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Posts Tagged ‘ikat’

I’m still feeling a bit bruised and battered by the EU Referendum and its aftermath. Textile Traders would not be in business without the “free movement of people”, as I’ve been free to travel almost anywhere in the world ever since my teens when I worked as a chambermaid in France!
Like our friends and colleagues on World Textile Days we work closely with people all over the world. We trust them with our money, our stock, our kids, our security. Without these “foreigners” we would be nowhere.

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Some of the World Textile Day crew

Anyway, to cheer myself up I got thinking about some of the people who I rely on, who have grown up with me and who I call friends. So here goes …

 

First of all Turkey – always stuck between Europe and Asia, but at the moment getting the worst of both worlds – we don’t seem to want them in Europe, and IS bomb them because they don’t like them talking to the West.  I first went there in 1981 to teach english and fell in love with the country.
After a couple of years, I came back with a few rugs to try and sell. “Just take them, send me the money later”. I hardly knew the guy, he just trusted me to do the decent thing. Very Turkish! I’ve been going back regularly ever since.
It’s time I said “Thank You” to the innumerable women weavers in umpteen villages who have allowed me to sit in their living rooms and back yards taking photos and notes, to the dozens of carpet sellers in Istanbul, Ayvacik, Antalya, Izmir, Selcuk and Anamur who have shared afternoons and hundreds of glasses of tea with us as we slowly look through piles of stock – “Don’t ask the price, just enjoy”
Special thanks to Musa, Ramazan and Nazmiye who taught us about natural dyeing and self sufficiency, to the Bozyak brothers who enthused us with the Dobag Project and to Musa and Saliha in Anamur with whom we have shared so many laughs and so many meals around the “sofra”. 

 

And then in Indonesia – I’ve been going back for 33 years now, and parts of Java have the familiarity of home. It’s always the same – I start each visit appalled by the poverty and the degradation of the environment and end up charmed by the kindness and tolerance of the people, envious of the strength of their communities and entranced by the culture.
In Indonesia, I have to thank numerous men and women making incredible batik and ikat textiles who have smiled and answered my questions or just allowed me to sit and watch. Thanks to Hani, and Nia and Agus and all the guys at the “Indonesia” and the Duta.

But especially Tono, a becak (bicycle rickshaw) driver, our first “fixer”  who packed thousands of cantings into hundreds of boxes, talked Indonesian politics with us when it was not safe to do so, found lovely ladies to take care of our boys when they were little, came with us to puppet show “all-nighters” and introduced us to dozens of knowledgeable people. And then the inestimable Susi, his replacement, who lets me hang out at her house, lends me her bike, finds cake, sorts out my Indonesian sim card, takes me round the city on the back of her motorbike and performs a hundred little kindnesses and huge favours I couldn’t do without.

And finally Northern Thailand. I spend more and more time there nowadays and even then never want to leave. So many people to thank and appreciate: the women who give massages at the temple round the corner; Mr and Mrs Beer who hire us bikes, motorbikes and cars and stay cheerful in spite of having to deal with hundreds of us dumb foreigners every week; Panee and her family the best indigo dyers in Phrae; Ray in Chiang Mai who posts stuff to me when I run out; Nui who always makes sure I get a bed no matter what time I turn up; the girls at the Post Office who look after us every year, manage to clear a space for us in their tiny office, and stay cheerful in spite of having to answer the same dumb questions to a constant stream of us foreigners every week; H’mong headman Win and his wife who have made us welcome so many times in their village in the Mae Sa valley, and never forgetting Poo and her little group of tailors who make my garments and manage, no matter what I throw at them, to get them all finished on my very last day.

