I have always been fascinated by Ikat cloth produced by the islanders of the Indonesian archipelago. One of the most impressively designed may be found among the many islands of the Lesser Sunda islands on the eastern part of the archipelago. An in depth article of mine was published some years back tracing the making of these wonderful fabric during my visit to the island of Sumba and although ancestral tradition may have withered with changing time, Ikat textiles remain one of Indonesia most unique artful creation blending in ritual and tribal symbolism. Ikat an Indonesian word meaning knot or to bind is a resist dyeing method of decorating textiles seen in many ritual cloths and plays a crucial role in the daily life of the Sumbanese people. Two types of cloth can be seen worn by Sumbanese – the hinggi or mantle used by men as shoulder wrap or as a loin cloth fastened by cords or leather belt and the tera or tamelingu, long narrow striped fabric used as a turban. The women wear the undecorated or decorated lau or tubular skirts wrapped around and gathered under the arms or folded around the waist.
Weaving villages include those of Kodi, Prailiu, Kawangu, Rende and Kaliuda which produce some of the island most spectacular Ikats cloths. I had the opportunity to visit the village of Napu in Tanjung Sasar north of the island, a lesser known place where you seem to be transported back in time.I visited a family who had their own home grown cotton and produced their own Ikat cloth. They were so very proud of their work that they were reluctant to even sell any of their Ikat. I guess I would too if I had to produce something from scratch – that is from cotton buds to a beautiful cloth. The women proudly showed me their home made threads – the hand spun yarn has an unusual roughness to the touch and is much thicker than machine made thread, which has a finer texture. The preparation from harvest until the forming of cotton yarns ready for use is long and tedious and although it is now very rare to find these home made yarns, these images will probably remain as precious as the cloth itself. Below are images of undecorated lau worn by women of Napu.
Home grown cotton are usually harvested in July when the ripe cotton fruits are picked and the pits are dried in the sun. The pits may then be removed by hand or by using bamboo rollers. When a large quantity of the pits need to be removed then a cotton mill is used. Like a mangle, the cotton is pressed between turning wooden rollers to extract the pits. The cotton is then beaten with a rattan stick and again dried in the sun before it is fluffed in a special bowl with a cotton bow made of bamboo. The cotton is then rolled lengthwise and is ready for spinning. Various forms of spinning wheels can be seen in the old ways of producing threads and they are usually made of wood. The cotton fibres stretched onto two long bamboo sticks, the length depending on the cloth to be made are then ready to be stiffened by soaking in water made with fine grated rice. The stiffened cotton fibres are then dried in the sun before being threaded and rolled into balls by means of a winder. It is understood while the process of making in the traditional manner is long and complex, hand woven quality Ikat remains expensive in comparison with the low priced factory made Ikat textiles. And as for those fabulous old Ikats now belong to collector’s world. The long process of making home made yarns may have long been gone but weaving tradition on the island still lives on using imported modern thread …
The process of making high quality fine Ikats may take several weeks or event months – from pattern making, dyeing and weaving. The loom itself made of bamboo and wood is simple and light. In Sumbanese weaving there are more warps – threads running lengthwise than wefts – thread running width-wise. The warp beam bound onto a bamboo frame is positioned horizontally slightly above ground and attached to wooden house posts. Parallel to the warp beam is the cloth beam which rest on the weaver’s legs while sitting on the ground. The cloth beam is attached by cords to another piece of wood that fits into the weaver’s back. The back strap loom helps to control the tension of the thread by the weight of the weaver. The warp thread is separated into two even and odd layers by several sticks and a heddle rod, a stick to which the odd strands are attached. The heddle rod is used to lift the odd layers of strands in order for the weft thread to pass through. By alternating in a continuous movement of the two layers the warp encloses the weft and creates the weave. The weft thread is always kept at the side of the weaver.
Sumbanese cloths are known for their remarkable colours enhanced with decorative motifs from figurative to geometric patterns. Textiles and their symbolic patterns are also considered to possess the sacredness of the ancestors embodied with supernatural power. Identical opposing designs reveal the close link between the immaterial and material world – the parallel universe which summarizes the thought system of the Sumbanese people. Dyeing is one of the most used decorative techniques in Sumba and the warp and the weft yarns are dyed and patterned before weaving. The traditional way uses natural dyes from plants – the indigo blue comes the nila or woru plant (Indigofera tinctoria) and the red kombu is taken from mengkudu tree (morinda citrifolia) and blacks from minerals. The process of obtaining the splendid blue indigo colour starts with the picking of the twigs and leaves before placing in terracotta vases filled with water, candle nut and chalk. The mixture is then soaked overnight before it is strained and poured into another jar ready to be used.
Next process is dyeing the weft yarn – the blue indigo colour is highly priced and sought after. In Sumba like most of the islands in the Eastern part of the archipelago, only the warp is patterned. The warping of the yarn before patterning consists of stretching onto the binding frame formed by two bamboo tubes – the thread is tied with strips of young gewang palm leaves which are resistant to dyes. Each yarn is bound and knotted several times forming the pattern leaving the parts to be dyed unbound. It is the bound yarns that will resists the dyes and retain the natural colour. The yarn is then removed from the bamboo frame, dipped in the indigo colour mixture and dried in the sun. The process is repeated several times to ensure the fastness of the colour. The same process applies to the red colour which may be repeated several times in order to obtain the rich deep tones.
After the lengthy process of dyeing, the warp yarn is then ready for weaving, but prior to this it is again immersed this time in special baths made with grated cassava or rice. The final preparations which may be painstaking consists of separating the yarn bundles and placing them onto the loom exactly according to the rods and attaching to the heddle stick, then the warp yarn is ready for weaving.
Below are images of village weavers on the island of Sumba.