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Posts Tagged ‘mengkudu’

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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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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.

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The UK Batik Guild Trip to Java November 3rd – 16th 2013

Getting there Well that’s a story in itself as Malaysian airways and so it seems other airlines too decided to do some strange rescheduling. Some of us ended up spending an unexpected night or even two in Jakarta (although some sailed through it all by travelling via Singapore) and I spent rather more time than I had anticipated at Jogyakarta airport waiting for late arrivals, but by Sunday afternoon we were all happily safe and sound at the Duta Hotel on Jalan Prawirotoman in the heart of south Jogyakarta.

Sunday evening- introductions and a Javanese wedding

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After introductions all round and a welcome gin and tonic, some went off to get food and six of us ventured out into the warm wet night for a visit to a local wedding. It’s not in a hall or a grand house but just in the street with a tarpaulin cover over it. There’s a stage where the bride and groom and their parents shake hands with all the guests and where a woman belts out popular Indonesian songs. Having put some money into the collection box, we are all encouraged to go and have our photos taken with the bride’s party. We slowly shuffle past the huge queues waiting for the food to be served all the time taking photos avidly of the beautiful girls in their lovely lace jackets and batik sarongs and the men in their batik shirts, and emerge elated at the other side. A short visit to the wedding organisers shop-house to see jackets, turbans, and other bits and pieces available to hire for a wedding. Our becaks are waiting for us and back we go after a great experience.

Monday – screen prints, Malioboro street and the shadow puppet show

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My very good friend Susi, who I have known for about 15 years, is going to be my assistant and confidante and local guide and she is there first thing Monday morning to lead us on a neighbourhood walk around the local area. We start with the nearby market which is in full swing: jackfruit, mangoes, chillis, tofu and tempe (fermented soya bean cakes) all kinds of ginger, very long beans, small turquoise fish 2 per basket, the “jamu” lady making tonics and pick-me-ups, gula jawa (round cakes of dark brown cane sugar) tiny little speckled eggs, chickens feet and heads, ladles and sieves made out of coconut shells, rattan fans and baskets,

After that, we walk to a silk screen printing factory which I have never known was there. Seven very long tables, and two man working efficiently together on the screen can print one layer on all the fabric in an hour and a half. They apply the first dye and then the long lengths of fabric are hoisted aloft overhead to dry and then they move onto another screen which blocks off the design of the first one and apply black dye.  In another room, the sewing machinists tell us they can sew 300 women’s kaftans in a day. They cost just 50,000rps (less than £3) each and they are ideal to slip on after a shower in this hot and humid climate. 50,000 rps is also the average daily wage of the workers here. They get their lunch thrown in but it shows the huge difference between our societies where our minimum hourly rate is more than double that.

We next call into a shop where all sorts of batik mostly old and second hand, and some real antiques are sold. We look at  stamped batik in the typical browns (soga) and indigo colours of Central Java and some beautiful hand drawn cloths from Pekalongan a city on the north coast, where the traditional floral designs were influenced by Dutch settlers. These batiks were made in the 20s and 30s before Indonesia became independent in 1945. Susi shows us how a sarung should be worn and I decide to take the opportunity to give an impromptu talk on some of the most common types of batik motif to look out for. These are:

  • parang – which means “knife” the diagonal design
  • semen – the organic design with tendrils and lots of little hook infills which is the type of Javanese design which inspired William Morris when Javanese batik was first exhibited in Europe in the 19th century
  • kawung – the four petalled design.

By now dripping with sweat we are all ready to get back and dive into our lovely swimming pool, the waterfall running down over the rocks. A great morning. Thanks to Susi for her expert local knowledge and for taking us right off the tourist track!

Later, after a talk about the wayang kulit leather shadow puppets, we get into becaks for a city tour. Becaks are bicycle cabs for two people (or one if you’re a bit on the heavy side!) powered by the strong leg muscles of your becak driver. There are hundreds – if not thousands of becaks in Jogya and the drivers are always desperate for a fare. We  get going, sometimes stuck behind buses belching out black smoke and sometimes veering wildly into the path of dozens of oncoming motorbikes , but arriving safely at Jalan Malioboro the main street of Jogyakarta. This famous street is lined with stalls selling shoes, fans, keyrings, shorts, T shirts, lighters, toys, puppets, clothes and all the souvenirs you’ll ever need, and on the other side batik shops, department stores, more batik shops and souvenir shops.