Of course we’re all different – I LOVE that we’re different. I make my living by talking about, learning about and trading in the things that make us different. It’s spine tingling to hear the call to prayer at daybreak or monks chanting through the night, to come across a group of tribal women in full regalia, or witness strange and exotic ceremonies.
What’s surprising is just how similar our hopes and dreams, fears and concerns are.
I think its time we in Britain got over ourselves and started thanking our Lucky Stars!
If we believe Britain is overcrowded, try Java (145 million on an island roughly the size of Britain). If we’re worried that our culture is being taken over, spend a couple of days in Bali or the old city in Chiang Mai, or on Phuket or Koh Samui, for goodness sake. If we’re concerned about refugees, try the camps in southern Turkey or the Thai-Burmese border.
What the referendum result has shown though, is that we live in a country of great inequalities. If anything comes out of this to address that, then there may be some good come of it!

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One of Flores’s many woven houses

 

So we’ve bought plenty of ikat, we’ve got a good idea of reasonable prices and I’ve got my “eye in” for regional designs, hand spun cotton, what natural dyes are available and what have you. Now it’s time to widen the search

1. Watublapi… and a textile lover’s heaven

I’ve got the phone number of a guy called Daniel who knows about the local ikat. district. We arrange to meet at a market town called Geliting about 10 kilometres outside Maumere. It’s Sunday morning and it seems everyone’s at church, but we eventually get ourselves into a crowded bemo. We’ve no idea where to meet Daniel but as the only “Bule” in the place, we’re pretty conspicuous, and sure enough he finds us without difficulty.

Daniel is a fine looking guy wearing a hand woven indigo top and a large boar’s tusk. He shakes hands and introduces us to our ojek – motorbike taxi guys, who are taking us to Watublapi. The road goes higher and higher through scattered villages, and the air gets cooler and cooler as we drive into deep wooded hillsides of primary forest. Half an hour later we arrive and an archway tells us we are at a Cultural Centre for Traditional Dances and Ikat weaving. Daniel shows us the local cotton trees- tall! We take photos, ask questions, poke the cotton seeds, ask more questions, and at this point he realises he’s got four complete textile nerds on his hands and he’s in for a long day.  Finally we are introduced to one of the village’s best weavers and sit down for cups of Flores coffee and sweet crackers.

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Daniel, a natural dyeing and Flores ikat expert with a wedding ikat.

 

Before long, the front yard is transformed into a working panorama of the ikat process for start to finish. And all for our delight! First the cotton is “ginned” on a hand turned wooden press which squeezes the large seed out of each tuft. Moving on, the cotton tufts are fluffed up using a bow with a tight wire. I’ve seen this process done in almost exactly the same way in Turkey and Kyrgyzstan (with wool) and in Laos with cotton. Next the cotton is rolled into neat little turd shaped pieces and Mama sits down at her spinning wheel. Putting the yarn between her left toes and turning the wheel handle with her right hand she spins the cotton into thread with consummate ease. She’s fast, accurate and makes it look blindingly simple. I think better of asking to have a go.

Next is the tying frame where the spun yarns are tied into patterns using palm leaf twine. Next the dyeing – indigo, mengkudu, mango peel, lobah leaves, candle nut, ground coral, ash lye, turmeric (3 different shades from one piece) We have many, many questions and we begin to realise that Daniel is no ordinary guy with a passing interest in showing us a bit of ikat and hoping we will buy some. No, he is a dedicated and enthusiastic natural dyeing expert who has conducted research and many experiments into various recipes and methods.

 

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A gorgeous ikat for sale

Mama Kristina has some pieces for sale but not a lot, the reason being that a couple of months ago ONE HUNDRED AND THIRTY people from four different countries came off a cruise ship and spent over ONE HUNDRED MILLION rupiah in the village! Well… what hope have we against that?

 

Daniel invites us back to his “studio” . I’m not sure what I was expecting, but it wasn’t this textile lover’s wet dream. Several lovely women, including Daniel’s wife Nina, two students, an older weaver and a dyer float about in beautiful naturally dyed tops and sarongs. There are hanks of yarns in every natural colour you can imagine, dyestuffs are laid out, pots are boiling and bubbling, an there are bamboo poles full of beautiful ikat pieces in subtle indigo blues and mengkudu reds and browns. What can I say but O.M.G.!!

