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Flores Ikat – a weaving miracle4. Wolotopo small

I’m out in Indonesia at the moment, on the island of Flores – a couple of islands east of Bali. Jim’s with me and Bob and Magie are here too. They’re African textile experts but they’ve come to have a look at what floats our boat (textile wise!) So Flores is a great place to start, because the women of Flores produce some of the most beautiful ikat in the world (and while we’re on the subject of boat floating, there’s quite a bit of that too!)

To really appreciate ikat, you need to visit the villages where its made, meet the women who make it and most importantly, do your bit for the local economy and buy some of their stuff! So here’s a run-down of some of those village visits.

P.S. Some-one once came into our shop and told her mate, our stuff was all from Bali, where “they just bring it to you on the beach”. This blog is all about dispelling that idea – however, I have to admit, that in Flores, a perfect tropical beach is never that far away! 4. Riung (6) small

So anyway, back to the villages. The first one is Wolotopo…

…on the south coast, about 15 kilometres east of Ende in the middle of Flores. We faffed about for a while wondering how to get there and in the end just walked out into the street and hailed a bemo (minibus) and propositioned the driver who dropped off the other passengers and took us there – its called getting a “charr-terrr”. The road is a bit rough and its pretty steep in places but there are great views of the turquoise sea every now and again and before long, we’re dropped off at the village. Excited children run about shouting “Hello Misterrr”.

We’ve heard that’s it’s only polite to call in at the “Rumah Adat” or House of Tradition, to register so we make for some impressive old houses at the top of the village. We keep to the shade on the narrow paths between the houses, but every now and again we’re forced into the full boiling hot sun. The houses are made of bamboo slats or painted concrete with corrugated tin roofs and outside many there’s a woman weaving under a woven rattan shade. The weavers call us over smiling to say “Selamat Siang” and ask if we want a photo, or if we want to buy something.

At the top, the “adat” traditional houses reveal themselves – big wooden structures with high, broad thatched roofs raised on wooden pillars. Women and children sit on the porch, dogs sleep on the steps, chickens and pigs rootle about underneath and everyone smiles and waves. We can look inside but we’re not allowed to go inside – I didn’t fully understand the explanation of why not but I thought I heard something about giving a pig and as we didn’t have one to offer, I thought we’d be better staying outside. On either side of the man entrance there are a pair of carved wooden breasts, a pert round young woman’s pair on the left and a saggy old lady pair on the right… one can only speculate what that’s about…?

 Higher up than the houses is a site of old tomb stones and village totems and little shelters for who knows what purpose. Climbing up there gives a great view of the southern sea and the village’s satellite dishes. As we go back down we can see recent graves, nestled into the houses, elaborate tiled affairs with crosses, pictures of Jesus and Mary and plastic flowers. They are part of the furniture, kids play on them, dogs sleep on them and men sit smoking and playing cards on them.

 . And everywhere there are gorgeous ikats – we can see women tying patterns using short lengths of lontar palm leaf into small bundles of warp threads which are stretched on bamboo frames. Others are weaving on their back strap looms, sitting on the ground with legs stretched out in front. Everywhere there are smiles, friendliness, and questions about where we come from. The women have names like Johanna, Maria, Agnes, Freda, and Angelika – Catholics to a woman. They are almost all wearing the long sarongs sewn into a tube, and washed sarongs are stretched between two bamboo poles weighted down with full jerry cans or rocks. This keeps the shape of the garment while it dries. When we ask a woman if one particular sarong is for sale, she goes to feel if its dry yet. – Yes still a bit damp but no problem. How much you pay?

On our way back down we are invited into a house to sit on plastic chairs and watch TV which is showing an Indonesian version of “It’s A Knock-out” (for those old enough to remember it!) The view from the open window is stunning, even allowing for the fact that the family’s knickers are all hanging in front of it. So, Wolotopo, the first ikat village of this trip, and its a good one. We’ve bought a bit, probably paid a bit too much for it but we’re happy and ready for more.

