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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Batik, unlike ikat, is not dyed until after the cloth is woven. Batik artists decorate plain, finished cloth with designs in molten wax, which resists color in the dye vats. Artists draw and re-draw their designs as they add colors to their work. They use stamps called cap or draw freehand with a tool called a canting, following regional and ancestral traditions and inventing fanciful new designs and styles.
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 and West Timor, some weavers create patterns with supplementary warps, a technique called pahikung in Sumbanese and sotis in the Timorese Dawan language. In these techniques, extra warps float above several passes of the weft thread. Weaving with supplementary warps is a slow and difficult process. Timorese sotis rarely dominates a textile, but pahikung from East Sumba can cover entire panels with dense, intricate patterns.
Slit Tapestry Weaving
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
In West Timor, some weavers wrap knots of bright thread around the warps between passes of the weft, a technique called buna. A buna garment can take over a year to complete, and only certain communities take the time to make large buna designs. Buna masters carefully hide the ends of each wrapping, making the textile identical on front and back. The Timorese create electrifying buna patterns of explosive creativity.