the traditional Indonesian technique of batik dyeing to reflect ironically on the droves of Australians who flock to holiday destinations like Bali.

These works established the ground for many contemporary textile artists who have developed a powerful language for the expression of place, such as Ilka White’s evocation of landscape and Paull McKee’s work on the vernacular make-do of textile crafts such as the Wagga blanket.

During the 80s, tertiary courses expanded and so began an interest in the theoretical meaning of crafts. Australian textile art was particularly suited to the academic interest in gender, in particular the lowly status of domestic life. Books such as Rozsika Parker’s Subversive Stitch: Embroidery and the Making of the Feminine (1989) identified textiles not only as an instrument for the confinement of women, but also the source of their creative agency and expression. Kay Lawrence’s House/Self (1989) was inspired by Helen Garner’s novel Children’s Bach, reflecting on the complex psychology of housework as the recovery of order from the tangles of family life. The tapestry interweaves opposing views—the masculine external architecture of the house and the feminine internal life. Continuing this interest, the complex layers of family life are represented in Sarah CrowEAST’s Red Counter Pain (1994), reflecting the life cycle of nature and human reproduction.

Textiles as a medium for representing the world between private and public is also reflected in the work of one of Victoria’s most distinguished tapestry weavers, Kate Derum. In the Heat of the Moment (1999) evokes a midnight world of shadows and dreams. Derum’s piece was woven on a scaffold loom using the technique of nomadic rugs. By this means she was able to incorporate the 70s spirit of improvisation into the more structured narrative of tapestry.

Textiles became an important medium for the expression of transformation. Richard Goodwin’s Air/Past Sample/Future Tense (1990) renders nature in the lifeless rags of a discarded doll. The subversive stitch is given a more radical turn in the work by Annabelle Collett The re-make / The Great leap forward (1982) which reflected the Chinese cultural revolution which remade revolutionary outfits from bourgeois clothes.

Also evolving from this period of experimentation is a more abstract form of expression. This signals a return to the two-dimensional plane of tapestry, though its source of expression is the structural nature of weaving itself, rather than traditional motifs. While the 70s focused on materials, innovation in the 80s largely concerned techniques.

We see an early example of this in Basic Forms in Black and White (1975) by Roma Center, which strives for an architectural form out of the disciplines of weaving. Michael Brennand-Wood’s Journey to Shiloh (1984) is an optical experiment creating a space between two and three dimensions.

Recently celebrated as a ‘Living Treasure’ of Australian craft, Liz Williamson is one of the strongest practitioners of the new structuralism. Crinkled Length (1985) is an important early work exploring the complex combinations of colour through warp and weft. Williamson is distinctive for the manner in which she is able to give body her to weave, which she later reflected in works constructed from Shibori methods and deconstructed through washing and darning.

Canadian weaver Marcel Marois Mutation (1994) explores the temporal dimension of weaving by contrast with newspaper photography, the half-tone dots dissolving into woven structure. This is something picked up later by Victorian weaver Tim Gresham whose tapestries engage with the silver halide texture of black and white photographic prints of modernist architecture.

Jennifer Robertson has been at the forefront of weaving technology. Her triple weave method enables the construction of three separate but linked layers of cloth to be woven simultaneously. Robertson’s Cones (2004) emerged from the scanning technologies available in Montreal. Her work is constructed from digital photographs of Chinese ink and resist drawings of cones, which are imported into a French Jacquard program which translates pixels into threads and colours into structures.

A return to the language of weaving continues as a strong theme in Australian textiles today, reflected particularly in the modernist inquiries of Sara Lindsay.


The late 20th century witnessed a monumental story of cultural transformation for Australia. The Ararat Regional Gallery’s textile collection contains a unique chapter in this development which sits alongside other languages that matured in this period. In ceramics, Western traditions were replaced by Japanese techniques for reflecting the Australian landscape. In jewellery, a conceptual project developed to incorporate ordinary materials and extend the range of ornament beyond conventional sites. And we see in textiles a language of making that expresses the tactile dimension, often representing our common stories through a patient labour at the loom or the lap.

The experimental textile works 70s might seem as outdated as flares in fashion. But viewed from this distance, we can appreciate the inherited traditions they emerged from, and the new language of textiles they helped bring into being.

The history of textile art in Australia is a tangible component in the formation of cultural identity in the late 20th century. This history lays the foundation for the innovative and intricate textile art we enjoy today. The butterfly takes flight.

[1] Sifting through the documents of this collection tells a story in itself. Many of the works are accompanied by handwritten letters from the artists, thrilled to be in the Ararat Collection and anxious to provide useful information to ensure the longevity of their works. As a special bonus, many of these artists request copies of slides of their work. These handwritten notes signify a work quite different to our own, when the only time people looked at screens was to gather together around the box in the corner. It’s an important world to maintain contact with.

[2] There were some important developments in textile printing, with some batik experiments in Adelaide during the 1920s. Designers like Frances Burke and Michael O’Connell attempted to develop particularly Australian textile patterns. Finnish Rya rugs were popular in the 1950s, but we were yet to develop our own language of fibre.

[3] Off the loom weaving had been pioneered in Australia by Mona Hessing, whose work Nest was acquired in 1995.

This essay was written for the 40th anniversary of Ararat Regional Art Gallery