Indonesian Textile Arts

In rural Indonesia, seasons are stitched together with cotton (Gossypium genus). Late in the rainy season, farmers plant local varieties of cotton between rows of corn or other crops. When the rains stop, they bring in the harvest, and leave the cotton to mature. As the weather grows hot and dry, the bolls swell and burst open, and puffs of white cotton fiber spill into the sunlight.

Mature cotton, West Timor

In much of the country, the dry season brings most agricultural activity to a halt. Women fill the gap with cotton: they harvest, clean, spin, dye, and weave it until they are needed in the fields once more. Many families subsist on the produce of their gardens and barter with their neighbors. Cotton textiles provide the cash income to cover taxes, school fees, and medical expenses.

Spinning thread, Watublapi, Flores

Women remove the cottonseeds with deft fingertips or a homemade cotton gin. They clean the cotton by plucking a taut wire in the pile of bolls. The wire catches the fibers, separates them, and threshes away debris. The weavers roll up small handfuls of the fluff, and set them aside for spinning. Often a family’s entire harvest provides enough cotton for only one large textile.

Cleaning cotton, Lembata

Women spin thread on drop spindles as they hawk goods at market and gossip in village squares. They perch heavy loads atop their heads, and leave their hands free to spin as they walk. A drop spindle is basically a weighted stick, easy to make and to carry, if not easy to use. Spinning thread takes nimble fingers and a feel for the fiber that comes only with experience.

Spinning thread, Lembata

Homemade, hand-powered spinning wheels spin thread far more efficiently than drop spindles. An expert wheel-spinner works at a clip, manipulating the spindle with her toes and drawing out the fibers with her fingers. A wheel requires the spinner’s full attention, and many women prefer drop spindles, which allow them to multitask. Centuries after their invention, spinning wheels have not yet penetrated every part of Indonesia.

Magdalena Kartini and Theresia Karolina
spinning thread, Watublapi, Flores

In the dry islands of eastern Indonesia, communities grow with the lontar palm (Borassus flabellifer). Lontar leaves thatch villages of lontar-post houses. Locals in lontar-leaf hats carry lontar sap in lontar-leaf baskets, and boil it over lontar-leaf fires while they sit on lontar-leaf mats. In Bali, lontar-leaf books preserve the knowledge of past generations. In Savu and Rote, music pours from sasando harps, made from bamboo and lontar palm leaf.

A house with a lontar-leaf roof, Savu

When a lontar reaches ten years of age, locals tap its flowers to harvest the palm’s sweet, milky sap. A single tree can produce up to 700 liters of sap per year. Fresh sap feeds entire communities through the annual dry season, when food supplies grow thin. Locals also ferment the sap into palm beer, distill it into a potent spirit, or boil it down into red-brown sugar.

A tree tapper harvests lontar sap, Sumba

The crowns of gabang palms (Corypha utan) tower above the seacoasts of the southeastern islands, waving fan-shaped leaves up to three meters across. Full-grown Corypha leaves are coarse and brittle, but young un-opened leaves plait well and yield strong, durable fiber. In Lembata, fishermen stock their boats with gabang-twine nets and sails woven from strips of young gabang leaves.

Corypha-leaf sails off Lamalera, Lembata

A gabang spends its thirty-year lifespan hoarding starch in its heartwood. During hard times, locals fell one, scrape out its core, and pound it into pulp. The crushed heart of one tree yields up to a hundred kilograms of powdery flour called sagu. On some islands, locals fell gabang trees to lure capricorn beetle larvae. No food contains more protein by weight than these larvae, called kabatek in the Timorese Dawan language.

Gabang leaves drying, West Timor

Locals soak, sand, and split the spiny canes of the rattan palm into durable material for furniture and basketry. Rattan provides tens of thousands of livelihoods to some of Indonesia’s most remote communities. Dwindling supply pushes rattan prices higher each year, and poor collectors scour the hills for any canes they may have overlooked. Threads of Life buys rattan products only from farmers’ cooperatives that cultivate sustainable supplies.

Rattan canes, Kalimantan