by Catriona Mitchell
Many of us, regardless of where we hail from, are admirers of traditional Indonesian textiles. The iconic patterns, natural dyes and artful weaving are evocative of exotic climes and peoples who still have time to produce by hand, a luxury nowadays for many of us. So we use them to drape over sofas and to cover cushions; we wrap ourselves in them after a swim and take them to the tailor’s in Ubud to have a new shirt made. But how many of us stop to consider the cultural significance of these textiles, which make their way to Bali from all over the archipelago? How many of us are aware that these textiles are far more than decorative accessories: they are, in fact, laden with meaning, tradition, symbol, a long history of cultural and social significance?
Back in 1998, just after the South Asian financial crisis hit, William Ingram and his partner Jean Howe were leading tours to some places off-the-beaten-track in Indonesia. They discovered that villagers in Lamalera on Lembata were starting to sell off precious ceremonial cloths in an urgent bid to meet their daily needs. These were cloths that would normally have been given from a bride’s family to the groom’s at the time of a wedding. William and Jean got thinking about this potentially hazardous loss of textile traditions as a response to new economic hardships, and what it would mean to the wide and diverse Indonesian communities they had got to know and love.
In response, William and Jean set up Threads of Life and started commissioning the production of high quality, hand-made fabrics that would keep ancient and sacred textile traditions alive, while also allowing the villagers a decent income. Nowadays, Threads of Life works with over 1100 weavers in more than 50 cooperatives on 13 Indonesian islands.
Created to a standard that is normally only seen in museums, the weavers’ textiles are sublime. Even more so when William himself describes the origins of each one, with his wealth of affection for the weavers, their traditions, their history. Each cloth has a story to tell.
How do I know this? Because last Saturday, I participated in an event with a title that was altogether too enticing to ignore: Tea and Textile Tales. This was Threads of Life’s first pop-up store, stationed for a day at Biku, Seminyak. An Asian high tea was on offer, to accompany a talk by William Ingram about Indonesia’s incredible textile arts heritage.
Along with the full house of eager participants (admittedly most being well-dressed ladies of a certain age), I was in for a treat. Firstly because to walk into Biku with a wide range of textile and basket exhibits on display, was to enter a kind of magical, princely kingdom, a throwback to an altogether more aesthetic, richly cultural time and place. Biku itself is housed in an antique Javanese teak joglo, 150 years old, and with its cream tiles and dark polished wood furniture, an exquisite setting has been created, one that is only enhanced when the Royal Albert porcelain comes out to play (along with, for those tea fanatics out there, the best tea menu on the island).
Once the high tea had been delivered (the menu included salak poached in cinnamon and star anise, Vietnamese spring rolls, curried egg sandwiches, Middle Eastern orange cake, pineapple and mint agar-agar and more, all on tiered silver trays), William embarked on his talk. Draping various textiles along his rather substantial wingspan, he took us on a journey that spanned 2000 years of textile production. He explained key cultural and social influences on the motifs and uses of the textiles along the way, displaying wares from Toraja, Timor, Central Flores, East Java, Jogjakarta, Sumba, and Bali.
Apart from his obvious deep interest in and encyclopedic understanding of Indonesian textile traditions, the real charm of William’s talk lay in his personal anecdotes: it quickly became clear that he and Jean have led (and continue to lead) extraordinary lives because of their intimate knowledge of some of Indonesia’s least accessible places and their personal interactions with the weavers there. William described their sourcing from one village, for example, that can only be accessed by three days of travel, involving the crossing of 20 rivers. Threads of Life persists in going there because, “the places that have the most vital textiles are often the most remote.”
