Larantuka town, at the base of Ile Mandiri volcano.

Every time we travel to Lembata, we make the drive from Maumere to Larantuka, a city on the eastern tip of Flores. The drive winds between smoking volcanoes and follows the curves of yellow sandy beaches, and passes through many villages. Usually, in our hurry to get to Larantuka, we do not stop anywhere along this road, except to get a cup of coffee, or perhaps to buy some wild honey.

This time, our friend Dete told us to stop in the village of Bama, on the coast road about 10 km west of Larantuka. Dete is the local administrator for PEKKA on the island of Adonara. PEKKA is a national group that assists women who head their own households, either because their husbands have died, or have gone to Malaysia or Kalimantan in search of work, or have divorced or abandoned them and their children.

The PEKKA weavers meeting in Adonar.
Blepanawa weavers’ cooperative,part of the Bama PEKKA group.

The town of Bama has a PEKKA group of its own. Bama sits where the volcano Ile Mandiri slopes into the sea, but the women who participate in PEKKA there actually live in a string of small hamlets that stretch from the sea uphill towards the peak of the volcano. Old traditions remain strong in these hamlets, and many of the PEKKA women are skilled weavers and dyers.

Textiles are still used for ceremonies in this area, especially for the bridewealth exchange before a wedding. The family of the bride must offer nine textiles to the groom, including at least one of the highest class, a woman’s tube sarong called a kreot beloge. These sarongs are adorned with small clusters of cowrie-shell beads, a unique feature of Ili Mandiri textiles. The weavers collect the shells themselves, on the beach below the village.

The cluster of cowrie-shells are called kinge.
A weaver in Bama makes a narrow shoulder cloth.

Because these textiles are ritually important, every weaver stores at least one completed piece in her house at all times. Several weavers showed us beautiful textiles as examples of their work, then refused to sell them. “Come back next year,” they said. “We will make a new one. These ones we need to store.” It is a sign of the health and strength of their traditions that the weavers value these ritual pieces more than a quick sale.

In some ways, Ile Mandiri textiles are at a stylistic midpoint between Sikka, in eastern Flores, and Lembata, in the Lamaholot islands further to the east. Some Ile Mandiri textiles are dominated by indigo, with many narrow stripes of ikat motifs, creating a similar effect to sarongs from the Maumere area. In other pieces, the chief color is a rich red-brown, which is more akin to sarongs from Lembata.

A woman models a kreot mowak miten, with dark blue as the dominant color.
A woman models a kreot beloge worn in the local style.

Women in the Ile Mandiri region wear their sarongs with the seams showing in front, which is very unusual; in most parts of the country, the seam is worn down the back. As a result, the seams of Ile Mandiri textiles are beautifully sewn, with complex stitches of white thread that stand out against the dark colors of the fabric.

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