We walk or rather shuffle along frequently stopping to find out the price of things, try a bit of gentle haggling, or wait for the others. Luckily with Pak Murdin at the front and Susi at the back like a sheepdog herding her sheep we all arrive back at the same point to meet up with our becak drivers again.

As darkness quickly falls and the call to prayer starts ringing out we head down to the bottom of Malioboro past the monument to the popular uprising of 1st March 1949 which finally persuaded the Dutch to do the honourable thing and grant Indonesia independence. Then we go through the archway to the Kraton and the  high white walls on either side to Alun Alun Lor the northern square with its two massive banyan trees in the middle.

On we go to Griya restaurant formerly the home of a brother of the Sultan, full of lovely antiques and two sets of gamelan instruments, and a great setting for our meal, which is very Javanese and very enjoyable. Next we are treated to a wonderful ride to the Alun Alun Kidul (south square) where there is a huge crowd of people and an amazing array of fully lit up strange and wondrous electric vehicles in the shape of swans, elephants, peacocks, and more. Tonight is the Muslim New Year and at midnight there will be a silent walk around the 4 kms of the white walls of the Kraton, and for now there are plenty of people out to enjoy themselves.

We finish up at Sono Budoyo – one of the buildings of the Kraton , the Royal Palace, for the nightly wayang kulit shadow puppet show. This is a shortened (two hour) episode from the Mahabarata. The puppeteer sits cross legged in the middle with his puppets ranging from smallest to largest on either side of him, their sticks planted firmly in a banana tree trunk. He taps with his foot and manipulates the puppets with somersaults, twirls, and there are skilful fights between Hanuman the white monkey and one of the black monkeys. You can sit and watch the puppeteer and the rather dozey gamelan players and the giggling and very glamorous women singers or you can go round to the back and watch the shadows and fully immerse yourself in the drama.

Those of us who can stick it right until the end are rewarded with the chance to play along with the gamelan players. One of them said he had been performing every night for 9 years! Back home through the dark but still teeming streets to our very welcome beds.  And that’s just the first day!

Tuesday, a cap batik masterclass at Batik Winotosastro

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We cross the very busy Jalan Parangtritis and a little way up Jalan Tirtodipuran to Batik Winotosastro and are warmly welcomed by Bu Hani and her staff. Everyone is smiley and helpful. First of all we take a look at some samples of beautiful scarves and she explains that this is what we are going to make! Then we watch the 3 young chaps who will be helping us doing the cap work. Caps are copper stamps which are used to apply wax to the cotton. They are often very beautiful and little works of art in themselves. Batik Winotosastro has hundreds of them ranged on dozens of shelves, and we have more or less free rein. Hani explains that she always asks the young men to help with the workshops because they are more flexible in their thinking and enjoy new ideas whereas the old guys just want to do the same as they have always done and don’t like to mess with the  traditional designs. 

We are soon confronted with bewildering choices to make – what colours do we want our scarves to be? What caps do we want to use? do we want a border? what will go on the ends? what about the infill? Its a lot to think about but slowly we get our heads around it.  Once we have been given instructions on how to apply the cap carefully, with just the right amount of wax, the heat and the pressure just right, our kind and patient helpers go over it again to make sure the wax resist is really good. This all takes a while and it is after 1pm before we have all finally finished this first waxing. Over lunch in a large cool room upstairs, we look at some of the pieces from Hani’s personal batik collection and at some of her family photos. She is the fifth generation of batik makers and she herself is in sole charge of the family batik factory now.

Soon we go back down to where the dyers have finished dyeing our pieces and are boiling out the first application of wax, washing them carefully and then passing them on to be ironed bone dry so that we can get on with applying the next lot of wax. This layer is to protect all the parts which we want white and it is applied with the canting. We sit on little stools around the “anglo” the wax melting pot and with the help of a young canting worker each (they working fast and precisely, us slower and more sloppily) we manage to get the second lot of wax on. By 4 o’clock everyone has just about finished and now our slendang just has to go into the final dye bath and the wax boiled off again.  We can come and collect them on Thursday. 

It was an absolutely amazing day which gave us all a real insight into the work and skill that goes into “just” cap batik.

We really need that swim and our welcome tea and cake when we get back to the Duta Hotel. The dusk comes down quickly, the bats starts flying and muezzin starts up his song from the local mosque, and there we are in the pool. Bliss!

