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Posts Tagged ‘Indonesia’

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An array of single width ikat cloths

Sumba is one of a chain of islands spreading out east of Bali and it has been beckoning me for years. Why? Well, it’s textiles of course. Beautiful, colourful warp ikat blankets with big bold patterns. Finally we’ve stopped putting it off for lack of time or money and got our arses over here. Very few tourists seem to make it and those that do, come for other reasons. The suntanned youth come for the surf beaches, the more well-heeled (usually middle aged couples with a guide and driver) come for the traditional villages or the wildlife. Jim and I are a weird hybrid – middle aged with backpacks.

We land at Waingapu with its small, old fashioned airport just a couple of miles out of town and head in along dusty streets lined with little shops and past a crowd of people peering over a wall. It’s a monthly horse racing event. The Sumbanese love horses and in the early evening we see one of the horses draped in an ikat cloth being led home. It’s my first sighting of ikat. So, the horses wear it but the women don’t. In Sumba, it seems, ikat textiles are preserved for ceremonial use only and everyday wear is just like anywhere else in Indonesia: shorts, jeans, tee-shirts and maybe a printed batik sarong. A few old ladies wear dark hand-loomed sarongs but that’s it.

To find women making ikat you probably need to visit some tribal villages, right? So that’s our first mission. The villages’ swooping tall thatched roofs are sometimes up on a hill but, disconcertingly they can be right in the middle of town too.

You climb up the cobbled street, past the massive concrete or stone tombs as big as megalithic dolmen, try to avoid the ferociously barking dogs and sign the ubiquitous visitors’ book. Give a donation. Feel a bit voyeuristic and slightly awkward as you peer at people’s houses, try to walk round the pesky still-barking dogs, grubby little kids, big black pigs, and rubbish dumps. Until the 21st century, chucking your rubbish on the ground made not much difference; it either decomposed or you could burn it. Now most of the rubbish is plastic; plastic bottles and bags and packaging, and that doesn’t go away and can’t be burned (although many people try) It just stays and chokes up the gullies and the barefooted kids play in it.

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A traditional village in East Sumba with its’ grave stones

I have no idea how it must feel to live in these homes, but to me they seem dark, hot, dirty, enclosed and the graves overpower everything. Basically, its poor and shit and I don’t blame young people for wanting out. So I’m not too impressed with traditional villages even though they are really impressive, if that makes any sense?

Still enough moaning, we’re here to find ikat. There are women weaving on back strap looms but the cloths they show us are either hugely expensive or not very attractive. But I have developed excellent skills in sniffing out textiles (searching the sparse clues in the guide book for a start!) and it’s not very long before we’ve found a little shop full of gorgeous ikat textiles. We start off chatting to the owner in Indonesian but when he finds out we’re British, he switches to near perfect English to tell us that he’s been to Art in Action in Oxfordshire twice to sell his ikat (along with a weaver to demonstrate). Before you know it, we’re onto shameless name dropping. Oh yes, he knows John Gillow, and Jenny Balfour Paul came here to research indigo and guess what! in a couple of days here’s off to Timor to meet the Richardsons. Can you believe it? Luckily we can hold our own in the name dropping department as we know all these textile superstars very well.

Freddy knows an awful lot about the warp ikat of East Sumba and I therefore grab the opportunity to ask as many questions as I can. I have ten days here and I need to know where to start looking. He tells us there’s no point going anywhere else but East Sumba (that’s not quite true, there’s some good ikat in West Sumba too) and there’re only a couple of places where natural dyes are still being used to dye the yarn. As an example, the mud dyed yarn which is being woven in his back room is now only made by one old lady. He is worried that fewer and fewer people have the skills to continue to make really high quality textiles.

So here are a few of the interesting things I began to understand about warp ikat…

It’s all about teamwork

It’s not really appropriate to ask who made a particular textile. In fact the weaver is just one of a team and hers is not even the most important of the skills. Probably each cloth has had input from 10 to 12 people. It starts with drawing the pattern, you need someone with a good sense of style and design, hen there are the people who tie the design – usually a team of them. Then there’s the natural dyeing. Good plants have to be grown and processed to make the dyestuff strong and light-fast. The dyeing is fairly complicated and it takes a long time. Then there’s removing the ties, setting up the loom, locking down the pattern (very important when you’re doing figurative work) and finally there’s the weaving. So, up to a dozen different people, sometimes specialists in their bit, often members of a family all helping, and several months, even a year, go into making a cloth.

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Tying the warp yarns with plastic string – teamwork in action

Manspreading

A generation ago this was all women’s work because the cloths were used more or less exclusively for ceremonial exchanges. In a way they were an indicator of the family’s wealth because they showed how many hours the women of the family could be spared from the work of farming. These days, ikat has become more of a commercial proposition and a way of making money, so men have got involved in tying, dyeing and even weaving.  Nowadays, Freddy reckons, probably more than half of an ikat is made by men.

