Nagula Jarndu is famous for their distinctive hand-crafted textiles, incorporating their saltwater heritage and natural environment. I was having a chat with Eunice Yu about how they coped through COVID and what transpired.

‘Initially we were had lots of teleconferences, dealing with the issues and understanding of what was going on as a group. I feel it was easier for us being in a town situation that being in a remote community. All our artists are town based, so we said you can do your work at home, none of them wanted to print at home, though they could still cut their linos. So, we wanted to know what we could do as a group, as life wasn’t normal. We had to deal with all the information that was around, as we were getting 24-hour coverage on the news. We connected with lots of peak bodies and started looking for funding for a project through Woodside, says Eunice.

We have a vulnerable group of aboriginal women mainly over 50 with complex health issues. We had to think what to do. Shops were closing their doors and we made a decision to close the doors to the public. What do we do? The message that was coming through is that you can’t be here, but you can still be creative, we felt we were battling the fear of the unknown.

We had already started making candles in February, as something different to do. Making soap at the time was not even thought of. When the pandemic came along, there was the strategy about healthy hygiene practices and washing your hands and we thought maybe we could make hand sanitisers, though the decision was that they wanted to stay natural and raw, and soap came up as a thought, as it was a basic need.

I was talking to our rep, Michael from Woodside as we were looking into getting some COVID funding and he mentioned that he used to work with essential oils and that planted a seed. We did some research into making soap and it did not look as difficult as we thought. Soap making was a way of being creative and we felt we could offer the soap as a gift and gesture of goodwill to vulnerable and at-risk members of the community. Our priority was looking after ourselves, and the next was looking after other people.

We did an introductory letter to organisations that provide services to vulnerable and at-risk community members, like Feed the Little Children, Women’s Refuge, Milliya Rumurra Alcohol Rebab so that they could benefit from giving them the soap and that they could also reach out to other Keep Your Mob Safe, Wash Your Hands Liz Janney talked to Eunice Yu from Nagula Jarndu people. We contacted organisations with an existing outreach program as it was an easier method of distribution. We started with 6 organisations and have since distributed to 26 organisations since July 2020. We managed to reach as far as Kalumbaru and Mulan communities in the East Kimberley, Yirramalay School and Marninwarntikura in Central Kimberley, Derby and the Dampier Peninsula. Word spread like wildfire! Especially as organisations such as Kimberley Population & Health Unit, Lions Eye Health and Kalumbaru Collective took our soaps out on their travels circuit. It was really surprising, maybe the colours, or the shapes it was really very popular. We put about 30 soap in a bag with literature promoting healthy hygiene and logo of sponsors. We have made over 5000 soap in 4.5 months.

We first started with the heat method which is heat, pour, and add essential oils and colour into lovely moulds – which is really simple, and it has a quick turnaround, and these soaps are a goodwill gesture that go out to vulnerable and at-risk peoples.

As the making of soap for no return was something that would not normally be incorporated into our normal operational funds, we decided to look into selling soap.

So, then we started making cold pressed soap as we felt we could sell this and the money would go back into making the soap that were giving away.

Our two arts workers did a tutorial on-line, Zooming became a normal thing, and you could learn to make soap in real time. We practised a lot. Cold pressed soap is a slower process as the soap has to mature, though it is also a lot more creative, as we had to think of how to present the soap, and what recipes worked best.

Nagula Jarndu is based on a membership system, and this has been such a positive outcome, as we now have extra members out of this whole process. We put it on Facebook, and we really wanted to engage with our younger Yawuru women. It has been a great benefit as we want to pass on skills of how to do different crafts. It has created a lovely synergy, with extra people becoming involved and we now have relationships with organisations that we possibly would not have had before our journey into soap making.

An amazing positiveness has come out of something that could have been so isolating for our women. We do now have our website updated so you can purchase our cold pressed soap and of course you can also see the amazing women that are involved on the creative textile printing. Our offcuts from the textiles are now made into soap bags.

Who knows where this will take us?

More information on their website www.nagulajarndu.com.au