I had the privilege of joining the Threads of Life field trip to West Timor this August. Throughout our travels visiting the communities I gained a greater insight into the rich cultural meaning and stories carried within each handmade piece that makes its long journey to the Threads of Life gallery; and observed the incredible expertise of the hardworking Threads of Life staff in their carefully considered work with communities.
Each day we set out early with a long drive ahead to reach communities based in remote mountain villages. The access to numerous areas has improved rapidly with a recent influx in government funded roadworks, which raised interesting discussions on our journey as we pondered how greater accessibility will impact livelihoods, and what a potential increase in tourism could mean for evolving cultures and traditions.
When reaching a weaving group we were greeted as dear friends, and often like family. After the traditional welcome ritual of passing and chewing serih pinang (betel leaf with areca nut and lime), we would be generously served sweet coffee or tea along with popcorn, or banana chips cooked in fresh coconut oil, or steamed sweet potatoes.
After a lot of catching up and laughter we would eventually be invited to shift our attention to the pile of textiles or crafts that had begun to grow before us as group members arrived with their latest pieces. The huge variety of work between communities made opening the textiles in each village an exciting delight. Ranging from detailed ikat motifs in deep indigo, to panels of bold Morinda red, or incredibly fine supplementary warp wrapping on traditional betel nut bags — our eyes were spoilt to view the stunning diversity used to express these living cultures.
The pieces that we choose to buy reward the highest standard of work. This is driven by Threads of Life’s unwavering commitment to preserving the quality of local traditional textiles and natural dye practices that are in danger of disappearing. Some of the larger and more active weaving groups presented as many as eighty textiles during our visit. Yansen, our team member from Timor, would respectfully examine each piece in great detail, seeing elements that only an incredibly well-trained eye that is highly knowledgeable in dyeing and weaving techniques, as well as local culture, can see. Yansen’s comments would prompt great discussions with the skilled artisans, inquiring for example about an unusual design element or the meaning of a motif that we hoped to better understand. This constant curiosity and desire to build on our understanding of the local cultures and cultural objects we work with is imperative to our field visits, as we hope to support the pride and ownership that communities feel as they continue their traditions.
Arriving in Malaka we met with a cooperative of weavers under the shade of lofty Morinda citrifolila trees. The bark of the root of these trees had been used to create the rich red coloured threads seen in the textiles before us. We were delighted to learn that these trees were planted eleven years ago as the result of the group attending the first Nusantara Weavers’ Festival organized by the Bebali Foundation’s (Threads of Life’s non-profit sister organization). At the festival the women were inspired by what they learnt about environmental conservation and sustainable harvesting of natural dye plants. This led them to plant the Morinda trees that were now towering over our meeting, acting as a visual testament to the impact of Threads of Life’s ecological preservation work.
The income stream generated by Threads of Life’s work in the rural communities we visited is extremely significant. In each community, after deciding which textiles we would like to purchase, we would sit together in a circle with the whole weaver group to agree on a fair price for each piece with the artisan. One-by-one, each weaver would then come forward to collect payment for their pieces. In one village it was heartwarming to join the whole circle in clapping and cheering as each weaver received her money.
More than once we arrived at a village to find a weaver and her family now living in a newly constructed home. Improvements in living conditions such as these are undoubtedly assisted by the access to markets and fair prices made possible by Threads of Life. The weavers of one particularly remote cooperative shared with us that without us making the journey to visit and purchase textiles from them three times per year, their husbands would need to leave to find work in the palm oil plantations in Malaysia, likely on long-term contracts with uncertain conditions.
The business relationships I observed between the local artisans and regularly visiting Threads of Life field staff are full of respect and cooperation. These relationships have been built over many years, with the ways of working together jointly determined with the artisans and driven by the community’s priorities. For example, some communities struggle to access fairly priced commercial cotton threads of an acceptable quality in their local markets, with bundles often a mix of synthetic threads that will diminish the quality of the natural dye process. Therefore part of our visit involved bringing bulk threads to those communities who had requested them; making the high quality materials available for weavers to buy at bulk cost-prices, and even offering gradual payment arrangements when appropriate.
Similarly, in some villages the talented supplementary weavers have now decided to solely focus on weaving rather than the time consuming natural dying process. As a result, Threads of Life continues to support this group by bringing fairly priced threads natural dyed by other Timor communities or the Threads of Life natural dye studio in Bali, and of course continuing to purchase their finished textiles.
It was inspiring to see in action how an ethical business model that works together with communities in a culturally sensitive manner can richly benefit everyone involved, and successfully assist weavers to continue their living traditions in the way that they chose.