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Indonesian Textile Arts
Bali Island

Flourishing Traditions

While Bali’s frequent ceremonies are awash with bright textiles and beautiful dress, the weaving of Bali’s natural-dyed traditional textiles, including red ikat cepuk, black-and-white checked poleng, and silk songket, has been in decline for many decades. Threads of Life works with weavers in Sidemen, Seraya and on Nusa Penida to help revitalize these traditions.

Since the 1970s, a flourishing tourist industry has made Bali one of the richest islands in Indonesia. Travelers from around the world flock to resorts and spas on Bali’s white beaches, or wander the narrow paths between green rice terraces. Bali’s unique traditional culture also draws its share of tourists. Visitors crowd into ornately carved Hindu temples to hear gamelan musical ensembles and watch traditional dance.

Rice fields near Sideman

Balinese Hinduism pervades every aspect of daily life. Every married Balinese man belongs to a banjar, a community group that administers the village and tends local temples. Each morning and evening, homes and businesses are blessed with small offerings to local spirits. Every object gets blessed on certain auspicious days. On the day for metal objects, offerings are placed on cars and motorbikes, to honor their spirits and prevent accidents.

Tending a shrine at Rumah Roda, Ubud

Nearly every traditional Balinese ritual involves sacred textiles called bebali, which purify sacred spaces and offer protection from illness and malevolent spirits. In the last 30 years, jobs in the tourist sector and the growth of the cash economy have drawn many Balinese weavers away from their looms. Handmade, naturally dyed bebali, including red ikat cepuk, black-and-white checked poleng, and silk songket, have slowly been replaced with synthetically-dyed, machine-made cloth.

Ceremonial throne at Pejeng

Nusa Penida is a small, rocky island off Bali’s southeastern coast. For generations, women on Nusa Penida have been weaving red cepuk textiles, which protect the guardian deities of village temples. In recent decades, competition from cheaper, factory-made cloth has forced weavers on Nusa Penida to cut corners. Most have switched from natural to synthetic dyes, and few bother to teach complex natural dye techniques to their daughters.

Gede Diari, Nusa Penida

A growing class of prosperous, well-traveled Balinese recognizes that traditional textiles express Balinese culture more fully than factory-made cloth, and is fueling a new market for naturally dyed, handmade bebali. Threads of Life helps village cooperatives to reinvent and rediscover their lost natural dye techniques, and to spread that knowledge to their neighbors. Across Bali and Nusa Penida, naturally dyed cepuk and songket are reappearing in homes and village shrines.

Statue of Durga, Pura Dalem, Ubud

Many of the weavers who maintain traditional techniques live in marginal areas, where tourism has had a low impact. The village of Seraya lies in the rain shadow of Mount Lempuyang in eastern Bali, and receives rain for only two months each year. Such scant water cannot support the lush rice fields that grace the rest of the island, and the villagers subsist on corn, was beans, peanuts, and fish.

Terraced fields in Seraya

The locals grow cotton in the hill gardens around Seraya, and spin it into beautiful, even thread. Older, experienced women weave the handspun thread into bebali, such as the black-and-white poleng. Younger women weave smaller, simpler textiles that are made into saleable products, such as napkins and placemats. Threads of Life is helping Seraya’s Karya Sari Warna Alam cooperative to improve local dye techniques.

Wayan Sarim, Seraya

Patterns in bright metallic thread gleam on silken songket textiles. Until about twenty years ago, the finest silk and gold pieces were luxuries reserved for Bali’s high castes. Today, songket are within reach of more families than ever, and have become the ceremonial dress of choice for weddings and tooth filings across the island and across caste boundaries. Popular designs range from wayang shadow puppet figures to delicate floral motifs.

The wedding of Sujatmika, Tabanan

The small market town of Sideman, high in the Unda river valley, was once the seat of a small rajadom, and remains an unusually high-caste community. Weavers in Sideman have developed songket production into a cooperative, specialized cottage industry. Among the women are loom setters, pattern programmers, weavers, financiers, and overseers. The looms of songket weavers clack-clack loudly in nearly every family compound in the village.

A half-woven songket

In 1999, Ida Ayu Puniari began experimenting with dye plants, hoping to reintroduce natural colors to Sideman. Threads of Life connected Ida Ayu with dye experts from across Indonesia, who helped to perfect her techniques. She also worked tirelessly to salvage traditional songket designs that had been discarded as too complex or work-intensive. Today, the natural colors Ida Ayu developed and the traditional designs she recovered make Sideman songket particularly beautiful.

Ida Ayu Puniari