Aboriginal skin cloaks
by Fabri Blacklock
Assistant Curator, Koori History and Culture, Powerhouse Museum, Sydney
Aboriginal people throughout south-eastern and western Australia wore skin cloaks, as these temperate zones were much cooler than the northern parts of Australia. The cloaks were made from the skins of possums, kangaroos, wallabies and other fur bearing animals. Early European observations noted that many of the local Aboriginal people wore skin cloaks. These observations were recorded in literature, paintings and photography.
illustration 1; Courtesy of Cambridge University. Click to enlarge.
The many processes involved in the making of these cloaks were complex and often time consuming. Some cloaks were made using up to seventy skins taking over a year to collect before beginning the process of making them into a cloak. Once the skins were removed from the animal, the flesh was scraped off using a sharp stone implement or mussel shell. The skins were then stretched over bark and hung out to dry often near a fire as this would slightly tan the skins and protect them from insect attacks . After the skins were dried out they were then rubbed with fat, ochre and or ashes to make them pliable and keep them supple. The cloaks were sewn together using sinew, which was taken from the tail of kangaroos. Holes were pierced through the skins using a sharp pointed stick or a pointed bone needle. The sinew was then threaded through the pre made holes to sew the skins together making them into a cloak. There appears to be some difference in the manufacture of the cloaks across Australia. In New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia the skins were shaped into square pelts and then sewn together. In Western Australia the skin's used were mainly kangaroo and the whole skin was sewn together with another leaving the tail to hang at the bottom of the cloak. The cloaks from Western Australia are called Buka or Boka.
Nahraminyeri, a Ngarrindjeri woman from Point McLeay in South Australia; Courtesy South Australian Museum. Click to enlarge.
Skin cloaks were often the main items of clothing worn by Aboriginal people in the cooler temperate zones. The cloak was worn by placing it over one shoulder and under the other it was then fastened at the neck using a small piece of bone or wood. By wearing the cloak this way it allowed for movement of both arms without any restrictions and allowed for daily activities to be carried out with ease. The cloaks were worn both with the fur on the outside and on the inside depending on the weather conditions. If it was raining the fur would be worn on the outside, providing the same waterproof qualities it did to the animal from which the skins came. The cloaks were also used as rugs to sleep on at night. Many women wore cloaks that had a special pouch at the back in which they could easily carry a small child. This is illustrated in the photo to the right of Nahraminyeri, a Ngarrindjeri woman from Point McLeay in South Australia; this photo was taken in about 1880.
When wearing the fur on the inside the spectacular designs incised onto the skin could be seen and this is well illustrated in the paintings of Aboriginal artist William Barak. Barak's paintings illustrate the magnificent designs that the cloaks were decorated with. Many of his paintings depict ceremonies with people singing and dancing in their cloaks.
Designs were incised into the leathery side of the skin, this was done using a sharp mussel shell. The design's incised onto the cloak were important to the wearer and their clan group. The combination of designs helped identify who the wearer was and what group they came from. The design's often found on the cloaks from south eastern Australia include naturalistic figures, cross hatching, wavy lines, diamonds, geometric designs, lozenges and zigzag patterns.
In his book The Aborigines of New South Wales Fraser (1892:45) discusses the meaning of the designs found on the cloaks. He suggests that each family had their own design or what Aboriginal people called a 'mombarrai' incised onto the cloak, which helped identify who the owner was. He states:
...a friend tells me that he had an opossum cloak made for him long ago by a man of the Kamalarai (sic) tribe, who marked it with his own 'mombarai'. When this cloak was shown to another black sometime after, he at once exclaimed, "I know who made this; here is his 'mombarai'."
Alfred Howitt also notes the importance of the designs found on the cloaks and how these could be used to identify the wearer. He states:
...each man's rug is particularly marked to signify its particular ownership. A man's designs from his Possum-skin rug were put onto trees around the site of his burial. Passing references by others note individual designs on each pelt could represent rivers, camps, animals like grub, snakes and lizards, and plants.
Ivaritji, a Kaurna woman from the Adelaide area. Click to enlarge.
Photo courtesy of the South Australian Museum.
Within Australia the most spectacular cloak is the Lake Condah cloak made in 1872 and held in the Museum of Victoria. The designs on this cloak feature square and diamond shaped lozenges, wavy lines, circles and naturalistic figures. Some of the pelts on this cloak have also been decorated with ochre. Diamond and square shaped designs were commonly used on cloaks as decoration, and they also made the skin more pliable. Louisa Eggington a Narranga woman from Southern Yorke Peninsula made one of the most beautiful cloaks I have seen. This wallaby cloak was made in the early 1900s. It features square pelts and magnificent geometric diamond shaped incisions on the skin. In 1928 Herbert Hale and Norman Tindale from the South Australian Museum interviewed Ivaritji a Kaurna woman from the Adelaide area. She specifically requested to be photographed in this wallaby skin cloak and this was typical of the clothing she remembered wearing as a child. This cloak is currently on display in the South Australian Museums Australian Aboriginal Cultures Gallery.
