Threads Of Life

Revitalizing Traditions

Skills Revitalizing
A
s marriage gifts and everyday wear, as offerings to the ancestors or trade goods for cash or barter, traditional textiles have played integral parts in the social, spiritual, and economic lives of the peoples of Indonesia for more than 2,000 years.

Today, Threads of Life helps to uphold those diverse and venerable traditions. All Threads of Life textiles are produced by traditional methods. Occasionally the women ask us, “What motifs and techniques should we use?” We always reply, “What did your mother and grandmother do?” Their textiles are not copies of classic antiques, but the latest evolutions of living traditions, re-felt and re-imagined by the women who weave them.

Threads of Life encourages weaving communities to revive techniques of weaving and natural dyeing that are in danger of disappearing. We provide economic and technical support while cooperatives research and rediscover local practices, a process that can take years to complete. The result is a sustainable, natural, traditional method of textile production, with complete cultural integrity. The process and the results move the weavers to great pride of ownership, and inspire the extraordinary quality of their work.

See also our Traditional Techniques  and  Craft Materials below.

Traditional Techniques

The Basics of Weaving  ●  Loom Mechanics  ●  The Backstrap Loom  ●  Ikat Tieing  ●  Ikat Dyeing  ●  Double Ikat  ●  Batik  ●  Supplementary Weft Patterning  ●  Supplementary Warp Patterning  ●  Floating Warp Patterning  ●  Slit Tapestry Weaving  ●  Warp Wrap Patterning

THERESIA KAROLINA, WATUBLAPI, FLORES

The Basics of Weaving

The concept of weaving is simple: interlace perpendicular sets of threads to form a fabric. Most traditional Indonesian textiles are woven on backstrap looms. The loom holds the lengthwise threads, called warps, under tension, while the weaver passes a crosswise thread, called a weft, between them. In a plain weave, the weft passes over one warp, below the next, over the next, and so on to the edge of the fabric.

Loom Mechanics

On a simple loom, sticks of bamboo and polished wooden blades help the weaver raise and lower the appropriate warps, open a space for the weft, and beat each weft thread into place. Advanced looms can have over a hundred parts, arrayed in careful order. Indonesia’s many peoples use looms of varying complexity, but every one requires patience, skill, and physical strength.

A WEAVER IN MATABESI, BIBOKI, WEST TIMOR

The Backstrap Loom

The weaver ties one end of her loom to a wall, a tree, or stakes driven into the ground, loops a strap or a wooden yoke behind her back, and leans forward and back to control the tension of her loom. If the tension is uneven, the cloth will slant as she weaves. Backstrap looms are portable and easy to store, and are often made at home.

PARTIALLY TIED IKAT THREADS, LAMBANAPU, SUMBA

Ikat Tieing

Indonesian weavers are famous for a tie-dye technique called ikat, meaning “to tie a knot”. The weaver stretches her warp or weft on a wooden frame and ties strands of palm leaf or plastic raffia around small bundles of threads. After hours of tying, the bindings begin to form patterns: stylized plants and animals, motifs declaring clan and status, pictures and words that illustrate ancient myths and recent events.

A WEAVER IN LAMBANAPU, SUMBA

Ikat Dyeing

When the ikat threads are dyed, the bindings resist the color, and the sections of thread they enclose remain white. At this point, the weaver might remove the bindings, arrange her threads on the loom, and begin to weave. Or, she could remove some bindings, add others, and re-dye with a second color. By adding and subtracting bindings throughout the process, she imbues her work with varied depths of color.

Double Ikat

In Tenganan, Bali, weavers tie and dye the same pattern on both the warp and the weft, a technique called double ikat. Every pass of the weft in a double ikat must be set in place by hand, or the motifs will not register clearly. Using long fingernails or special picks made from cow-bone, a double ikat weaver will spend up to nine months slowly bringing the picture into focus.

Techniques

Batik

When the ikat threads are dyed, the bindings resist the color, and the sections of thread they enclose remain white. At this point, the weaver might remove the bindings, arrange her threads on the loom, and begin to weave. Or, she could remove some bindings, add others, and re-dye with a second color. By adding and subtracting bindings throughout the process, she imbues her work with varied depths of color.

