A Packable Souvenir From A Previous Life

In downsizing from our now-sold house in Perth Western Australia late last year, we made many decisions to ditch (throw into the bulk rubbish removal bin) donate (piles of things went into special donation boxes for delivery to St Vincent De Paul) or keep (boxed up for storage until we buy another place) During the packing by a removal company, we each pulled a couple of things out of the packing ‘line’ to bring back to Uruguay. As a packable souvenir of a previous life, my caftan is a particular treasure.

I remember the day I bought it in a small shop in a Darwin NT arcade. The shop was a new venture and there wasn’t a great deal of stock, but the screen printed large bird totally grabbed me as being different and feeling very Australian; I immediately knew I simply had to buy this. I’ve worn it hundreds of times probably, though it has spent the last couple of decades languishing unused in our house in Perth Australia. Honestly, these days it’s a bit snug around the hips and the upper arms … but I would never ever throw it away, and it’s place in my textile collection is assured.

Tiwi Designs caftan, bought in Darwin, N.Australia, 1976.

These large screen printed birds, storks, are known across northern Australia as Jabiru; however, similar-looking but stockier true Jabiru storks are native to central and south America. This similar bird (but I think nicer, more elegant looking) is more properly called the Black-necked stork – and anyway is known to the Tiwi as the big bird, a simplified version of which is Tiwi Design logo.


Remember, it is years since I actually lived in my own country, so this Tiwi Design caftan prompted me to look up the brand to see how the company was doing, if indeed it it was still ‘there’. I found a lovely website about the art of the Tiwi people on Bathurst Island, just off the city of Darwin, in the Northern Territory.

When I read that fabric printing has been done on (Bathurst) Tiwi Island since 1980, I wrote to them, saying basically ‘I think it was earlier, actually’, and asking permission to publish a pic or two in this post. It was a bit earlier: daily newspapers in 1978 announced that the then Prime Minister’s wife, Tammi Fraser, had had several garments and outfits made up incorporating Tiwi Design printed fabric, to wear at appropriate times during overseas visits.  I always thought that was great, and imagine it was a helpful boost to Tiwi Design’s continuing success.  These days you can take a day trip across to the islands, see the printing being done, and learn something of the history and culture of the people living there.

After many years of being exploited by the tourism industry in particular, and generally having their legal copyrights blithely ignored, Australian Aborigines these days are right on top of the whole issue and have worked long and hard to educate the general public and successfully pursue those who breach intellectual property laws. I asked for and was given permission to use Tiwi Design website images, and my regular readers might not be surprised to find this is one I absolutely relate to:

Fabric available by the metre from Tiwi Design includes this design, though I am not sure who designed it – I particularly relate to its timeless, landscape-y quality. (Image from Tiwi Design website, reproduced with permission)

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