I recently had a conversation with Tamu Rambu Hamu Eti in the royal compound of Prai Yawangu in Rindi, Sumba. As she sat with her grand-daughter on the front porch, I asked her how her remarkable knowledge of the weaving tradition would be passed down to her children.
“To truly be a master weaver one would need to learn from your grandmother starting as a small child. My mother died when I was young and when I was seventeen I was sent to university and did not return to Sumba until my father died, at which point it was decided I was to marry. It was here in Rindi that I learned in earnest the arts of natural dyeing and weaving from my sister-in-law, Tamu Rambu Yuliana.
Eti and her late husband Umbu Kanabu Ndaung have five daughters, all of whom went to university with most earning secondary degrees. Of her daughters, Eti said, “We are proud of them, but I want them also to deepen their understanding of the weaving techniques and the meaning of the motifs and their stories, as these are the stories of their ancestors.”
In 2018, Tamu Rambu Hamu Eti asked Threads of Life to document the complete weaving and natural dyeing process in the Sumbanese language for her children. Eti narrated this entire two-hour film as though she were teaching her children as she was taught. We documented fifty-seven steps of the weaving process. In doing this I became aware of how utterly precious these textiles are, not only as works of art but as objects that take months to complete and require the focus of a practiced meditator.
Taking the time to make sure there are no crossed warp threads makes the difference between a textile with brilliant clear motifs and motifs that are blurred and almost unrecognizable. “My fourth daughter has the character and focus to oversee this process as she is meticulous and focused in her attention. It would be better if she took on this step,” said Eti.
Three of the daughters are working together now, weaving and dyeing textiles while they work from home attending their children. “This gives us additional income and allows us to continue the work of our mother and our grandmothers,” said Rambu Meong.
For each step of the weaving and dyeing process betelnut is offered to the spirit of the cloth, “So that we recognize we are in the presence of an energy,” Eti told her daughters. “Honoring this spirit will be reflected in the end results of your cloth. If you honor this spirit and align your energy with it, the cloth will have charisma.”
With the death of Umbu Kanabu Ndaung, Eti and her daughters will have to set their weaving aside until after his burial later this year. Eti says, “Our focus is with Umbu and his journey into the next life.” Like others who have passed away before him, Umbu awaits his burial in the Uma Penji traditional house. He is wrapped in more than forty large hinggi blankets. During the wrapping ceremony I recognized textiles closest to his body as being woven by his grandmother.
In death, traditional textiles are the identifiers of one’s clan. These textiles beckon to the ancestors to help the deceased drift through the patterns of each cloth towards the ancestors in the realm of light.