Necklace Making

Tasmanian Aboriginal women have been collecting Mareener shells for thousands of years and making them into gleaming necklaces and bracelets.

This practice continues by Aboriginal women whose families survived on the Furneaux Islands, handed down by elder women to maintain an important link with traditional lifestyle.

Late in the nineteenth century a number of women aimed to keep this part of their traditional culture alive in order to allow their daughters and granddaughters to participate in their cultural heritage.

Today, there are only a few Tasmanian Aboriginal women who maintain this art, but they continue to hand down their knowledge and skills to younger women in their community.

However, during the past ten years or so the shells have become more difficult to find. Also, all of the current shell necklace makers now live away from the Bass Strait islands, requiring them to return to the island beaches, usually during the low spring tides, to collect enough shells, thus ensuring that the art of necklace making continues.

Shell necklace making is one of the few surviving traditional Aboriginal crafts in Tasmania. There are only a handful of Aboriginal women who are still actively making the necklaces.

The impact of European colonisation in Tasmania was devastating for Aboriginal people. Violent skirmishes and often brutal killing characterised the early relationship between the invaders and the Indigenous people of Tasmania. Few women managed to keep the tradition alive through these dark years

The shells are extremely precious, particularly the mother-of-pearl mareener shells that are now in short supply. They can only be collected at certain times during the year. It can take months or even years of work to produce one necklace, as it is a painstaking job to collect, clean and string the shells. Each maker has her own preferred way of stringing the shells in unique combinations and patterns. The necklaces are of national significance.

Cape Barren is only a small and very isolated island, and it was very isolated in the 30,s and 40,s.

Most young girls start off by just going to collect the shells with their elders. In old days, when those ladies strung the shells, that little bit of money they got it would have been about ten shillings or one pound they'd get for a string of shells with that they could buy something they needed. People had no electricity on the island, only kerosene lamps. Stringers sat by the kerosene light, stringing shells of a night. Kids used to watch the women string. They were secret, the women, in doing it. Noone saw each other's necklaces. They did them at home. They'd go in groups collecting shells but they'd never get in a group to string shells or anything like that.

To get the mareeners people wait for a spring tide and have to walk into the water up to their waist or knees and pull the mareener shells off the seaweed. It's the same as the little rice shells, they live in the dry seaweed. You fill buckets up with seaweed then go and wash the seaweed out and these shells fall in the bottom of the bucket. The toothies have to picked up one at a time too. So it takes a long time to make one of these necklaces. It takes about 3 or 4 days to make a necklace. And with these little ones, you've got to count them all that you put on. To get the right patterns, you try to make them as even as you can.

You work out a pattern before you start to make them. The smaller the shells the daintier the strings are. You can pick these mareener shells up on the beach and they are that colour - a greeny blue mother of pearl colour - but we don't use the ones we pick up on the beach because they are too brittle and they lose their colour. We still walk for miles on the beach to get the shells. There are a lot of places that you can't get to by car.

Putting holes in them to thread them is not hard but you've got to be careful. There's a bit of a knack to how much pressure you put on them or otherwise you shatter them. With rice shells, you put the hole in as you thread with the needle. Sometimes there are hundreds on one necklace. You count the shells as you go. Because it's a pattern and you stay with the pattern.

Traditionally they would have used natural plant fibres. Our natural fibres are like rushes. They would have used the sinew of the kangaroo's tail also. It's got a natural grease on it that the shells would slip down easily and you would have used it wet because they stretch. The necklaces would have been made by the people living near the sea. And they would have used them to barter with the inland tribes in central Tasmania for whatever they had, like ochre, because that wasn't found near the sea.

The shells are becoming more scarce. Where in the past you only walked in a foot of water, today the same shells are in waist deep water.

