About two months ago a good friend, Lyn Shwaiko, came to the Threads of Life office with a number of old textiles that she wanted to be identified. One textile jumped out for me. Though I didn’t know exactly where it was from, I had a sense I knew: handspun with a bold black centerfield and indigo blue motifs on the side panels made me think immediately of the island of West Timor. We asked if we could keep the textile and bring it with us when we next went to Timor. Our friend readily agreed to lend us this beautiful piece as she knows our work is to revive textile traditions when the opportunity presents itself, and this was opportunity was knocking at the door!

The mystery cloth that opened more doors than expected

Wenten and I felt it was likely from Insana but I wondered also if it might be from Lamaknen. Maybe this was because I had never been to Lamaknen and was secretly looking for a reason to visit this very eastern area, bordering what is now the country of Timor Leste. After a week of travel to our other communities we made our way to Atambua and the next day headed into Lamaknen. We reached a beautiful hilltop village called Kewar and sat with weavers who showed us their textiles. Nothing was like the textile we were searching for, though many were similar to textiles we had seen in Bobonaro in Timor Leste which was distantly visible from where we were sitting. Then an older woman came and joined the younger women clutching a textile she said she just finished. My breath caught as she opened a simple stripped, handspun, natural dyed man’s hip cloth with Morinda reds and deep indigo blues. She called the cloth a Tais Bule’en. Both Wenten and I fell silent. It was not Lyn’s cloth, but it is not often that one comes across a textile that has this kind of charisma.

Lamaknen’s traditional house was equally powerful. That is still plays a major cultural role for this community deepened our commitment to return. “During the war in Timor Leste, most communities took down their traditional houses rather then have them burnt down,” explained one of the elders. “We did not and our traditional house was never threatened as it would become veiled in heavy mist and became invisible to anyone who approached with malicious intentions.”

Traditional house in Kewar
Mountains of Timor Leste in the distance

We drove further down the mountain and met a few more weavers making Tais Bule’en and with this we made up our minds: we have to find a way to keep visiting this area while there were still weavers who know how to make this cloth. Our Timor schedule is already packed full and is over two weeks long visiting almost tewnty remote weaving groups. “But it’s our mission,” said William when I told him about this find that night. “It would feel wrong if we did nothing when these women need income and this tradition could disappear.”

Still feeling excited about this new discovery the next day, we set out to visit our other communities westward and look for the origin of our mystery cloth. We were in the region of Insana visiting a new weaver that Wenten first met a year ago. We showed Wihelmina the cloth and she instantly knew the exact village where it was from. “Subun,” she nodded. “These are Subun motifs. Every area of Insana has distinct motifs and patterns,” she explained. The mystery cloth had found its home.

Wihelmina with a traditional Insana textile made with indigo
Man’s hip cloth containing full buna from the Threads of Life Collection

Over fifteen years ago we began looking in Insana for weavers to make the beautiful blue-black ikat textiles that this region had been famous for. However, in the 1980s, Margareta Taub Kapitan, who was married to the Insana king, decided it would be good if Insana weavers created a cloth that would be valuable and create an overall identity for the region. This became a textile fully covered with warp wrap buna technique using bright store-bought threads. These cloths often require up to a year to complete! The women took to the task until most Insana weavers – particularly young women who liked the new bright trend – were fully entrenched in making this buna textile.

Over the years, when we asked if weavers could or would be willing to make the indigo ikat textiles, the answer every time was, “No, it takes too long and we like doing this!” So we had left it, until this trip. In talking to Wihelmina it was clear that there were some women who did want to continue the blue indigo and ikat work of long ago. Showing us her own beautiful ikat-dyed buna-free textile, she said passionately, “This is what our ancestors made and it is what I will continue to make. Our ancestors gave us the dye plants and the motifs to make these textiles…” she trailed off as she jumped up to lead us round her house to her seven indigo pots.

Wihelmina and indigo pots
Man’s hip cloth by Wihelmina from the Threads of Life Collection

Later in the day we met several other indigo dyers and were told of more who were still making ikat textiles. All of the women were in their fifties. So perhaps the old work had never died out despite the buna trend. Rather it had, amazingly, taken us fifteen years to discover it, testament to how much time it sometimes takes working in communities. Our thanks go to Lyn Shwaiko in Bali who lent us her cloth and set us out to discover that the work is still alive and the weavers are willing! Stay tuned to what textiles arrive in the Threads of Life gallery from these areas by the end of this year.

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