4. Wolotopo (21)

Next we go to N’dona…

 We’ve heard about N’dona, it’s well known for its ikat and we’ve seen some stuff from there in the market, so we’re keen to go. Again a nice bemo driver drops us off and promptly stretches out on the back seats to get some kip while we wander around. As soon as we set off we’re taken in hand by a rather loud chap in an official looking shirt who we can’t seem to get rid of. He takes us to see a very beautiful old lady who is sitting on the ground,  working at her loom. Her grey hair is in an elegant bun and she has a mouth full of blackened teeth and dark red gums. She flashes us a lovely betel nut smile. Mama Sisilia is a bit of an institution here as we soon find out.

We’re encouraged to sit down, sign the visitor’s book and then look through a couple of books about ikat weaving in Flores. One is called Weavers Stories and is by an expert in Flores ikat weaving called Roy Hamilton. Mama Sisilia features as one of the weavers in the book and there’s a photo of her looking even more beautiful 30 or so years ago. Back in the 1980’s Roy Hamilton came here and researched ikat, and spent plenty of time chatting to Mama Sisilia. What a lucky chap!

Unfortunately loud guy is getting on our nerves a bit so we make our excuses and carry on through the village. There’s more ikat weaving being done here, but most interesting of all is the ikat weaving co-operative based down near the road. There are 17 members of the co-op including Mama Nurella and Christina who buy their cotton, dye their yarns, and often weave together. Their ikat is unusual these days because they use natural plant dyes only. They use indigo (called tarum or daun nila) mengkudu (morinda) mixed with various mordants including kemiri (candle nuts – which are a very oily nut which actually can be used as a light!) to give browns and reds, and to get a really bright red they add powdered leaves of the lobah tree. They also use turmeric (kunyit) mangrove leaves and mango skin.

We are invited in and pieces are brought out and hung on a long bamboo pole for our contemplation and consideration. We’re told the prices, which, unusually prove to be non- negotiable. I guess that’s the beauty of a co-operative. No one is bidding against anyone else. There are some beauties here, especially the indigo and white ones, which can’t be found in the market, so if we want some of them we have to buy them here and pay the price. Needless to say, we do….

Mama Sisilia at work                        Jim buys ikat from the co-op

And finally we get to N’galla…

8. Ngalla (14) small

N’galla village is quite a sight.

 

Many of the most intricate and beautiful weavings seem to come from N’galla so it’s on my list of places to visit. When we tell drivers where we want to go, they start looking doubtful and backing away. Yes, its true the ikat weaving there is very good but the road is terrible .. I’m almost put off myself, but eventually Tobias says he will take us “as long as we go verrry slowly. It will take one and half, maybe two, maybe two and half hours.”

 The road is bad, rutted, broken and with big ridges and potholes with no option but to ease the car verrry slowly in and out of so as not to crack the chassis or exhaust. It’s up and down through thick forest and heading always south with the sea spread out before us and tantalising glimpses of the village in the distance. Finally we reach N’gala wondering why on earth any one ever comes here and feeling sure that if you lived here it would have to be something very important to get you back on that road again. Or maybe we’ve just gone soft?

We sit down in the empty market to eat our “nasi bungkus” and it takes hardly any time before women arrive carrying small children and a few weavings to sell (the weavings, not the children!). We resist them all and set off for the village centre. Its frankly an astonishing place; a large empty area bordered on both sides by huge wooden homes raised off the ground on short stone pillars and covered in very high, very thick thatched roofs. Running up the middle are old stone tombs and traditional or “adat” totem stones, smalls shelters for the spirits of ancestors, and the occasional satellite dish. Underneath the houses in the deep shade, are a few black pot bellied pigs, but there are women down there too sitting at their looms. Again we are greeted with friendly curiosity – its not every day that four bule (whiteys) turn up and soon every women in the village with something to sell has heard that there are potential buyers in town. I’d love to buy a lot, but we have to consider how likely we are to sell these large pieces. Nevertheless, we can’t go away empty handed, especially when the women tell us they need the money for the kids school.