What dyes are used?

The main colours used in Sumba are

  • Blue – which comes from indigo leaves (indigofera tinctoria), used with powdered lime obtained from baked white coral. Indigo dye can be made from the fresh leaves or preserved as a paste which is reactivated with water strained through wood ash.
  • A deep, rich red from the roots and root bark of morinda (morinda cirtifolia) known in Sumba as kombu with a very important addition of loba leaves (symplocus fasciculata) to add brightness to the colour. Morinda root is peeled and pounded and squeezed in water to make small balls. These are best used within a few days to retain their potency. Freddy is himself a morinda dye specialist and supplier. And that’s a cue to tell us about his latest venture, an upmarket little boutique hotel in the hills outside Waingapu, appropriately it’s called “Morinda”.
  • Yellow comes from peeled and pounded turmeric rhizome (which looks like ginger) and kayu kuning heartwood (maclura cochinchinensis) All dyes benefit from a pre-mordant of either grated coconut or candlenut.

To get a really good depth of colour the yarns are dyed and re-dyed many times and thoroughly dried in between.

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Warps yarns at various stages of the dyeing process

What’s it all for?

So if it’s not to wear, why do they put all this time, skill and effort into making fine ikat? In Sumba ikat is made to give, to exchange and to cement relationships between families. The cloths are essential at births, marriages and funerals and at communal ceremonies.

For example, at a marriage settlement, the groom’s family offer metal (particularly gold) and livestock and the bride’s family offer textiles.

At a funeral, friends, family and neighbours of the deceased bring textiles and other animals to slaughter (pigs and buffalo especially) and livestock (horses and cows). Everything is noted, and I mean actually noted down in a notebook. It is someone’s job to write down the quantity and the quality of every offering given and who gave what.

So not just any old ikat cloth will do, it will be looked at and the quality and fineness of the design and weave and the dyeing all noted. Freddy says that when his mother died, the family were given 300 ikat textiles! Often the body is wrapped in dozens of cloths and buried with them. A cloth given for a funeral may have a portion of the fringe cut away, so that it can’t be sold afterwards, and you can’t pass it on like an unwanted Christmas present either!

Of course this sets up huge responsibilities and ties of reciprocity which seem rather irksome to me. How can you ever escape from the circle of giving and then receiving and having the obligation to give again? But then maybe that is a big part of what makes a cohesive traditional culture what it is?

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Weaving a typical ikat

I remember reading about this in “Indonesia Etc” by Elizabeth Pisani which begins with her visits to Sumba. The ties of ikat are both physically and metaphorically binding!

There are “kings” and there are “slaves”!

Sumba has a pretty rigid class system – the upper classes (or rajas), the middle class and the slaves or servant class. Some of the traditional villages are for families of so called Rajas or kings. We visited one of these villages called Rende where we sat on the porch of a huge dark wooden house and drank coffee with two kind and smiling red toothed ladies. We were gently harangued by a rather unattractive youth “Yes we are Rajas, we are all Rajas here” he says, with his scruffy shorts and scabby legs.

Meanings and symbols

Sumba ikat blankets are chock full of symbols, and humans and so many animals: komodos (monitor lizards), flat fish, shrimps, monkeys, frogs, horses, dogs, crocodiles, elephants and lions. Then there’s the patola design or “Bunga Raja” (the King’s flower) imitating the incredibly fine and expensive double ikat patola cloths which were first traded from India and had a profound influence on Indonesian textiles. The bamboo leaf signifies a new beginning and the crayfish which symbolises life after death as it shucks off its old shell and takes a new one. The designer can choose any of these and put them together as she wishes. The less repeats there are in a design, the more expensive the cloth will be, as the tying process will take longer.

After pumping Freddy for information, it’s only fair to buy a couple of his pieces, fabulous of course, but expensive, as is to be expected! Now I’m on the hunt for more.

The next day we’ve got a motorbike and we’ve found another village – but this time it’s a lovely spread out village with normal tin roofed houses and no barking dogs. There are massive piles of yarns with their tell-tale plastic ties hanging out to dry, the local shop has stacks of loba leaf parcels, women can be glimpsed weaving behind their homes and even the church has ikat design panels on the front

The first day we came to this “ikat hotspot” Dhigo, a sleepy young chap had to be roused from his bed to open up his shop. It was a Sunday and no-one else was around. On Monday when we come back, it’s a completely different story. Mom and Pop are here and they clearly rule the roost. There are 5 brand spanking new Toyotas in the garage and their grown up children (including younger son Dhigo) with their families live in houses nearby. In the shade of a beautiful rain tree, a team of 8 young men and women (are they slave class I wonder) are using bright plastic string to tie a design. They work quickly and efficiently wrapping, tying and snipping, chatting all the while. Different coloured string helps to distinguish which bits will stay on all through the dyeing process (where the design will stay the original white) and which will need to be removed after the first indigo dyeing so that the yarns can be dyed red.