There are many reasons why the majority of skin cloaks did not survive to the present day. One of these reasons was because when a person died all their belongings were disposed of, also some people were wrapped in their skin cloaks after their death. During the early colonial days there was not an institution that was capable of collecting and preserving these cloaks and they were also highly susceptible to insect attacks. Also the introduction of European style clothing and with the annual issuing of blankets from the Crown in 1814 the manufacture and use of skin cloaks began to cease. The issuing of these blankets to the Aboriginal community also caused them to suffer colds and serious respiratory problems especially when it rained, as they did not provide the same waterproof qualities of the skin cloaks.
There are only fifteen skin cloaks located in Museums within Australia and overseas. In Australia there are skin cloaks held in the Western Australian Museum, Gloucester Lodge Museum, Western Australia, the South Australian Museum and the Museum of Victoria. Overseas their are cloaks in the Smithsonian Institution - Washington DC, The British Museum - London, Museum of Ethnology -Berlin, Germany and the Pigorini Museum in Italy. European anthropologists collected most of the cloaks found in museums overseas during field trips to Australia in the late 1800s and early 1900s.
During the International exhibitions of the 1800s there were two skin cloaks that were displayed. The Sydney International exhibition held in 1879 displayed an opossum rug from Tasmania, which was awarded a honourable mention. In the Centennial International Exhibition held in Melbourne during 1889, platypus and opossum rugs from NSW were displayed under the category of travelling apparatus and camp equipage.
Today many Aboriginal people have new cloaks and rugs made from kangaroo skins. They are used in performances or often as they were traditionally as a nice warm rug or cloak.
Chisholm, M. The use, manufacture and decoration of possum skin cloaks in nineteenth century Victoria (AIATSIS) 1990.
Cooper, C. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Collections in Overseas Museums Aboriginal Studies Press, Canberra, 1989.
Fraser, J. The Aborigines of New South Wales Charles Potter, Government Printer, 1892.
Lakic, M. Dress and Ornamentation in Women's Work - Aboriginal women's artefacts in the Museum of Victoria. Aboriginal Studies Department Museum of Victoria 1992.
Mountford, C. Australian Aboriginal Skin Rugs Records of the South Australian Museum, 1963.
Mountford, C. Decorated Aboriginal skin rugs Records of the South Australian Museum, Volume 13, No 4, 1960.
Sayers, A. Aboriginal Artists of the Nineteenth Century Oxford University Press, 1994.
Smithson, M. 1992, 'A misunderstood gift: the annual issue of blankets to Aborigines in New South Wales 1826-4', in The Push, A Journal of Early Australian Social History
Young, M et al. The Aboriginal People of the Monaro. NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service, 2000.
Snug as a bug: cloaks and rugs Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies, 1984.
Wright, R. A modicum of taste: Aboriginal cloaks and rugs. Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies, 1979.
Skin Cloaks held in overseas museums
The British Museum London
Registration No: 4571 Animal: Strip of opossum skin decorated Collector: Received by William Blackmore Esq 1st February 1868 One possum and one kangaroo skin cloak (Kangaroo skin missing) Place: The possum skin cloak appears to be from NSW and the kangaroo skin cloak appears to be from WA possibly Swan River settlement Description: A small strip from a cloak the design forms a spectacular pattern of diamond lozenges.
Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC
Registration No: 5803 Animal: Possum Place: Australia near Sydney (Probably from the Hunter River area) Collector: Wilkes exploring expedition Date: 1838-42 Size: L - 58 " W - 57" Description: Features rectangular pelts the skins are laid in 4 rows of six skins each, and sewn on the back, edge to edge with very fine overhand stitch of cotton cord sinew. Fur has been left on and the backside of the skins are completely covered with large diamond shaped designs made by scrapping up a thin layer of the skin so that it stands up in a little curl.
Pigorini Museum of Prehistory and Ethnography Italy
Two possum skin cloaks one decorated and one undecorated Acquired from the Australian Museum AW Franks collector EH Giglioli Collection, 1913.
Museum of Ethnology Berlin, Germany
Animal: Possum Date Made: Collected in 1879 most probably by E. Von Guerard One possum skin cloak Collection area: Probably South Australia E von Guerard was one of the collectors
Leiden Museum, Netherlands
Comes from the Richmond River district in the states north east Registration No: 885/11 (this cloak has since disintegrated)
Many thanks to the following individuals and institutions: South Australian Museum - Phillip Manning and Philip Jones, Museum of Victoria - Nancy Ladas, Joanne Bach. Western Australian Museum - Ross Chadwick. The British Museum, Museum of Ethnology, Berlin. Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC. Petra Kanzleiter.