Realities of rural life…

At Ende ikat market, I had been talking to Eddy Koko one of the traders we know there. He had told me to “go to the villages and see how much they want, then come back to me. I will be the same price or cheaper”. So how do you manage that? – I go there when they need money. Especially when they need money to pay for the kids school fees. He tells me totally unabashed.   So, on the way there I quizzed our driver Tobias about the price of education as I know he has two small children.

– This fucking government, he starts, and gobs out the window in disgust. Enough said! Anyway he reckons that the cheapest you can pay for the village Primary school is 6 million rupiah per child per year. That’s about £300 and must be beyond the reach of some rural families. As the kids get older and go to SMP (junior high school) and SMA (senior high school) it gets harder still. If you want to get your child into a Catholic run High School its going to cost up to 20 million a year – never mind books and uniforms. And if you live in a village, a long way from the nearest High School, the kids have to board somewhere in the week and get meals too. Tobias’s wife Denti is running a restaurant and has four rooms she rents out at around 350,000 rupiah a night. Tobias himself is driving people around every day and we’re paying him 500,000 rps for the day, so I can imagine that it will be fairly easy for them to send their children to the Catholic run schools of their choice. (I’m not being sectarian here, its just that Tobias tells me that the Catholic schools are best and the most expensive) The women in villages like N’gella weaving ikat sarongs have more of a problem. A sarong must take a month or two to tie and weave, even if they buy ready dyed yarns, and they can’t sell them for more than about one million rupiah, and that is top side. This represents two days driving for Tobias, or just one night of renting out rooms

So, when Eddy Koko gets down here with his wallet full of red 100,000 rupiah notes, timed, no doubt, to coincide with the annual school fee collection time, the women need the money. These are the realities of life in rural Flores, and knowing all this, it makes it very hard to withstand the pressures to buy from these women. Add to that the fact that the ikat they weave is seriously gorgeous and you will understand why I am now looking at excess baggage allowances.

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Bena and Bajawa, Central Flores

Here we are in Central Flores  – this entailed a huge and very hairy detour necessary to get round the articulated lorry which has got stuck in the road and gouged out the hillside – and we are in the realm of a new lot of people all together. They are called Ngada, they have a totally different language and perhaps because they were not so accessible to missionaries, they seem to have kept far more of their animist traditions. Maybe because they were not so influenced by traders with their European and Indian trade cloths, their ikat is very different too. The most popular design is of small white horses and triangles and other geometric shapes on a very dark deep navy or black indigo background. In Flores (just as in Sumba where the horse motif is also very important) the horse symbol is an obvious signifier of wealth.

The climate is cool and much more pleasant than the sweltering coast – we even need a blanket at night which makes a very nice change. Most people live in small villages – a collection of houses with tin roofs. But there are still around 30 traditional villages – mostly accessible only by motorbike on tiny dirt tracks through the dense forest. We got to the village of Bena which welcomes tourists for a donation to the head man (our guide, Hero the cheeky devil gave him a bottle of his mother in law’s arak whisky)

We walked to the village through a veritable forest gardener’s dream. Planted within the space of about half a mile we saw coffee, cocoa, and palm fruit (for arak and sugar) cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, lemon grass and chillies. Then there was the fruit, bananas (yellow and red) papaya, jack fruit, durian, pineapples, mango, avocado, candle nut, peanuts and soy beans and others which Hero didn’t know the English for but are good for medicine or other uses. In this perfect climate, high above the heat of the coast, with plenty of year round rainfall, everything needed for a good life – to eat, to drink, to make houses from, for medicine and for textile production is here.

16. The first sight of the traditonal village of Bena. The houses are grouped around a rectangular communal area with spirit houses and shrines. (640x480)The village itself came as a shock – its a definite double take to come upon this alien architecture amongst the trees. The first sight of a traditional Ngada village is almost surreal. Two rows of tall roofed houses are topped with either a male or female symbol, tall standing stones and female and male totems for each of the nine clans. In the central area there are carved poles with thatched umbrellas (the male phallic totem) and miniature huts on stilts (the female womb totem) Of course the first thing I notice is that all the houses have a weaving platform out front.