We go through to Daniel’s garden where he has around a hundred mengkudu plants ready for his weavers and neighbours to plant out, as well as indigo plants, turmeric and mango. We sit down to more Flores coffee (to add to our slight hysteria) and banana fritters and ask questions, watch dyeing, watch tying, watch weaving and take photos and then more photos. Daniel is paid by the council to teach traditional weaving and dyeing and to research and document traditional ikat motifs. (but I can’t imagine the pay is very good) However he also gets things made for fashion designers in Jakarta, and teaches foreigners, both of which pay considerably more. His enthusiasm is clear. He loves nothing more than chatting up old village ladies and finding out what they know about motifs and the old ways.

Ikat plays a huge role in ceremonies and life events where its used for offerings, exchanges, debts, and obligations. Some pieces are so precious they spend their life hidden in chests deep in the forest shrines, only to be taken out every five years, some are woven to exchange at weddings, some are buried with the dead. Daniel knows over 100 different motifs; some were brought by Indian traders centuries ago (the Patola), some have Portuguese meanings (the Palm Sunday fronds, angels, candelabra and “corazon” sacred heart) some show mythical birds, fertile chickens, the horses which carry away the spirits of the dead and Mother Earth and Father Sky. We all come away knowing far more than we did before, but realising that there is much more to learn about ikat in Flores.

2. Lewokluwok… natural dyes and tiny shells

We’ve said goodbye to Bob and Magie and headed further eastwards to find traditional eastern Flores ikat. Lewokluwok is an extremely neat and tidy village just a couple of kilometres off the “Trans-Flores Highway”, and almost at the end of Flores island. This grand sounding road is actually part narrow tarmacked road, part rutted track and part something between as it is being steadily improved as we speak. The village has lovely trees and there are some birds in them (not always so in Flores where they are often hunted by youths on motorbikes with shotguns), neatly woven and bamboo houses with tin roofs, a modern Catholic Church and St Alfonso’s Catholic Village Primary where well behaved children are quiet and busy. There are some “rumah adat” (tribal houses), but our driver is from Maumere (about 75 miles away) and is as much in the dark as us about the language and the culture here.

As soon as we let it be known that we’re interested in “tenun ikat”, women start to bring along what they’ve got. Most have a couple of sarongs. The ikat here is different to what we’ve seen before. First of all, its all made in a very heavy hand spun local cotton. Secondly its mostly all dyed in natural dyes and thirdly, some pieces have tiny cowrie shells sewn in to the weaving which makes them even MORE attractive. We know almost immediately that we are going to have to buy something here as long as we can afford it. Most of the older ladies don’t speak Indonesian so the younger ones have to translate. So when we ask How much is it?, they’re not sure at first but they make themselves understood and we’re soon bargaining with fingers. The shell decoration is important in adat pieces (traditional ceremonial wear) and they add to the cost. – Don’t you collect them from the beach? – No, we have to buy, expensive! Before we leave, I’d like a photo of all the village weavers but, as one says – If you don’t buy, you don’t get a photo! And I can’t buy something from all of them!

3. And finally, Mawa

Getting to Mawa is tricky. First of all you have to get to Larantuka at the eastern end of Flores. It stands in a gorgeous spot at the base of a volcano which rises straight out of the sea, surrounded by clear blue water with other volcanic islands in the distance. It’s like the west of Scotland only with palm trees and 32 degrees. In spite of this, Larantuka is a shit hole. Don’t ask me why, maybe its just too bloody hot. To be honest, no-one can be arsed .. to be nice, to clean up the rubbish, to rent you a room, to get you a sheet for the bed, to stock mosquito repellent or even to sell you a beer. They just want to lie down in the shade with the piles of rotting litter and fish debris and collapsing buildings. There’s a picturesque wooden cathedral which is shut, and no-one can be arsed to open it. Oh well.

