I'm not interested in just any basket, but only in those hand woven from the country's indigenous materials, with its patterns and stitches handed down through the centuries, not those suggested by advertising promoters for the tourist trade

June Colquhoun, 1968

As one of the most widely spread cultural practices in the world, basketry is more than a simple technology. Malleable, tangible, and mutable, baskets and the technique of basketry can represent the identity of a weaver, their cultural practices, and a discovery of art form.

This exhibition looks to explore notions of basketry, collecting, and identity through a collection of baskets held by the Western Australian Museum, Anthropology & Archaeology department. The assemblage of baskets found here, otherwise known as the June Colquhoun Collection, was donated to the museum by June Colquhoun in 2012 and forms a large part of our woven collections.

The donor, June Colquhoun, collected the baskets between the 1950s and 1970s. This virtual exhibition presents 50 of these baskets that provide insights into the lifestyles and intricate weaving practices of their source communities.

Basket Types

You might begin thinking of the patience and imagination of the weaver. No two pieces are ever exactly alike… I like to think as I sit and look at my basket collection just how those weavers lived and thought.

June Colquhoun, 1968

4 circular baskets in a row
Lunch box baskets from Bhutan
Image copyright WA Museum

The June Colquhoun collection contains a number of baskets that represent different ways of practising everyday life. People and cultures around the world have different and interesting ways of dealing with day-to-day living depending upon their physical environment and their social interactions with those around them. In fact, many ethnicities share certain weaving practices, illustrating the pervasiveness of basket culture around the world.

On the surface level, baskets serve the simple purpose of containing ‘things’. If you look a little deeper, you might find that baskets can tell unique stories about how cultures deal with the need to store, carry and transport objects.

Dilly Bags

This collection features a number of traditional Dilly Bags produced by Aboriginal peoples of Australia. The bags are mainly designed and used by women to gather food but are also sometimes used by men in ceremonies. They are most commonly found in the northern parts of Australian.

Most Dilly Bags are a simple oval shape with string attached for carrying, and many of the more traditional specimens have little to no colouration. Other forms of Dilly Bag are flatter (much like a satchel) with a cord for slinging around the neck. In recent times the production of Dilly Bags has become a centrepiece for weaving artistry. Taking on new designs, colours, and forms while retaining traditional weaving techniques, the bags have become important objects for cultural expression. For certain skilled workers, Dilly Bag basketry has entered the realm of fine art.

A selection of Dilly Bags from the June Colquhoun collection.
Dilly Bags
Image copyright WA Museum

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Pandanus Baskets

The majority of baskets in this collection are made from fibre material taken from the Pandanus plant. The Pandanacea family of plants consists of approximately 600 species whose leaves can be used extensively in weaving practices. The plants themselves are resilient to adverse environmental conditions and propagate easily, making them perfect for cultivation. When harvesting Pandanus for basketry, weavers cut away young leaves, strip away the edge and middle sections, and place cuttings outside for drying. Once dry, the weaver can select and cut sections of the harvest to the specific size and shape necessary. The leaves may also be dyed at this point to suit a specific basket design. These basket types are excellent examples of weaving that transcend cultural boundaries, since their distribution is more closely related to the presence of Pandanus.

Xavier holding one Pandanus Baskets up for inspection.
Pandanus Baskets being inspected
Image copyright WA Museum

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Timorese Temple Baskets

Intricately designed and patterned, these baskets are most commonly found in East Timor and are used to carry food. One example of a ceremony in which these baskets are used is Loron Matebian, All-Souls Day. This annual ceremony differs between Timorese ethnic groups, but generally involves honoring one’s ancestors and remembering those of the family that have passed away. In celebration of Loron Matebian, people prepare traditional food dishes, offering them to their ancestors though prayer and ritual. One of the foods offered to ancestors in ‘Timorese temple baskets’, or woven aubaku, are Betel Nuts.

Annie inspecting one of the Coluquhon collection Timorese Temple Baskets.
Timorese Temple baskets being inspected
Image copyright WA Museum

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Treasure Baskets

Used to store all your precious things in life

June Colquhoun, 2012

Treasure baskets are used around the world by children and adults alike. From holding toys, to containing a random assortment of objects deemed significant by the owner, Treasure Baskets are used to hold just about anything. The point of a Treasure Basket is less to do with holding items, and more to do with containing new worlds of discovery. For toddlers and young children especially, Treasure Baskets are often used to engage new ways of heuristic play. That is to say, simple everyday objects stored in such baskets can be used in combination with a child’s naturally inquisitive mind to explore different types of materials and spatial interactions.

Basket filled with everyday treasures
Treasure Basket
Image copyright WA Museum

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Winnowing Trays

Used throughout much of the world, winnowing trays are used to separate grains from other plant material such as chaff. This involves taking the harvested grain in the tray and lightly throwing it in the air. Lighter plant material blows away in the wind while the heavier grains fall either back into the tray, or down to the ground.