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Most of the inhabitants are either very old or very young. Many younger people just get fed up with working hard and then having nothing left to spend on themselves.

The villagers get their income from tourism and selling forest produce, but traditions dictate that almost all the income earned gets spent on elaborate ceremonies. These ceremonies eat up huge amounts of money in buying buffalo, pigs and elaborate textiles. There is no room here for the youngster who wants to buy a motorbike or other material goods with his hard earned cash.

17. Weaving in Bena village (640x507)

Textiles have always played a very important spiritual role in Ngada the rituals – they are required at all ceremonies not only as garments but also as a necessary part of the ritual. Warp ikat cloths are used as burial shrouds, in exchanges of gifts before a wedding and the designs often preserve local legends and beliefs. 

For the Ngada people there are ten grades of cloth, ranked for quality, motif and size and a weaver must be able to make cloth at each level before graduating to a higher grade textile. “Lawo Butu” cloths belong to the top grade and very few weavers are qualified to weave them. The cloth is worn by a female clan elder to dedicate a new clan shrine Some old cloths are preserved in clan treasuries for centuries until just the tattered remains are left to be draped over the main post of the shrine.*

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Mama Khaterina is one of the few weavers who still makes these cloths and she shows us two cloths she has for sale. They are unlike anything we have seen before –indigo dyed with pattern of stylised stick horses but embellished with tiny shells and ancient beads in designs of crabs and boats.

The cloths are about three times more expensive than the most expensive ikats we have seen on the coast and although they do not compete in terms of the intricacy and fineness of the design, they have such power and integrity that we are smitten. We have to go away, have lunch, think carefully and visit a cash machine in town before we can go back and make an offer. Mama Khaterina needs the money for a family member who is in hospital – otherwise she wouldn’t be selling, and when we hand over the money, her grandchildren gleefully count it out in both English and Ngada.

18. Mama Katharina wears her ceremonial ikat. (421x640)

The future for fine Flores ikat is uncertain, just as it is for all hand made textiles which require so much time and effort. In most cases, the weaver is producing cloth for herself and her family and the hours are not counted. However when people rely on it for an income, it is inevitable that compromises are made. Time consuming plant dyes are abandoned in favour of much speedier chemical dyes, more complicated designs are left behind and simpler ones take their place, machine spun yarns are used instead of hand spun. Tourists will buy ikat as a souvenir but they usually don’t bother about the more costly refinements.

“Threads of Life” is an exemplary organisation based in Bali which sets up and buys from weaving co-operatives. By marketing top end textiles and attempting to educate the buyers into recognising the value of the very best textiles, they are managing to support some weavers. This is a small but vital drop in the ocean.

The truth is that we are probably seeing the final years in the production of the best ikat from Flores, and if such a thing existed, it would go onto the textiles endangered list. Now if I can just sell what I’ve bought, I can go back and buy some more.

* Thanks to “Threads Of Life” for this information.

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Flores, Nusa Tengerra, Indonesia

4. Mama Maria Anselmia da Kunya from Sikka showing off her own produce. Its clear from people's names that the Portuguese influence is still strong (480x640)

Mama Maria Anselmia da Kunya from Sikka showing off her own weavings.

The Flores experience starts at the airport in Bali where we board a twin propeller plane and suddenly feel as if we are back in the 1960s. The Lion Air flight has no inflight magazine or Duty Free list but it does have an “Invocation Card”. This lists for passengers of any of seven different faiths the prayers to be said to ensure a safe journey for us all.

A couple of nuns and a tall blue eyed priest are on the flight and remind me of the fact that this island is not Muslim like Java, not Hindu like Bali, but strongly Roman Catholic.

Of course, that’s where it got its name – it has been in the hands of first the Portuguese and then Dutch Jesuit missionaries for a very long time – and it was the Portuguese who gave it the name of Flores.

