where nothing was before

I try to talk mainly about words and books when I write for Riverton Press, so this comes with a warning: today I’m going to talk about weaving. Soon enough I’ll be telling more about Lyn McGettigan’s new book Lucky to be Here, now in the design process, and about Vittoria Pasquini’s upcoming work, The Legend of Busby, now perfecting its text and translation.

It’s not a deviation from theme to talk about weaving: text and textile, line and word count, line and stitch count, not to mention yarn and yarning. It’s the same vocabulary so there must be some connection. In one, structures are made of warp and weft, in the other, they’re based on verb and noun.

Just as we might tell you, we’ve published a book, today the news is, I’ve made a basket. When I began, I had in mind a basket big enough to serve as a fruit bowl, say three or four mangoes.

I attended a series of workshops at the Museum of Sydney’s Weaving Room. Indigenous women came from various parts of New South Wales, exhibited their work and taught and talked with anyone who came through the doors. I began in December when Kodie Mason from La Perouse gave me a small circle of woven bone-coloured raffia and a yellow plastic needle. This was a “starter” and you proceed, basically, with blanket stitch. I sat at the table with other learners, we swapped stories as we worked, or worked companionably in silence. Sometimes groups sat around the two circles on the floor, their central point being a mountain of coloured raffia.

Visitors included schoolchildren and their parents, tourists from abroad, Sydney locals. Probably the most enthusiastic learners were the museum staff, who started weaving during their turns in that Museum space, then saw no reason to stop. Their managers have no problem with that, and now you might be greeted at the entrance by staff with a weaving project in hand.

My basket began with Kodie and Tarli Mason, two sisters from La Perouse, on 23 December. On 9 January I retuned with my friend Eilean, and Tarni Eastwood from Darug country showed me how to join new raffia to the growing basket. Eilean worked with raffia and made a bracelet, then chose some paper raffia to start making a circle. She worked quietly, waiting, she said, for the meditative state.

The following Monday I returned and met the Gomeroi women from the Yinarr Maramali cultural hub at Tamworth. This collective has made a magnificent large turtle that hangs on the Weaving Room wall: many small woven pieces of various patterns were cleverly joined together. I loved these women and their laughter but that day I had a struggle with raffia as a material. This is not my medium, I thought, and the more I thought that, the more the raffia tied itself in knots.

On 23 January Tegan Murdock of the Barkindji and Yorta Yorta peoples showed me how to move from the flat floor of my basket to start building its walls, this was an exciting moment for a novice weaver. I told Tegan she has a special place in my heart for that bit of teaching. Now I became more enthusiastic and did more weaving during the week, building up the walls so the basket would be ready for (what I thought would be) my last workshop. I needed to learn how to finish off the work.

The wonderful women from Bundjalung country were at the Museum on 6 February and Kylie Caldwell helped me complete the basket. It turned out to be a flimsy lightweight affair, but it’s a basket, and I made it! Then I tried my hand at the lomandra grass that had been dried then dampened again and lay in strips on the table in a wet towel. Auntie Margo Torrens and Kylie helped me create a small piece much the same size as others on the table, these were going to form part of an installation to be assembled the next day.

So I went back on the morrow to see that. It was the last day of the workshop season. As in all yarning circles, things don’t happen in an instant, one waits. I sat at the table talking with the weavers and had a look at the Visitor’s Book. I hadn’t planned to do any weaving but when I closed the book, I saw my hands were holding some raffia threads. I swear I didn’t pick them up! Well, I thought, I’ll have a go at starting a new piece, I saw how Margo did it yesterday. Soon I showed the teachers my progress and Kylie taught me how to make a stronger basket. Which is now in stages of becoming, and I have made my peace with raffia.

The phrase, where nothing was before, from I poem I used to know, floated into my mind as I thought about creating books, baskets, works of art, and it seemed appropriate to describe the results of creative process. Then I remembered more words and found the full poem. The poet wasn’t talking about making, but about first contact between cultures.

It’s a sonnet by JC Squire, on the first sighting of foreign ships on waters (where nothing was before) from a shore where there was an Indian, who had known no change. The poem is about that moment just before first contact between an indigenous community and sailing ships from Europe: the man on the beach sees for the first time, Columbus’s doom-burdened caravels.

The Museum of Sydney is all about that first contact in Sydney Cove. You hear voices as you pass a set of high standing timber on your right as you enter the museum. These speak to me of ancient culture, ancient forest, and remind me of that beautiful installation of didgeridoos at the National Gallery in Canberra. The Museum is built over and around the remains of Governor Phillip’s Government House, and exhibits reflect stories from both cultures in the early years of the English invasion.

small beginnings
fruit bowl
the weaving room