There’s life down at the port though, with frequent wooden ferries to the other islands around. We join the passengers, along with a cargo of 20 or 30 motorbikes, sacks of peanuts, garlic and coffee, boxes of biscuits, Indomie instant noodles and sugary drinks, trussed chickens and a couple of goats. The 4 hour journey is broken with a stop at Adonara island known locally as Murderer’s Island where the people hunted heads. Here we’re boarded by a rampaging hoard of feral children, wild patterns razored in to their shaved heads. They bring hard boiled eggs, rice wrapped in leaves and tiny packets of peanuts to sell.

After a dreamy cruise through volcanic islands we arrive at the island of Lembata and the town of Lewoleba – an important trading port in these parts. Here we find (to our frank astonishment) an excellent new hotel, very friendly people and plentiful bottles of Beer Bintang to boot. Even better you can drink said beer while gazing out at the port and the endless entertainment of huge ferry boats unloading and loading passengers and goods. When you get fed up with that the local youth take it in turn to dive off disused boats in increasingly amusing ways, while shouting out all the english they’ve ever learnt.

Bemos out to the rest of the island are sporadic and infrequent so it has to be an ojek (motorbike taxi) to Mawa, which is about 30 kms away. It’s on a peninsula with one of the two huge volcanoes which stand on either side of the great bay of Lewoleba. We’ve heard there is a typical Lembata style of ikat here. Its a pretty village on a glorious bit of coastline – white sand, turquoise sea, little fishing boats, elaborate graves looking out to sea (Grandma and Granddad always seem to get the best spots) Our ojek driver introduces us to his Mum, Monika. Word soon gets round and the women bring out what they’ve got to sell which isn’t much to be honest. There’s one beauty – a full sarong made of intricate ikat in hand spun cotton and natural dyes. That’s definitely the one to go for, so we very politely enquire if it might be for sale? A lot of discussion from everyone ensues and there’s a general unwillingness to name a price. – Maybe its an adat piece and you don’t want to sell? – I do want to sell. – Fine, how much do you want? – Two five – Oh two and a half million. Says I thinking, that’s pretty pricey but that might just be a starting price. – No twenty five, twenty five million rupiah I’m somewhat taken aback. That’s about ten times more than I’ve ever been asked for an ikat. We make all the right noises about what a beautiful piece of work it is and retreat. – Oh well, if you don’t want it, I can sell to the tourists.

Mama Monika tells us that a boat with a whole group of textile enthusiasts on board, docked here in May and bought up almost everything.

This is the one and only ikat weaving village where we come away empty handed. But its not a wasted visit. Just down the road there’s a group of men sitting. Two old guys are wearing traditional men’s sarongs, ikat sashes and palm frond “crowns”. They look amazing and as we pass them, I ask, very tentatively, if it might be possible to take a photo. – Of course, of course. Come in. Drink Tea! Before we know it the village headman (dressed in shorts and a T shirt) invites us to pose for photos with the two dukuns (the village shamans). He tells us that they are here to bless the digging of a new well. So although they may want daft prices for their ikat in Mawa, seeing it still being used for a ceremonial purpose is definitely worth the trouble of getting here.

12. Lembata (30) small

 

 

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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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Street stall in XinjiangXinjiang is the huge province in the far north-west of China where we’re getting our introduction to China. That’s a bit like arriving in Great Britain from the Orkneys, it’s not really typical China at all.

The region is vast and takes up about one sixth of China – I don’t know how big that is but we’ve travelled about 1,100 miles across it, and it feels pretty big on hard train seats. It contains a whole desert – The Taklimakan – whose name means something like “Go in but you won’t come out” which is a pretty straightforward message to all those old Silk Road travellers I guess. In fact most of what we’ve seen from the windows of the trains has been gritty old desert with a few oasis towns.

Xinjiang balconyThe majority of people living here are Uyghurs but there are also Kyrgyz, Tajiks, Kazaks, and Uzbeks. The unifying feature of all these people is that they are strongly Muslim and identify more with Central Asia than with Beijing and the People’s Republic.

Now throw into this mix the Han Chinese. They are the huge majority throughout the rest of China, and the Government is working very hard to make sure they become the majority here too. They look nothing like the Uyghur, nor do they speak, write, dress or behave anything like them.