Supplementary Weft Patterning

Some weaving techniques include extra warps or wefts. A songket weaver adds supplementary wefts as she weaves, picking out patterns that float above the cloth. The weaver creates her patterns by adding heddle sticks, which lift just a few warps for the supplementary wefts to pass beneath. Elaborate songket patterns can call for over a hundred heddles, which the weaver must raise and lower in perfect order.

Supplementary Warp Patterning

In Sumba, some weavers create patterns with supplementary warps, a technique called pahikung in Sumbanese. In this techniques, extra warps float above several passes of the weft thread. Weaving with supplementary warps is a slow and difficult process. In East Sumba, pahikung can cover entire panels with dense, intricate patterns.

Floating Warp Patterning

PAHIKUNG WEAVING, SUMBA

In West Timor, floating warps are used to create patterns with a technique called sotis in the Timorese Dawan language. Where a basic weave sees each warp yarn pass alternately over and and under weft yarns, a floating weave intentionally lifts warp yarns out of this pattern, leaving them above the base weave of the cloth. Where the warp yarns are alternately black and white, the floated white sections of warp create a stark contrast that presents the weaver’s intended pattern.

Slit Tapestry Weaving

RANGRANG WEAVING ON NUSA PENIDA

Instead of a single weft that passes through all the warps, some weavers use several weft yarns, passing them through only one section of the warps before turning them back again. This technique leaves small gaps in the fabric where the different wefts turn away from each other. The weavers of Nusa Penida make multiple-weft cloths that emphasize these even gaps, a technique called slit-tapestry in English and rangrang in Balinese.

Warp Wrap Patterning

BUNA FROM WEST TIMOR

When the ikat threads are dyed, the bindings resist the color, and the sections of thread they enclose remain white. At this point, the weaver might remove the bindings, arrange her threads on the loom, and begin to weave. Or, she could remove some bindings, add others, and re-dye with a second color. By adding and subtracting bindings throughout the process, she imbues her work with varied depths of color.

Craft Materials

Cotton Harvesting  ●  Cotton Ginning  ●  Cotton Carding  ●  Cotton Spinning with a Drop Spindle  ●  Cotton Spinning with a Spinning Wheel  ●  Lontar Palm Lifestyles  ●  Lontar Nectar Subsistence  ●  Gabang Palm Leaf Matting and Twine  ●  Gabang Palm Subsistence  ●  Rattan’s Versatility

Cotton Harvesting

Cotton Harvesting

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 edible 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 fibre spill into the sunlight.

SPINNING THREAD, WATUBLAPI, FLORES

Cotton Ginning

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 neighbours. Cotton textiles provide the cash income to cover taxes, school fees, and medical expenses.

CARDING COTTON, LEMBATA

Cotton Carding

Women remove the cotton seeds with deft fingertips or a homemade cotton gin. They card the cotton by plucking a taut wire in the pile of bolls. The wire catches the fibres, separates and aligns 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.

Cotton Spinning with a Drop Spindle

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 fibre that comes only with experience.

SPINNING THREAD, WATUBLAPI, FLORES

Cotton Spinning with a Spinning Wheel

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 fibres 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.

Lontar Palm Lifestyles

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 TREE TAPPER HARVESTS LONTAR NECTAR, SUMBA

Lontar Nectar Subsistence

When a lontar reaches ten years of age, locals tap its flowers to harvest the palm’s sweet, milky nectar. A single tree can produce up to 700 litres of nectar per year. This may be boiled down into a red-brown sugar that is stored as a syrup or as dried blocks and used as subsistence food by entire communities through the annual dry season when food supplies grow thin. Locals also ferment the nectar into palm beer and distill it into a potent spirit.

CORYPHA-LEAF SAILS OFF LAMALERA, LEMBATA

Gabang Palm Leaf Matting and Twine

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 fibre. In Lembata, fishermen stock their boats with gabang-twine nets and sails woven from strips of young gabang leaves.

GABANG LEAVES DRYING, TIMOR

Gabang Palm Subsistence

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.

Rattan's Versatility

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, including bamboo basket makers that colour their work with a remarkable red from the fruit of the Dragon’s Blood ratan vine.

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