Each frame of yarns will actually make 4 lembar (sheets). Full size blankets are made of two lembars sewn together lengthways. So each tying and dyeing operation is enough to make two large or 4 narrower cloths.

Something I hadn’t appreciated until I recently did a warp ikat course in Flores, is the importance of “locking” down the design. One end of the yarns holds the pattern key to the whole design – it make be a simple zigzag pattern but it is very important. After all the dyeing processes are done (which may take several months with the warp yarns just hanging around the place getting baked in the sun) the warps will be stretched out onto the warping frame. Now this “key pattern” will be adjusted until it comes together, and then suddenly and almost miraculously the whole pattern emerges. Before the warps are transferred to the back-strap loom for weaving the pattern is “locked in” at least 4 or 5 places along the length of the warp with bamboo sticks and more plastic baler twine.

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Dhigo shows us just one of many (I think we bought it)

Pop invites us in to the main house to show us his hugely impressive stacks of cloths with their hugely impressive traditional designs (lots of horses, buffalo, and male and female Rajas) We are offered the most teeth-clenchingly sweet tea I’ve ever had (and that’s saying something in Indonesia) Pure diabetes in a cup. Then the betel nut comes out, and we pass on that. Pop tells us Mom loves it. Makes her giddy he says! The postman turns up to deliver a parcel and gets invited to sit down and take some. Dhigo comes over, and decides that it really is time that we tried betel. Luckily Jim is game for a go, and I manage to avoid it by filming him. Hilarity ensues!

Lots of people in Sumba chew betel, and the bright red lips, red teeth and deep orange spit stains all over the ground testify to that. The chew is a mixture of dried areca nut and betel leaf taken together with a dash of white lime powder. It makes your mouth water with a bright red liquid which you spit out and it gives a high like drinking a strong cup of coffee or smoking a fag. Both of which Jim loves. Don’t think he was too keen on the betel though.

Older women particularly seem pretty addicted to it, but in Sumba men and women old and young enjoy it. If you want to make a village lady give you an absolutely delighted smile, present her with a small bag (about 10,000 rps – 60p’s worth will do it) of “sirih pinang”

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Me and my new best friend (see what betel nut does for you!)

Finally it’s time to start really buying, and I end up striking the deal with Dhigo’s wife, Anna for a dozen or so cloths. They are all made in the village, all the dyes are natural plant dyes, and the designs are all beautiful. When we get them back to our room and spread them out, they look awesome. I imagine they will look even more amazing back in Shropshire!

East Sumba is dry and arid but its people and its textiles are a joy. Now we just have to sell these and we can come back again in another couple of years’ time.

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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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Northern Java, Indonesia

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The famous “megamendung” storm clouds design

Jim and I got off the plane in Jakarta and straight into the familiar sweaty heat and humidity of Java. Oh joy, we are literate. After the helpless incomprehension of written Thai, it’s amazing how good it feels to be able to read again. The smells are familiar too; the distinctive whiff of kretek clove cigarettes, verdant, damp vegetation, drains and poverty. We’re out of Jakarta as fast as we can make it, to Gambir Station to catch the train to Cirebon, about about 125 miles east. When the train arrives it has traditional batik designs painted down some of the carriages. Only in Java!

This is an eksekutif class train and thus we join the Indonesian middle classes in air conditioned splendour. We have comfortable seats with loads of legroom, a food and drink service, smiling ticket inspectors, and a violent American film to watch. Most of the time we gaze out of the window. It’s always a shock to come here after the neat and tidy orderliness of northern Thailand. Java is hotter, dirtier, shabbier, poorer and there’s just so many people. For every job in Java there are at least 10 people trying to get some little bit of it – there are too many minibus drivers, too many becak drivers with

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“Taman arum” another famous Cirebon batik design is painted on the train – a very superior form of grafitti!

their little cycle carriages, too many beggars, shop assistants, ticket collectors, motorbike taxis, market sellers. Java is just one of Indonesia’s 16,000 islands but it is the centre of Government, and culture in many ways. About the same size as Britain, it has 140 million living on it. As I said, there are just too many people!

Cirebon doesn’t look any different from last time I was here, although maybe there are even more cars – the pavements are always blocked with stalls and warungs. A warung is what might charitably be called a “pop up restaurant” great if you fancy sitting on a grimy mat or bench under a dingy 20 watt light bulb eating some questionable food which was made this morning and has had a day’s worth of flies settling on it. Still not everyone in the world has any better options. We are here for the batik.

