What does the future look like for the traditional weaving art form in Indonesia? Will it go the way of the obi and kimono in Japan where a few weavers remain in the cultural city of Kyoto where once there were thousands, and only the elite can afford their exquisite textiles as traditional dress for tea ceremonies? In this article I will follow the paths chosen by two Balinese weaving communities; one that has chosen the Kyoto model, and the other a fashion-based strategy.
The Indonesian communities where Threads of Life works are proud of their revived traditional textiles and natural dye traditions. People are willing to pay high prices so that their child can wear a traditional cloth for a high school graduation or use it as a gift exchange at marriage. In some cases, communities are paying higher prices than the global market (including Threads of Life) can afford to spend. Such examples are wonderful success stories, but I wonder how long such trends can be maintained.
A fascinating example of a trend that took Indonesia by storm is the rangrang textile of Bali. I found a textile in 2002 as a headscarf, called a tengkuluk, in a basket of textiles in an old woman’s house, on the small island of Nusa Penida, off the east coast of Bali. After a more careful look I saw the scrap was a lovely slit-tapestry-woven cloth that they called rangrang, which literally means “open” or “with holes”. These filigree textile with an open weave were used as breast wraps for ceremonial dances after it was determined that woman should not dance bare chested.
We asked the old woman if she could make this again and she nodded. In a year we returned and she had indeed reproduced the cloth. By the end of the next year, five women were weaving this cloth and Threads of Life was busy selling these lovely diamond-motife rangrang cloths.
East Seraya, a weaving community that Threads of Life initiated, also in 2002 after the Bali bomb, is directly across the straits of Nusa Penida. Weavers there saw the success of the Nusa Penida rangrang and started weaving it as well.
Within a few years the leader of this weaving community, I Wayan Karya, had turned the rangrang into an emblem of Bali traditional weaving. With the local government behind him, he even managed to get sponsorship from the national airlines, Garuda Indonesia, who ordered meters of the rangrang cloth (all made on backstrap looms) to be made into vests and jackets as a national uniform.
The rangrang had taken off and now it could be found in the major local markets of Bali, as print fabric with the rangrang design. The rangrang design appeared on sarongs worn to temples. It went viral in a sense: I found a woman in a market in Atambua on the island of Timor wrapped in a rangrang decorated textile; I saw a young woman in Sumba wearing shorts decorated as rangrang.
For the Seraya community, this was a huge boon, but the plant resources could not keep up with the demand. Initially, Pak Karya had a thriving garden of Morinda trees – planted at the Bebali Foundation’s behest – from which he harvested root bark to produce the red dye. But this garden could not keep up with the orders and soon Seraya began buying tons of Morinda from Java to meet market demands. The principles we had hoped our partner community’s would embrace relative to sustainable plant resources were abandoned as more orders came in.
Is the trend dying out? Either it is passing, or it is loosing contact with the weavers that initiated it, as Pak Karya struggles now to keep all the weavers employed. So what do the Seraya weavers go back to if there is no longer a demand for the rangrang? In fact, this community is ripe to simply become a production house for designers. But will such a designer be interested enough to come to this remote area of Bali and work with this community? Does the community have enough skills beyond the rangrang to work with such a person?
Now let us step back across the straits to Nusa Penida, to the community that first revived the rangrang. Here there remains a small group of weavers and the dyer I Ngurah Hendrawan. This group makes about a dozen cepuk ritual cloth for Threads of Life a year, and probably another fifty other textiles that are among the sacred Bebali textiles used for ceremonies. Ngurah also planted Morinda trees about the same time as Karya, and has since planted more each year. These trees are almost ready to harvest and Ngurah is waiting until they are old enough to use on his textiles. His red dye techniques results in a deep color for which this island was famous in the past. Ngurah chooses to go slow; his income is steady but it has not grown greatly.
What might be the options for increasing the livelihood of this small group? Years ago, Nusa Penida supplied red dye material for Tenganan on Bali where double-ikat geringsing textiles are made. When Ngurah’s trees are of age, he could begin to supply red dye root material from his Morinda trees to places such as Tenganan and Seraya. The price for this root product is constantly increasing as the niche market for high quality natural dyed textiles continues to grow in Indonesia. But I suspect Ngurah will be very careful to protect his own supplies, maintain his own production, and only sell his surplus as an extra source of income.