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Once an everyday item for Aboriginal people in south-eastern Australia, possum skin cloaks were worn for warmth, used as baby carriers, coverings at night, drums in ceremony and for burial. Incised and painted with ochre, possum skin cloaks also mapped the identity of their owner, holding stories of clan and Country. Today, possum skin cloaks are of continuing importance to Aboriginal people across the south-east of Australia, with new uses and contemporary ways of making.
Worn from a young age, cloaks started out small with a few skins sewn together to wrap a baby. Over time more skins were added so that as a person grew, their cloaks grew with them. Possums would be hunted, the skin carefully removed, scraped with a shell, and then stretched by pegging them out on the ground. Once the skins were sufficiently dried, animal fat would be rubbed into the pelts to make them more pliable. The edges of the skins were then pierced with tiny holes using a sharp pointed bone. Kangaroo sinew was threaded through these small holes and the skins sewn together, using 40 to 70 skins to make an adult cloak. Wooden or bone pins could be used to fasten cloaks that could be worn skin to skin or with the fur side to the wearer’s skin, exposing intricate designs incised with mussel shell or sharp bone.
In the mid-1800s, British colonies across the south-east distributed woollen blankets to local Aboriginal people. Many Aboriginal people began using government issued blankets rather than their possum skin cloaks. Woven wool blankets, however, were not as effective as possum skin cloaks, they were not as warm nor were they waterproof and offered little protection from the cold and wet winters of south-eastern Australia. During this time, many Aboriginal people became ill and died from common European colds and influenza viruses.Photo - Teenminne, a Ngarrindjeri woman wearing a possum skin cloak, carrying a child on her back, South Australia, ca. 1870, National Library of Australia, nla.obj-148825818
Only a handful of possum skin cloaks made prior to 1900 still exist today, preserved in museum collections held in Australia and overseas. The scarcity of old cloaks is due both to their fragility and purpose, they were designed to be used during the lifetime of their owner and often as a burial wrapping.
The Museum Victoria in Melbourne holds a Gunditjmara cloak from Lake Condah c.1872 and a Yorta Yorta cloak from Maiden's Punt, Echuca c. 1853. These two cloaks are treasured by Gunditjmara and Yorta Yorta people today and were instrumental in the most recent revival of possum skin cloak making across the south-east.
In 1999, artists Lee Darroch, Vicki Couzens and Treahna Hamm were given the opportunity to view the Lake Condah and Maiden's Punt cloaks for the first time. It was an emotional and inspirational visit. Darroch, a Yorta Yorta, Mutti Mutti and Boon Wurrung woman recalls ‘a sense of the makers being in the room with us’2. For Couzens, a Gunditjmara woman, ‘being shown the Lake Condah cloak was like being given an idea from the Old People'3. With permission from Yorta Yorta and Gunditjmara elders, the artists worked with Museum Victoria to repair the old cloaks and make contemporary replicas, a process that ignited intense interest in possum skin cloaks.
Through their work, the artists became teachers, sharing and helping to return the tradition of cloak making to communities across the south-east. Their most ambitious and high profile project was the 2006 Possum Skin Cloak Project made in collaboration with language groups across Victoria for the opening ceremony for the Melbourne Commonwealth Games.
A little under twenty years ago there were only a few known possum skin cloaks, today there are approximately 100 cloaks held in communities and used for welcome to country and other ceremonies.
Colonisation had a destructive impact on Aboriginal people and culture in south-east Australia. Loss of culture, language, the dislocation of people and disruption of life continues to have lasting effects. Participating in cultural practice has a powerful healing effect on many communities across the south-east.
When we run a cloak healing workshop with community and we have a group of people from one language group altogether and it is really powerful because the elders will be telling the stories that should go on that cloak. They’re the story tellers and knowledge keepers … and the parents are listening, the young people or teenagers are listening, the little kids are listening. Everyone gets to hear and those stories get put on the cloak and that is really powerful because that’s the Telling5.
Wearing a cloak, being wrapped in culture, can bring out a range of emotions for Aboriginal people. It is a ‘powerful reconnection back to their ancestors’vi, says Darroch, who has hosted many healing workshops as part her work with Banmira Arts, a collective of Aboriginal artists and cultural workers.
In 2016, Lee Darroch was commissioned to create a possum skin cloak for the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS) Collection. While making the cloak, Darroch agreed to share her process.
Possums in Australia are a protected species under the provision of the National Parks and Wildlife Act 1974. Cured skins, however, can be legally and ethically sourced from New Zealand, where as an introduced species they are considered an environmental pest. As possums in New Zealand have no natural predators they also grow larger than Australian possums, and so today less skins are needed to make a cloak. The cloak for AIATSIS Collection, for example, is made of 30 skins.
Using a triangular sail maker’s needle and waxed thread the skins are stitched using a herringbone stitch. This stitch is preferred as it sits flat, allowing the ochre for the design to be applied over the top.
Burning the design
Using an electric wood burner machine, fine lines can be burnt into the skins.
Making the Resin
Sap is collected from the Black Wattle tree to make glue which will bind with ground ochre and painted onto the possum skins.
Mixing the Ochre
Ochre from Bidawal country ground into a fine powder to mix with Black Wattle glue.
AIATSIS acknowledges the traditional owners of country throughout Australia and their continuing connection to land, culture and community.
We pay our respects to elders past and present.