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Posts Tagged ‘warp’

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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Chengdu is another huge city (over 4 million) but we have decided to take it on and stay a few days – helped by the fact that Sim’s Cozy Garden Hostel is by far the best place we’ve stayed for quite a while. My God, it’s positively cosmic providing decent music in the bar, a huge library of dvds to play in your room and the sorts of foodstuffs we Westerners crave. The staff seem to enjoy being helpful and best of all they provide a map of the city and the bus system. It is of course full of young people, but that can’t be helped.

After a couple of days we’ve explored the local area, its park and wet market and enjoyed the “laid back”* feel of folk playing cards and mah jong under the trees. We’ve hopped on the buses like old hands and visited the city’s temples, markets and even “downtown”.

(* Lonely Planet’s favourite word)

Statue of Mao and fountainsA huge statue of Mao Tse Tung stands there in the middle of The Avenue of The People, his arm raised benevolently over the nearby Starbucks and McDonalds, the Citibank, and the shops selling Cartier and Armani. Chinese approximations of abysmal American rock “classics” play along to his fountains. Oh Mao, what has happened to your dream?

Actually Chengdu isn’t bad and it would be even better if the sun could just fight its way through the smog. Some parts of the city have been restored to resemble what China is supposed to have been like once with tea houses, cobbled lanes and handicraft shops.

These parts are regulated by the Chengdu Municipal Spiritual Civilisation Office and its rules are posted at the entrances. Amongst others:

  • “Don’t jump the queue”.
  • “Don’t chase or beat animal”
  • “Do not be out for small advantages”
  • “Don’t force foreign tourists to take photos”
  • “Do not utter dirty words”
  • “Advocate a happy and healthy way of life. Resist superstition. Avoid pornography, gambling and drug”.

Exactly!

Well, we’ve done our tourist bit, we’ve even been to the Chinese opera. What an experience! Somewhere between the sublime and the hellish loud. It included a hand shadow show, lots of very loud singing, a poignant puppet show, some very loud Chinese trumpet playing, a terrific scolding wife/contrite husband slapstick act and some very spooky instantaneous costume and mask changing. The VIP seats have tea bowls filled by waiters brandishing watering cans with extremely long spouts and the audience just love it all, shouting “Ho!” at the good bits.

And as if that’s not enough, we find that we’ve stumbled on to a second Silk Route – the southern route which connected south-western China with Burma, India and Persia. We’d thought we’d left the Silk Route when we headed south but we’re back on another one.

I’ve also discovered that Chengdu was once known as Brocade City, the river where the silk brocade was soaked was known as the Brocade River and silk brocade fabrics from Chengdu were highly prized and traded all along the Silk Route.

Following this up on the internet (yes, we have free Wi-Fi at groovy Sim’s!) leads us to search out the “Shu Brocade and Embroidery Museum”. We were prepared for disappointment, perhaps it would just be another excuse for a souvenir handicraft store. Instead we got one of the best textile museums we’ve been to – a fantastic exhibition, a great demonstration, very good English labels and all free!

The exhibition shows examples of amazing brocaded silks -reproductions of original pieces excavated from ancient sites on the Silk Route. These have been recreated on the museum’s painstakingly manufactured copies of the original looms. There are also breath-takingly fine embroideries and wonderful pieces of silk costume.

Downstairs there are four brocade looms. On one of them there is a young woman weaving a design of Sichuan opera masks. A chap sits half way back on a high platform – two people are needed to work the loom with its incredibly complex system of heddles, 16 pedals, sheds, shuttles and reeds. The chap up top is one of only two “masters” who know how to set up the loom so that it can produce the complex patterns required. It takes about ten years to learn it all.

There are 8,192 warp yarns which can be selected and manipulated to allow for endless possibilities and it’s these combinations which form the design. On average they can weave 5 or 6 cms. a day and this “Emperor’s” fabric sells for around £680 per metre!

Well, that’s the price they’ve put on it in the museum shop but I can’t say we saw anyone actually buying it.

I don’t suppose the project could possibly support itself through sales – the museum is a private initiative, with government funding. But to be able to watch skills and tools which have been used across the centuries and through the dynasties since 225 BC, was a privilege and an inspiration. Full respect to the team that put the whole thing together.

However, it has to be said that their skills are pretty redundant these days as this slow process was totally superseded once the steam driven jacquard loom was invented. This was followed by electric powered looms, and nowadays huge, power looms with integrated computers make our fabrics.

Sichuan brocade may be on the list of UNESCO’s intangible cultural heritage, but we just don’t have to do things that way anymore!

As if to prove the point, the same day we visit the art and antique market where there’s a stall selling brocade. It’s bright and shiny and rather lovely (or a bit naff, depending on your taste) A machine made silk jacket will set you back about 15 quid and a nice machine embroidered cushion cover £3. Obviously, on close inspection, the brocade woven in the traditional way is much more complex, precise and beautiful, and the hand embroidery is certainly way superior.

The thing is that in the days when Chengdu silk brocade was traded on the Silk Route, there were no power looms, no computer programmes and simply no other way of producing brocade. There were 2,000 workshops and 10,000 looms in Chengdu and everyone in the city had a silk brocade suit of clothes. So there were obviously customers, and if you wanted to dazzle with the brilliance of your outfit you just had to pay the price!

These days you don’t have to be rich to dress in brocaded or embroidered silk – we can all have it without the huge expense needed to make it.

So it’s almost impossible for us to imagine the wonder and delight people must have felt when they saw textiles like that, especially if they had come all the way along the Silk Route!

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