After the drying process you have a day of piercing them. Shells like the mareener have to be pierced with a hole. And it has to be a fairly solid tool. Some were using an old dart from the dartboards. You have to have a day when you sort your shells, or a few days maybe to sort them into sizes, because you try not to put really big shells with little shells. Some of these little shells are so tiny, like the little rice shells, they fit under your fingernail, but you probably wouldn't need a heavy tool to make a hole in that, you'd probably use a needle and thread them at the same time. Your fingers become really sore after a while.

For thousands of years the Tasmanian Aboriginal women have walked the windswept beaches of the island gathering shells to make necklaces. These beautiful strands are one of the few cultural practices that remain and the tradition is still used in family groups to hand down important knowledge from older to younger women.

Necklace making is an intense labour. Before European settlement the women would smoke the chunky, maireener, shells over a fire then rub off the coating to reveal the pearly nacreous surface. After piercing them with the eyetooth of an animal such as a kangaroo or a wallaby, the shells were strung on fine sinews from a kangaroo's tail or on string made from natural fibres. As well as the pearly shells there were strands of tiny intricate rice shells, so named for their form and size, being no bigger than a grain of rice. There were also big black crow shells, cat's teeth and stripy button shells.

Shell necklaces were worn on the body, given as gifts or used to trade. There is early documented evidence that shells were traded for ochre and other materials within the tribal communities. The earliest European visitors to the island all observed the Aboriginal people's jewellery, but the shell making tradition is the one that has survived the bloody history of European settlement.

The style of production is quite unique to Tasmania. There is a distinctive quality about the, the range of shells diversified, with the method of piercing tools. The necklaces were clearly identified with Tasmania.

Settlement in turn had its own impact on necklace making, bringing new materials and tools to the women including acids such as vinegar which help to strip the outer later. Linen and cotton thread replaced sinew and today the methods used vary between necklace makers.

One of the major cultural art forms still practised is shell necklace making. This is a delicate and laborious traditional custom that is recognised nationally and internationally.

Lucy Beeton was one 19th century necklace makers and quite an entrepreneur. A strong woman of her time, she worked on Badger Island in Bass Strait and ran her father's business. She came to Launceston and sailed a whole fleet of fishing boats.

The traditional art is dependent on the availability of shells, and many of the women keep their gathering places a closely guarded secret. The skills are passed through the family line but not necessarily from mother to daughter. The collecting was a group activity but there are very few of the older makers still alive, and the actual making can be quite private.

Tasmanian Aboriginal women have been collecting Mareener shells for thousands of years and making them into gleaming necklaces and bracelets.

This practice continues by Aboriginal women whose families survived on the Furneaux Islands, handed down by elder women to maintain an important link with traditional lifestyle.

Late in the nineteenth century a number of women aimed to keep this part of their traditional culture alive in order to allow their daughters and granddaughters to participate in their cultural heritage. Today, there are only a few Tasmanian Aboriginal women who maintain this art, but they continue to hand down their knowledge and skills to younger women in their community.

However, during the past ten years or so the shells have become more difficult to find. Also, all of the current shell necklace makers now live away from the Bass Strait islands, requiring them to return to the island beaches, usually during the low spring tides, to collect enough shells, thus ensuring that the art of necklace making continues.

As young girls growing up on Cape Barren island we remember going to the beaches to gather shells accompanied by our grand mothers, aunts and older girls within the family.

We would gather feather shells, rye shells, toothies, button shells, button shells, black crows, and cats teeth. After gathering enough shells we would then help to tie the bundles and carry them home for our elders.

We were then shown how to prepare and sort the shells in the traditional way. When the shells were cleaned we were shown how to prepare and string them. This was handed down from generation to generation.

This part of our culture is ongoing.

Shell necklace making is one of the few surviving traditional Aboriginal crafts in Tasmania. There are only a handful of Aboriginal women who are still actively making the necklaces. The impact of European colonisation in Tasmania was devastating for Aboriginal people. Violent skirmishes and often brutal killing characterised the early relationship between the invaders and the Indigenous people of Tasmania.