1. Diane, Jim and Susi at the top of Kelimutu volcano (640x480)

Diane, Jim and Susi at the top of Kelimutu volcano

Let’s be clear about the reason we’re here – its not for the wonderful scenery and the amazing chain of volcanoes to trek up, its not for the tropical beaches or the diving, we’re not even here to hunt the famous Komodo dragons – no, we’ve come to wrong end of the island for that. We are here to hunt down something else entirely… ikat weaving. I’ve long been a fan of Flores ikat, which I’ve bought from shops in Bali. The colours are delicious – deep earthy browns and reds, just my cup of tea and the cotton is heavy and hand spun. I’ve finally got the chance to come to the place it ‘s made.

Maumere airport is tiny and we’re soon through and delivered to the tender mercies of the taxi drivers and guides who are waiting for fresh tourist meat. Its not long before we are nestled firmly and inextricably under the wing of guide Hieronymus (yes, he says, like Bosch) and driver Vincent (de Paul, no doubt)

2. It soon becomes clear why there are so many different languages on this island – nobody ever got to meet their neighbours, what with all those volcanoes and jungle in the way. (640x480)

It soon becomes clear why there are so many different languages on this island – nobody ever got to meet their neighbours, what with all those volcanoes and jungle in the way.

It is made clear to us that independent travel in Flores is just not for the likes of us. For a start self drive hire cars are out of the question – nobody would let a foreigner loose in their car on these roads. Secondly the public transport is shit. Sorry, let me rephrase that… yes there are extremely cramped and very small minivans, very bad roads, and very slow journeys which, were we 20 years younger and had 3 times as much time (and possibly 3 times less money) we could choose to travel by.

But, (and it’s a Big But) we have only got a week here, we want to get to some pretty remote villages and there are 3 of us. Susi, our Javanese friend from Jogya has come along just for the craic. So we open negotiations and soon realise that we might as well give in to the fact that we are going to have to part with a not insignificant sum to engage these two chaps for the next 5 days.

We next realise that there is only really one road through Flores and we have made the schoolboy error of buying a return ticket to and from the same airport. Never mind… once we get going and experience the state of the roads, the wild standards of the driving and the frequency of the land slides, we are quite happy not to be setting off on an epic journey.

As for the ikat, I am immediately reassured by the number of women I see wearing that beautiful characteristic cloth– worn either slung over one shoulder toga fashion, or bunched up as as sarong skirt. At Maumere market there are plenty to look at, and I keep Hieronymus (our Melanesian Eddie Murphy lookalike guide) occupied while Jim slips off to the textile stall to do a preliminary recce on what’s available and grab a bargain to establish the prices. Susi immediately starts chatting to a lady selling something who comes from Java. This is to be a pattern which is repeated everywhere we go – Susi makes lifelong friends very easily.

3. Women in Maumere market. (640x433)

Women in Maumere market wearing fine ikat

Before we can leave town for a few days upcountry, though we need a few supplies – snacks for the journey, mozzie spray for the rooms and what else … what about alcohol? Hieronymus, by now known as Hero,  takes Jim down an alleyway to see his mother in law who brews up arak palm wine spirit in her village. He comes back with a big grin and a large 1.5 water bottle full. Cost? about £3.

So well fettled for the days ahead, we set off to the first port of call – Sikka. It’s on the southern coast, white sand, coconut palm trees, a typical bloody paradise. There’s no work here though, only fishing for the men and ikat weaving for the women, so, lovely but maybe not paradise.

In most parts of Flores the women weave their own sarongs to wear. Indeed it is traditionally seen as a pre-requisite for marriage – a boy has to be able to plant enough crops to feed a family and the girl has to be able to ikat and weave to clothe the family.

A few villages though, have gained a reputation for weaving. Maybe the dyestuffs or the cotton plants are plentiful, or the women are particularly good weavers. Sikka village is one of these places, and the guides like to bring their charges here.

13. In the centre of Sikka is a huge wooden church founded in 1899. The interior walls are painted with the designs of the local cloth – its a strong reminder of the way ikat is part of life here.

In the centre of Sikka is a huge wooden church founded in 1899. The interior walls are painted with the designs of the local cloth – its a strong reminder of the way ikat is part of life here

The small market place is between the sea shore and a very large Catholic church.