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Becak driver hoping for a fare

Cirebon is famous for its its own distinctive style – “Batik Ceribonan”. Most of it is made at a village called Trusmi, a few miles out of town accessible by bashed and beaten up old minibus. You climb in the back, peer down through the filthy waist height windows and try to make some sort of a guess at where you want to get off and then pay the driver an absurdly small sum of money.

Up a narrow “main street” we squeeze through market stalls, school children (in batik school uniforms!) becaks full of women and their market shopping or empty and their drivers looking for a fare, motorbikes, reversing minibuses, piles of rubbish or building materials and mobile food carts. Eventually we reach the batik shops.

Every type of customer is catered for here. There are bargain basement shops selling shirts for men and shapeless housecoats for women in cheap, imitation batik print, and there are smart air- conditioned salons with VISA signs on the door. These establishments cater for women with elaborate hair dos who emerge from cars with dark windows (so they can more easily ignore the filth) who are looking for something nice to wear for lunch with the minister’s cousin’s wife. Their drivers wait patiently outside.

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Batik workers often work in small groups at home

Although a lot of it is printed imitation, there is real hand made batik on sale here in Trusmi. The prices start at a couple of quid and go up to 5 million rupiah or more – enough to rent you a decent house for a year. We want some silk batik scarves for the shop and some cloths in a famous Cirebon design – Megamendung.

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A woman with her baby in a batik slendang watches as her husband makes cap (stamped) batik in their home

This evocatively named pattern, it means “storm clouds”, came from China. You will have seen it on Chinese embroideries or ceramics – it’s even on a pattern we are all familiar with – the “willow pattern”. Chinese traders have been coming to this northern coast of Java for centuries, along with Arab merchants and later Dutch soldiers, traders from the East India Company, colonisers and settlers. All of them have left their mark and a study of the batik textiles from these parts is a veritable history lesson.

The Chinese are still here – many generations later they still keep to their own traditions. Being the enterprising sort of folk they are, some of them started up their own batik workshops. We met the present owner of one of these workshops – “Lina’s Batik”, the first time we came to Cirebon in 1986. She and her sister ran a sort of Chinese community centre here complete with a school to teach the children to read and write Chinese characters. Ibu showed me the certificate dated 1927, which her grandfather gained from the Sultan giving his permission to produce batik .

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Lina, a 5th generation batik maker with one of her wonderful batik tablecloths.

Lina’s now sells mainly to big stores in Jakarta, but they still make batiked altar cloths for the Chinese neighbours to buy at New Year, and the long cloths used to carry babies embellished with dragons and double happiness symbols. They also make beautiful megamendung cloths in the traditional colours; red, blue and white.

One year I came to the workshop just as two pieces were being finished. They were dyed in a red dye made from the roots of the mengkudu tree (morinda citrifolia) and a blue dye made from indigo. I swallowed hard when I heard the price, and bought one of them – now I wish I’d bought them both.

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Heri outlines the storm clouds pattern in wax. The first stage of the process.

To make a perfect megamendung cloth, the parts which will be white and blue are first outlined and then filled in with a thick, strong wax. The cloth is dyed a deep rich red colour. If the dyes are chemical, then this is a quick process taking just a few minutes. If they are plant dyes – or rather the “mengkudu” root dye, then this is a much more lengthy process. The cloth will be dipped and dried up to a dozen times.  Then that thick layer of wax is removed in very hot water and the next waxing process starts. First the red parts and the white parts are protected with wax and the cloth is dyed pale blue (chemical or natural indigo) and the blue layers are built up gradually in this way from the palest blue to the darkest. The more layers there are, the more times the cloth has to be waxed and dyed, and the more expensive it is. Mine has seven layers. Finally all the wax is boiled out and the cloth is finished. No wonder they don’t make more than a couple a year. The blue clouds seem to float and hover above the red background, and all in all its one of my favourite batik cloths ever.

Megamendung designs have been adopted by Cirebon and you can see them on street signs, wallpaper, school uniforms and, of course the trains. There was absolute outrage when it was reported that the perfidious Malaysian were trying to get it patented as one of their own National designs.

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Children in Java have a very rich street life!

Anyway back to Trusmi where we have spent a day reminding ourselves how to speak Indonesian, buying, bargaining and laughing with the sales girls in various shops. Just before we are ready to go home, the rain starts. Not just a drizzle or even a downpour but a deluge which forces us to stay for another half hour in the shop where we’re trapped. The road fills with mud brown water, the motorbikes come to a standstill, and soon the kids come out to cavort around and soak themselves.

Welcome to Java! We may be appalled at the poverty, the degraded environment that people live amongst, the overcrowded streets and the level of hassle but I have a feeling that it won’t be too long before we are hopelessly in love with it all over again.

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