Wednesday, to Solo for Danar Hadi’s and Trewinddu

The Chinese Batik room

The Chinese Batik room at Danar Hadi

We are up an hour earlier today to get on our little blue and red bus for the two hour trip to Solo with our  Balinese driver Indra who skilfully avoids kamikaze motorbike riders and cars under taking and over taking. There’s never ending ribbon development all the way but with plenty of vibrant green rice fields in between and once in the city of  Solo, we go straight up the huge main street to the Danar Hadi batik museum, shop and factory.

It is indeed a fabulous museum with a very knowledgeable guide who shows us round all 11 rooms containing the most beautiful  batik from all over Java: Kraton batiks with their ultra conservative and ancient traditional motifs full of significance and worn until independence only by the Sultan, his family and Court officials: “merchant” batiks made by commercial workshops with their adaptations of tradition: Chinese batik made by or for Chinese settlers who have lived in Java since well before the Dutch, Portuguese and British arrived in the 16th century: Batik Belanda – Dutch batik depicting flower bouquets, birds, butterflies and even fairy tales and battle scenes made by Dutch and Indische women (half Dutch half Indonesian) in the 18th and 19th century. We also see some of my favourite designs “Tiga Negeri” (three countries) which was batik commissioned by Solonese merchants and sent to Lasem on the north coast for the red “mengkudu” dye, Pekalongan or Jogya for the indigo blue and back to Solo for the soga brown dyes.  I love the fact that they tried so hard to attain the wonderful strong and vivid red that they “head hunted” dyers from Lasem, but still couldn’t do get it. There was obviously something in the soil or the water of Lasem which made so special so it was worth the cloth travelling there specifically to be dyed.

From the beautiful, elegant and air-conditioned surroundings of the museum we pass into the hot, steamy factory with the acrid smell of wax and here around 80 men and 100 women work either at the cap tables or at their bamboo stands making batik. Talk about a sweat shop! We all feel the stark contrast and pass comment that Pak Santoso the owner could spend just a little of his enormous wealth (made from selling batik) on the conditions of the workers who make it for him. It wouldn’t cost a lot to put in ventilation, windows or more fans. The contrast with Hani’s lovely workshop at Winotosastro is extreme.

After lunch (desert was an acquired taste – steamed cassava with cheese and cream) we went to Pasar Trewinddu to have a look at the Antiques market and to try and buy some second hand copper stamps.

On our way to the train station, we drive through Laweyan – Solo’s traditional batik district where the lamp-posts are shaped like cantings and the streets are named after batik designs. The tall white outer walls of the batik manufacturer family homes and workshops in the narrow lanes provide a glimpse of a rich and fascinating past.  We catch the train back to Jogya , a very pleasant journey of just an hour and a quarter through vivid green rice fields, thatched rice barns and little shelters for the bird scarers to sit and shelter from the sun. Tantalising glimpses of Mount Merapi rising hugely through the clouds make us all reach for our cameras.

Thursday, the Kraton, a downpour and the Ramayana Ballet

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Today we are going to the Sultan’s Palace, the “Kraton” through lovely shady streets quiet after the noise of traffic outside, of Dutch style bungalows with  trees and plants everywhere.

We enter through the gates into the grounds of the Royal Palace and a lady guide shows us around  whizzing through her speeches as if she wants to get us processed so that she can go back for another tour. One of the Court’s gamelan sets  is being played by mainly women players and three ladies are singing in that peculiarly Javanese discordant high pitched style which is definitely an “acquired taste” (which I have totally acquired)

We see portraits of the past 10 Sultans and their family trees with leaves for the girls, fruit for the boys and tiny unopened buds for the dead children. One Sultan had 78 children so he has a big tree!

Everywhere in the Kraton grounds, there are beautifully dressed palace guards in the Jogya style brown and white batik sarongs, hand woven lurik jackets, batik turbans and the kris knife stuck into their waistbands at the back. Occasionally there are ladies wearing batik “kemben” breast cloths and sarongs. Luckily we are also able to see the Palace guards “cleaning” the wayang kulit collection (leather shadow puppets) although this seems to consist of laying them out on the ground and then sitting having a chat and a fag with their mates.

Next we stop off to visit a wayang kulit making workshop and the master explains how buffalo hide is prepared by stretching and polishing it and then carved by tapping out shapes with 31 differently shaped chisels and flattened with a sea shell before it is painted and the buffalo horn handles are added.

He shows us the beautiful leaf shaped “Gunungan” which is used at the beginning and end of a scene in the story and the meanings of all the symbols on it. The two Guardians of good and evil the snake winding up through the tree of life, the tiger for intelligence, the bull for power, the birds and butterflies, the monkeys signifying the family and social life and at the top the lotus flower. Who would have guessed there was so much in it? Well of course, anyone who knows anything about Javanese culture I suppose.

