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Fabric decoration techniques used in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander textile design
Paperbark woman: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander fashion design

For thousands of years colour and pattern have been added to otherwise plain cloth through the application of dyes and paints. The methods used have ranged from finger painting with natural pigments to contemporary computerised printing. The nature of the designs, however, have been determined less by the availability of colouring agents than by the practices, beliefs, legends and fashions of the cultures that produce them.

Some textiles are believed to bring luck, some rain, some protect the wearer from evil spirits, some tell narrative stories of events and some simply identify clan.

Painting on cloth is one of the freest and most readily adaptable ways of creating surface pattern on textiles. Virtually any type of fabric can be hand-painted for any number of uses. Fabrics can range from sheer silk to coarse cottons and corduroys. The range of design is unlimited and the effects which can be achieved are only limited by the imagination. There are also many different colouring materials.

Resist dyeing
Resist dyeing is a means of decorating cloth by protecting selected areas from dye penetration. This may be achieved by covering the areas with a resistant substance, such as wax or rice paste, or by stitching and tying either the finished cloth or the yarns from which it is to be woven (ikat). Even when stamps or stitching are used, resist dyeing is extremely labour intensive.

Batik is a resist-dye technique. It is practised in many cultures, including Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, Africa, China and Australia. In Australia, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities such as Ernabella Arts and Utopia are applying the technique to the production of fabrics illustrating traditional and contemporary themes.

The most common method of batik is to draw on one or both sides of a textile with hot wax or rice paste. After dyeing, the resist material is removed by boiling, melting or scraping. The process is repeated for each desired colour.

Glory Ngale
Glory Ngale uses a tjanting to apply the wax to the silk.

Photo: Grace Cochrane.

In printing, coloured designs are applied to the surface of the cloth in the form of patterns. Colour is usually applied as paste containing pigments and a binding material. This is fixed by steaming or heating, and the excess colour removed by washing. Designs may be printed with stamps or carved wooden blocks, an art requiring great skill and accuracy on the part of both printer and block-maker. Polystyrene blocks are another alternative material for the block. Silk screen-printing is basically a stencilling process. The stencil carries the design to be printed. The screen consists of gauze stretched on a frame.

Francesca Puruntatameri (left) and Thecla Puruntatameri screen-print fabric at Munupi Arts on Melville Island. (Desart, 2001: 43)
Photo: Barry Skipsey. Courtesy: Barry Skipsey.



Design a motif inspired by the Australian bush. Consider the colour ways you could use:

  • related colour harmonies, such as
    - monochromatic
    - analagous
  • contrasting colour harmonies, such as
    - complementary
    - split complementary
    - triad.
2. Apply the design to fabric using batik, screen-printing or hand-painting. Hand-painting techniques could include using twigs as brushes, straws for blowing paints, or leaves, grasses or seeds as imprints.
3. Evaluate which technique was most appropriate for the motif.

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