View of XinjiangThey’ve been nominally in charge since 1949 and in the last few decades this has become a reality. The Government launched the “Develop The West” campaign in 2000, and since then has been making huge investments in the so called “Uyghur Autonomous region of Xinjiang”. Ordinary Chinese workers are getting strong economic incentives to move out here, and they’ve gone from being 10% of the population to over 50%. Judging by the numbers of new apartment blocks being built, more are expected!

XinjiangFrom what I can see the two groups do their best to ignore each other as much as possible and make no attempts to speak each other’s language if they can help it. In spite of the propaganda that the people of China are all equal and should work together in harmony for the good of the glorious nation, the message doesn’t quite seem to ring true.

The Chinese Government’s point of view seems to be “Here we are spending all this money on bringing infrastructure, jobs, industry and wealth to you. Look! Motorways, railways, universities, mobile phone coverage, satellite TV.

Cart in a Xinjiang streetAll good things surely, so why don’t you stop going on about your rights and move into the 21st century?” From the Uyghur’s point of view it seems more a case of “Nobody asked you to come here, bossing us around, and making us into second class citizens in our own country. Go back east and leave us alone”

But there are rich mineral and especially oil pickings to be had in that desert so that’s not going to happen. There have already been some anti-Chinese riots in Kashgar and Urumchi, and as there seem to be an awful lot of men hanging around with not a lot to do, I can’t see things getting easier

Kashgar is a strongly Uyghur city with plenty of mosques, bazaars, and Central Asian architecture. There are grilled kebabs on every corner, men in very pretty skull caps and almost every woman has a head scarf (some even go so far as to cover their whole face)

Street ViewMany parts of the old town are being knocked down. People continue to live and work in amongst the dusty rubble as best they can. However, there is rebuilding going on and it is being done in the local style so maybe in a couple of decades the new stuff will have weathered and worn into the same state as the old stuff and at least they might have better plumbing.

From the point of view of the tourists (and Silk Road Tourism has got to be worth quite a bit) it’s the traditional Uyghur markets, mosques, architecture, and picturesque old guys in their traditional hats which we’ve come to see. So maybe they’ll leave enough standing for us to see.

CourtyardThe lovely oasis town of Turpan on the northern branch of the Silk Route (a mere 23 hour train ride away over the Taklimakan) has a much more easy-going atmosphere. The Uyghur people here are friendly and relaxed and seem to live as they always have amongst their vineyards. It’s one of the lowest places on earth, and the hottest town in China, but the weather’s lovely right now. The streets are shaded with vines and so are the family courtyards which can be glimpsed from the street (although they were being cut as we left, it’s the end of the season here too).

Turpan is famous for its grapes and sweet melons. The countryside is full of ancient mud brick “greenhouses” with frames made of vine wood and long rolls of quilted cloth ready to cover them at any sign of frost. There are vines everywhere and airy drying barns where the grapes are dried to turn them into raisins. Although there’s hardly any rain, the fields are watered by snow melt running off the mountains which is collected in an ancient system of underground water channels. Apparently there’s about 5,000 kms of them in Xinjiang!

It seems certain that grapes have been grown here for hundreds or even thousands of years and what a perfect Silk Road commodity they are – light and easy to transport but also an ideal food for life in the desert. We were given handfuls of all kinds of raisins at every turn, but the best were the sweet golden ones.

At the carpet dealersAnyway back to the textile search. We had great hopes of finding something at the famous Kashgar Sunday market, maybe from one of the dozens of carpet dealers there – wouldn’t a nice little Kashgar rug be a good memento? No such luck I’m afraid. The local stuff is garish and pretty ugly and the rest is coming from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran and we can buy those back in the UK for much the same price. And like carpet dealers everywhere they talked a load of bullshit, says Jim.

So I settled for a length of ikat silk – the standard length to make a long dress and pair of trousers. It was made in Khotan just down the road (well 300 miles or so which is just a spit away in Xinjiang) and it’s the same width and of a very similar design to the stuff we watched being woven in the Fergana Valley.