Many cultures associate agricultural cycles with religious symbolism. Some cultures around the world see winnowing trays as symbols of fertility and femininity. In Nepal, where June collected these baskets, winnowing trays can be used in shamanic rituals and in Hindu marriage ceremonies. Like open top baskets, winnowing trays are used extensively to present food items at the home and market place.

Two women separate chaff from the grain using a winnowing tray.
Winnowing Tray in use
Taken by Pim Horvers;

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Stitch Types

Coil Stitch

A coiling stitch begins from a central point and spirals, outward and upward to form the shape of a basket. To create the coil, flexible sticks, such as grasses, are bundled together and then wrapped with stitching. Using a needle, another grass type material, wool, or cotton is threaded around the bundle and through the previous coil to keep it in place. This stitch can also be used to finish off the rim and handles of baskets made from other stitch designs.

Close up of the coil stitch pattern
A coil stitch.
Image copyright WA Museum

Plaiting Stitch

Detail of the plaiting stitch.
Plaiting stitch.
Image copyright WA Museum

To form this stitch, place strips of material into overlapping columns or rows in a grid pattern. Then, moving across the grid, weave more strips of material over and under the grid, joining the two. Patterns can be created in this stitch by varying the width and colours of the strips. There are als many variants of this particular design:

Plaiting – diagonal

Weave finished at a diagonal angle.

Detail of Diagonal Plaiting
A Basket with Diagonal Plaiting
Image copyright WA Museum

Plaiting – Hexagonal

This type of stitch uses three long, flat, and flexible sticks, such as split bamboo, pandanus palm, or rattan cane, that weave around each other to form geometric patterns of hexagons and stars. The three sticks fire off in opposing directions at 60o intervals, interlocking with other strands to form the hexagonal star shape.

Detail of Hexagonal Plaiting
A Basket with Hexagonal Plaiting
Image copyright WA Museum

Twill plaiting

This design starts similarly to the plain plaiting stitch. However, instead of practising the basic ‘under-over’ technique, it uses an ‘under-over-over’ variant with a staggered starting point for each column and row.

Detail of A Twill Plaited Basket
A Twill Plaited Basket
Image copyright WA Museum

Seven-Step Caning Stitch

An Indian man creating a basket with a Seven-Step Caning design.
Creating a basket
Taken by By ILO in Asia and the Pacific;

This method of basket design consists of a heavily layered weave and is also often found in chair making. As the title suggests, this method of basket weaving is completed in seven steps. The first three steps involve making a grid framework with strips of cane, held together in shape by a stronger outer fibre (such as a stick). Vertical strips of cane are attached first followed by horizontal strips, each at regular intervals. The third layer of strips is attached directly adjacent to the vertical strips, above the last two layers.

In the fourth step, the designer would weave another layer of horizontal strips directly adjacent to the previous one, but this time in-between the two vertical layers. The final two steps involve weaving two diagonal strips of cane (each heading in opposite directions) over and under each point the last four layers cross. In the seventh step, the designer finishes off the framework that holds the weave together.

Detail of Basket F3030, a Seven-Step Caning design.
Seven-Step Caning design
Image copyright WA Museum

Twined Stitch

Details of twine stitch
Twine Stitch
Image copyright WA Museum

This stitch requires the use of three elements. A somewhat stiff woody material makes up the passive element, which helps create the vertical structure of the basket. To create the twining weave pattern, softer, more flexible strips are used. Using two of these strips, one would weave in and out of the vertical rods, mirroring each other. In the process, the two strips are also twisted around each other along the horizontal plane, making a full rotation per two vertical rods.

June Colquhoun

I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t interested in baskets… I would still collect today if I saw an exceptionally good one.

June Colquhoun, 2014

June has been interested in collecting baskets for as long as she can remember. Both her grandmother and her mother were also interested in basketry, and provided her with books of weaving practices that spurred her enthusiasm. She began her collection as a child, slowly building it piece by piece. Later in life, her husband’s job as an aerospace engineer took June to many different places around the world, including Nepal for five years, and India for four. In 1951, she also travelled to Darwin, eventually settling in Perth, Western Australia.

Through each place she travelled, June looked to collect indigenous baskets that embodied traditions of the region. Her friends and family would also bring back baskets form their own travels to add to her collection. June’s baskets had to be used; they had to embody the every-day life of those who made them.

We would stop on the side of the road [while traveling] next to a woman carrying a basket on her head. I would get my son to jump out offer her 2 rupee for it.

June Colquhoun, 2014

Collecting such a large number of baskets often required an understanding of how baskets were made and used in particular cultures. Most of all, June was fascinated with how basket weavers could create such intricate and well-made pieces while still living a highly traditional lifestyle.

Now in Western Australian Museums World Cultures and Australian Aboriginal Cultures collections, June’s baskets can be cared for and exhibited for all to appreciate their diversity, pattern and design.