Boti, in Timor, is another village they have a strong relationship with. Boti has no electricity, and everything worn by the villagers has been made in-house with handspun cotton and locally grown dyes. A strong connection to the land has been maintained; birds are their ancestral totem, so forests have been preserved, and year-round water and food is available as a result (whereas in other villages in Timor, there is reference to three seasons: the harvest season, the dry season and the hungry season). Here, a gift economy prevails: status is attained by the giving, not accumulating, of material possessions. Jean, apparently, couldn’t resist asking Ama Benu, the king of Boti until his death in 2005: “What would happen if someone stole?” Ama Benu replied that he would lead the villagers to the thief’s house, where they would plant everything that he could possibly ever want, so that he would never have the need to steal again.
WiIliam identified a great (and surprising) variety of motifs on the cloths he lovingly held up for us to see. On a single geringsing textile from east Bali there were a barong’s tooth; a dog’s molar; a ‘rat turd’; a Buddhist stupa, guarded by four scorpions. Some of these motifs date back 2500-5000 years. Motifs play such an important role in the textile traditions, he explained, because they symbolize a culture’s cosmology and guiding values. Owing to a dangerous combination of cockroaches, rats and mould, textiles don’t survive long. But what can be maintained is the motifs, and in this way the new replaces the old in ceremonial form.
Through these motifs and ceremonial uses, the textiles represent an understanding of the natural world and a spirit of community that has sustained people through the centuries. They are a kind of social glue, and this is what Threads of Life seeks to preserve. Sometimes, the fabrics are status objects that have become power objects in their own right, because of their use in ceremony. In Sumba, practicality plays a part: Sumbanese men ride horses bareback, and need a lot of cloth for their hipcloths that are worn like shorts! In East Indonesia, the more elaborate the textile, the higher the social status; this is indicated by the complexity of the design, and number of colours. Locals immediately know the station of the person they are talking with, and relate accordingly.
Not only do the textiles carry meaning when in finished form; there is significance in the rites and rituals involved in producing and even selling them. In Bajawa on Flores , William told us, the permission of the ancestors must be sought before a certain type of beaded cloth can be sold: this takes the form of killing a chicken and ‘reading’ its liver, and spinning a coconut (the direction it points to indicating whether the ancestors have agreed to the sale). “The ancestors never said no,” said William, with humour, but he and Jean slowly came to realize that this wasn’t about yes or a no; it was about seeking permission. The asking alone was an act of respect to the weavers’ ancestral heritage.
“A lot of our work with these communities is about learning these little things. It’s very easy to damage a tradition,” said William. In order to really understand what they are doing, he and Jean have learned to ask themselves the question, “What is this textile a physical embodiment of?”
Threads of Life encourages its workers to work slowly, not quickly, knowing that this adds to the quality, and therefore the value, of the textiles. As a result the weavers are working to the best possible standard. But it’s not an easy path. As William explained, the general market is becoming less and less discerning, and so the quality of traditional textiles is being driven down. When asked during the event if there is much support coming from Indonesians, his reply was, “Not really. It’s hard to say where the challenge is.” Threads of Life is, however, thinking of refocusing its outreach to Jakarta. “It’s possible we’re approaching a moment where interest in these traditions is resurfacing,” he said. “I was privileged to talk at TEDxUbud a few years ago. The majority of people who came to talk to me afterwards were young Indonesians. They said they loved the textiles but couldn’t afford them. They don’t have the social and economic status to purchase, and so there isn’t access yet to the young Indonesians who would be enthusiastic for what we do.”
Even if they are sheltered from the most obvious forms of homogenization, Indonesia’s traditional textile-producing communities are being forced to redefine their identities in a rapidly changing world. Threads of Life is playing a vital part in this ongoing process. William’s passion for this subject is clear, as is his deep love for Indonesia. At this event at Biku, he did far more than talk about textile traditions; he took us on an imaginary journey across the archipelago that was so entrancing, I wanted to walk straight out and hitch myself a ride to a faraway, less developed part of the archipelago, one where forests and birds were still prized, and plants were grown to provide cloth and dye, and mobile phones and plastic bags had little role to play.
For more information about Threads of Life, click here.
For more on Biku, created by Jero Asri of Ubud, click here.
Photographs are by Catriona Mitchell.