Turpan MelonsSo there you go, it truly is a Silk Road and women in Uzbekistan and Xinjiang are still wearing the same designs as each other. What’s more the vocabulary of silk textiles is the same all along the route. One of the things we were hoping was that we could use Turkish all the way to China – and in the language of the market place at least, it seems to be still working.

Now its time to get our heads round Mandarin!

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Silk from the Fergana valley

Our final stop in Uzbekistan is the “fabled” Fergana Valley as Jim keeps calling it. Fabled for its “heavenly” horses, and possibly for nefarious drugs. Anyway it’s here that most of the silk in this country is produced, and as this is a Silk Road story, it’s somewhere I really wanted to visit.

We’ve come to the town of Margilon where there are two enormous silk producing factories (apparently the biggest in Central Asia). There is also one place which makes silk ikat in the old way – the way they used to make it before electricity and big machines.

Ikat really is Uzbekistan’s national fabric, and many of the women, tables and cushions of this country are covered in fabrics with ikat designs (although it’s rarely real ikat)

We have heard good things about the “wonderful tour” they give at the Yodgorlik “Souvenir Silk factory” so I am really looking forward to it and set out with a merry heart, two fully charged cameras at the ready.

Woman with silk thread ready for weavingThings have obviously changed as when we get there, there is only one very grumpy chap who ignores us for 5 minutes and when we dare to ask about the tour growls “Wait a minute” as if we have interrupted his very important day. He finally finishes his fag, spits on the ground and he’s off, with us hurrying behind. Anyway his English is crap and he can’t answer any of our questions

But there will now follow a short lesson in warp ikat and how it is made accompanied by informative photos. Skip this if you already know or couldn’t care less.

 

As you can imagine we were in seventh heaven here and would have been happy to sit and watch for ages, but Old Grumpy guts was having none of it. He was sighing deeply and tapping his watch, so unfortunately we had to be delivered back to the cramped little shop. Here we did our consumerist duties and bought a lovely piece of warp ikat “adras” (silk warp, cotton weft) with a design of great big tulips on it.

Ikat on a stall

The finished products

Things are obviously not going too well for Yodgirlik at the moment. We counted a total of about 20 people working. There is only one woman working in the silk spinning room with one hot water vat out of five in use. In the ikat tying room, only one set of yarns was being tied. There were a couple of guys in the dyeing room and a couple measuring out a warp and in the big weaving room, only five looms had a warp on them.

Let me say now that the idea behind this whole enterprise is wonderful. Its aims are thoroughly worthy: to revive traditional warp ikat textiles, to give employment in skilled handicrafts to weavers and dyers, to use natural dyes where possible and to produce top quality textiles. It was started in 1983 with high hopes – but enterprises like this need support. Support such as grants, national marketing and sales networks, Royal or government patronage or access to a domestic middle and upper class market.

For example (and these are just from personal knowledge)

  • In Malaysia and Indonesia, handmade batik is time consuming and expensive to produce but it is supported by the well-off middle classes, who still buy it and wear it.
  • In Thailand, ikat weavers, indigo dyers, and numerous other handicraft workers are supported by foundations set up by the Queen of Thailand and promoted in outlets throughout the country.
  • In Turkey, naturally dyed hand -made carpets are making a comeback because of good demand for them from Europe.
  • In Bali top quality wood carvings, textiles and other crafts can be sold to the many foreign and domestic tourists.
The Ikat Factory

The Ikat Factory

At the moment Uzbekistan has none of these so all the small craft enterprises are struggling. President Karimov is only interested in selling the country’s industrial and agricultural assets (particularly cotton) and it has virtually no middle class market for high quality products. Perhaps foreign tourists could play a part but at the moment Uzbekistan is not top of everybody’s list and the Yodgorlik needs to sell itself with an informative tour of the workshops and a good shop.

In other words, getting rid of Old Grumpy would be a start. But it’s sad to say that without some help I don’t think this wonderful project will be able to sustain itself, and true Uzbek warp ikat will no longer be made in the Fergana Valley.

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