At the market, the women are demonstrating – they spin cotton, tie the ikat,show us the local natural dyes and weave. Even the complete textile novice can’t fail to be impressed, and so I am completely bowled over. A quick walk around the village is rewarded with views of ikat in various stages of production. The red dyed warp threads are hanging on washing lines, the tying is being done with thin but strong strips of palm leaf, the cloth is being woven on back strap looms or the women run out bringing cloth to sell. It’s all I could possibly hope for!

If you know me well enough, and have read enough of my blogs, you will know that you don’t get too far before you will be made to read some technical explanation of how a textile is made. Well that’s the point we’re at here. So look away now if you just want an amusing account of exotic travel.

The ikat they make in Flores (and the neighbouring islands) is warp ikat – that means that it is the warp threads (the lengthways ones) which are ikatted. Ikat means “to bind” in Indonesian and that is the essence of the technique.

The threads used to weave the cloth must first be bought or made. If you’ve got some spare cash you may just go to market and buy some yarn. If not, you will have to start by growing and then picking cotton. It looks like cotton wool with big seeds which have to be taken out. Next it has to be fluffed up with what looks like a little bow, and formed into a roll ready for spinning. It always surprises me how similar textile techniques are in completely different parts of the world. I’ve seen women spinning cotton in Laos, Java and Turkey and its just the same. The cotton may be spun either with a wheel or a spindle to make a nice strong and even thread.

11. The tied yarns are dyed, dried and re-dyed many times to achieve a really deep rich colour. (640x480)

The tied yarns are dyed, dried and re-dyed many times to achieve a really deep rich colour.

6. The yarn may be spun by hand using a spindle (417x640)

The yarn may be spun by hand using a spindle

Next, the thread is stretched onto a frame which is half the length of the finished cloth. Bunches of threads are then bound up with little strips of lontar palm. This tied binding acts as a resist to dyes in the same way that wax does in batik. If a tie stays on all the way through it will keep the yarns underneath it white, if it comes off half way through the process, the yarns may be dyed another colour.

The different regions of Flores and even individual villages have their own designs – so women get to learn how to do their patterns without too much head scratching. It’s still pretty tricky to get it right though.

In Sikka and quite a few other places in Flores, the dyes used are plant dyes. Indigo of course and the very commonly used mengkudu (morinda citrifolia) This tree produces a green fir cone shaped fruit which also makes a common remedy for stomach ailments. The roots can be selectively harvested while the tree continues to grow. The bark of the roots is peeled off and then crushed and beaten up into pulp which is then just soaked in water to make a luscious red dye. The addition of various mordants – tannin from other local wood, aluminum from the leaves of the lobah tree (sorry I can’t find out what that is apart from “lobah”) and protein from candle nuts may be added to give various shades of red.

9. Bunches of warp yarns are tied with little strips of lontar palm leaf. (640x480)

Bunches of warp yarns are tied with little strips of lontar palm leaf.

In Java, the small northern coastal town of Lasem became famous for its red dyes and batik cloths were sent there specially to be dyed, possibly because of minerals in the soil and water. There are places in Flores where the red is wonderful too, the ikat around Maumere and Ende is particularly wonderful and the colours are brilliant. The other plant dyes used are mangrove bark (deep brown or black) and mango leaves (pale green). Turmeric is used for yellow.

Well we can’t leave without buying something here, and in fact we end up buying quite a lot. Once you start you just can’t stop (or is that just me?) But if you buy from one woman it seems churlish not to buy from another.  The cloths are all so lovely and the women are desperate to sell, so it’s hard to leave somebody out. I try to get some of their names, most of them sound Portuguese but the best of all is Mama Maria Anselmia da Kunya who sells me a wonderful cloth with a design of horsemen and cockerels. And she models it so fetchingly for me!

12. The weaving is done on a simple back strap loom. A plain coloured weft is woven into the patterned warp. (640x480)

The weaving is done on a simple back strap loom. A plain coloured weft is woven into the patterned warp.

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