Workshop: Weaving with Frances Djulibing

There was very little directly textile-related in my Top End holiday (see 29-Aug-2013). Happily the day after our return I was able to fill this gap partially at a workshop at the Museum of Contemporary Art, led by Frances Djulibing from Ramingining, in the east of Arnhem Land.

Frances showed us two techniques. The first was a basket weaving / twining technique using pandanus, similar to the class with Aaron Broad (15-Aug-2013).

banyanThe second technique was preparing and spinning a yarn or string from the aerial roots of the banyan tree. On the right is a photo I took in Darwin of a banyan known as The Tree of Knowledge. The Civic Centre was basically built around it. Some of those verticals are supports put in to help the tree, but most are the tree’s aerial roots.

Frances had a bundle of roots, each around 25 or 30 cm long and perhaps 2 cm in diameter.

Frances_Djulibing_03The first step was to scrape away the outer layer of bark and the green layer just beneath it, using a sharp blade. This was a fairly slow and careful process – you don’t want to go too far and take off the inner bark.

Frances_Djulibing_04Next Frances pounded the root between two stones. She kept turning the root, pounding on all sides and along the length. The fibres of the inner bark started breaking up, loosening from the root inside. Eventually Frances was able to slip the outer bark from the root, slipping the tube of bark off like a sock.

Frances folded up the tube of inner bark and kept pounding on it, further separating the fibres.

Frances_Djulibing_05With a bit more pounding the inner bark became a mass of long fibres. Frances was able to pull small groups apart quite easily.

On some of the photos you may be able to see the moisture on the rocks. It was released from the roots during the pounding. Frances created a pile of root fibres and let them dry out a little before moving on to the spinning process. They were still moist, but not wet.

Next came spinning, in a wonderfully clever and efficient process that created a balanced two ply string of whatever length you wanted with no tools other than your own body. It was also one of those classic things that look smooth and easy when done by an experienced person and turns out to be a physical impossibility when you try it yourself.

In other spinning I’ve done, using a spinning wheel or a spindle, you start by twisting your fibres together always twisting in one direction, gradually catching more fibres in and creating a length – “singles” or one ply. It’s quite unstable and if released from tension would just untwist and fall apart. So as you go you wind it under tension on a bobbin (if using a wheel) or on the spindle. If you look at the individual fibres in the length you can see they all slope in one direction as they twist down the length you’ve created. It depends on which way you twisted, but say for this example as you look at the length the fibres all come from the top left and move down to the right, like “\” or the middle line of a capital S (so known as S-twist).

To create a balanced, stable yarn that doesn’t fall apart you spin two bobbins of S-twist singles. Then spin again, this time with the two singles as input instead of individual fibres, and twisting in the opposite direction – “/” or Z-twist in our example. If all goes well you end with a nice length of two-ply yarn. The S and the Z twists balance each other out. With just a single length of S-twist, if you tried to put in Z-twist it would just fall apart, but because you have two lengths of S-twist they twist around each other in the Z operation and it all holds together.

Too many words, but with just a bit of practice it works and you can get fancier and fancier with variations.

Frances, almost magically, added both twists in one operation, using just her hands and leg.
Frances_Djulibing_06The diagram on the left shows the yarn as it is being created – like a “Y” lying on its side (and the S and Z also on their side). At points number 1 are the two bundles of banyan fibres coming in. At points number 2, S-twist has been added to the individual fibres. In the photo above on the left Frances is doing this by rolling the two ends down her leg under the palm of her hand. Where the twist is being added to the two bundles they are kept slightly apart under her hand.

At point number 3 the two S-twist bundles have been combined in a Z-twist string. In the photo above on the right Frances is doing this by rolling the combined bundles up her leg, held together under her thumb.

While working Frances always had the “Y” shape under her hands. The base of the “Y” kept getting longer as more 2-ply string was created. Frances kept adding new fibres to the arms of the “Y”, twisting them in with the fibres already in progress. So the rhythm was:
* add some fibres to one of the arms
* roll down the leg on the two separated arms of the “Y” to add S-twist
* roll back up the leg with the two arms together to combine them in a Z-twist
* give a tug to the newly created bit of string to check for strength.
* repeat

The focus of work was always just a centimetre or two right near the junction of the “Y”, converting just that little bit from bundles to S-twist singles to Z-twist two ply. Frances was constantly controlling where in the length twist was being added by pinching and releasing at different points. It was beautiful to watch.

Sorry this is all very wordy and unclear – more a reference for myself.

I keep wandering around the house, trying to find an equivalent material to use in creating a yarn. Even if I had access to banyan roots I wouldn’t want to use it for more than a try. winter_weaving_5It’s like using wire from a power cable and weed-trimmer line for my tiny basket – I want to combine these techniques with materials natural to my own, personal environment. I’ll have to keep thinking and looking…

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August 2013

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