We hoped to go on to Taman Sari – the Water Castle, but first we are in need of a stop for a drink and a snack – and its lucky that we do because no sooner are we installed in a lovely little café than the rain starts chucking it down. It’s absolutely torrential and its clear that we’re not going anywhere while that carries on – but luckily the Water Castle Cafe has good food and a very friendly family so we don’t mind. When it clears up enough to venture into the small tiny back streets we jump through puddles to visit a few small independent batik workshops. One  makes huge batik panels which are used to make designer dresses and another who makes pieces made into bright shirts

We visit Susi’s dad and the house where Susi  lived as a child and where her husband Kelik lived next door – childhood sweethearts.

By the time we’ve finally all satisfied ourselves on the various things we need to buy, its too late to go into the Water Castle but we make our way back to the becaks through a pure white underground tunnel – part of the secret way that the Court could walk from the Palace to the Pleasure Park without going through the streets.

Later that evening we get back into becaks for the short trip to Purawisata  for the Ramayana Ballet performance, which has been performed every night for the past 29 years! The outdoor stage is beautiful and we have great seats in the amphitheatre. The two women singers and the gamelan players take their seats and slowly it begins, although not before the performance is blessed by a priest with incense and flowers.

The story is beautifully sung, played, acted and danced – tiny steps, swishing sashes and amazingly delicate and flexible hand movements from the women, incredible acrobatics and fire skills from Hanoman the white monkey, great bow and arrow work as well as grace from Rama and Lakshmana, macho posturing and fierceness from Rahwarna and Kumbakarna, great shoulder-work skills from Cakil with his jutting teeth, and great antics from the monkeys (including three little kids dressed as part of the monkey family)  All in all a wonderful night and the cherry on the cake is getting up on stage for a photo with the main players – you don’t get that at Covent Garden.

Friday – Giriloyo village ladies and the Royal Tombs

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 Today our first stop is to a wood batik workshop  where the sanded wooden bowls, plates, boxes, masks, keyrings, mirrors, fridge magnets and what have you are batiked in just the same way as cloth. They are waxed, dyed and then boiled out and varnished. The end product is superb and everyone finds something they like in the rather dark and dingy warehouse.

Onwards out into the green padi fields to the Bima Sakti womens batik co-op in Giriloyo, a village famous for it very fine batik tulis. We are soon sitting on tiny low stools round tiny waxpots. It’s extremely hot and sweaty and we apply very hot and sticky dark brown wax onto designs which have been traced out onto cotton squares. Everything has to be waxed very well and doubled on the back before the cloth can be dyed. It goes first goes into detergent, then acid salts and then the dye, its washed again and goes through the whole process again (all done in a series of plastic baby baths) before finally ending up in a big cauldron for the wax to be boiled out

We sit down to lunch and then get tempted by some of the beautiful hand drawn cloths which have been made by these village ladies including some sampler cloths which include the names of the designs. We sign the guest book and looking back through it see several names we recognise – this place may be out of the way but its a mecca for batik lovers from around the world.

Our indigo blue squares  are dry so we all pile back into the bus and drive on a little further to Imogiri.  Luckily someone opens a gate (for an appropriate tip) to avoid having to climb a huge flight of stone steps and we find ourselves at the top of a very high mountain where the tombs of the former Sultans of Jogyakarta and their families are. They are only opened once a week, but before we can enter, we must be dressed in appropriate style. So we are shepherded into a very small room where three ladies dress us in tight “kain panjang” and “kemben” breast cloths – breathe in, tug and pin! What a sight we are with our bare shoulders and tight skirts. We totter with difficulty up more stone steps and at the top wait our turn to enter the tiny dark room of the tomb of the late Sultan Humenkubuwono IX. Here we can sprinkle flowers onto the tomb, touch or kiss a sacred stone, say a prayer and slowly back out again. It’s hotter than a sauna in there. About a dozen people are waiting patiently to ask the priest who sits by his everlasting holy fire to convey prayers for them. The atmosphere is solemn and spiritual, which has the effect of making us somewhat giggly.

We drive back through fields of ripe rice until we get back to Duta at 4pm bang on time for a very welcome cup of tea, a swim and the latest teatime snack!

So far, so good. Everyone is enjoying themselves. The weather is hot and sticky but there’s not much we can do about that. It’s just what Java’s like.

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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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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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