From a distance, striking hilltop villages with thatched clan houses sprinkled throughout the lush countryside typify the island of Sumba in eastern Indonesia. Take a closer look, and a local craft that’s a little more subtle, but equally laborious, tells another story of this island’s history and culture. The intricately woven ikat textiles of Sumba, that dress the landscape, drape the homes and adorn the local people, speak of this place with their colours, patterns and long history of ritual.
Each piece is personal. It tells a story of the weaver, their social standing, their wealth and their clan. Textiles are used for clothing, for the home, for ceremonies. At important rite of passage ceremonies—births, coming-of-age events, weddings and funerals, as well as festivals that mark the harvest and planting of food crops—large numbers of textiles are exchanged.
Traditional dress is still widely worn. Men wear an ikat woven cloth known as hinggi to traditional ceremonies. Each design identifies the man’s clan and helps his ancestors recognise him in the next world. After death, his body will be shrouded with this cloth. The women dress in tubular skirts known as lau pahudu, which are a plain weave decorated with more elaborate techniques—the most common being supplementary weft. Crafting the patterns is an intricate, painstaking process where the weaver has to plan every element of the design in advance and insert as many as several hundred heddle sticks to complete the design.
The term ikat derives from the Indonesian verb mengikat, meaning ‘to tie or bind’. The pattern is created whereby a resist dyeing technique is used on the threads before the textile is woven. The thread is wrapped tightly with string, straw or plastic to ensure certain areas of the thread resist the dye. This labour-intensive technique means a large piece of cloth could take months, or even years, to complete.
Today, ancient ancestral symbols are combined with contemporary images drawn from other sources. Chickens or cocks, deer with their spreading horns, horses, snakes, fish and shrimp, all appear on the royal Sumba textiles. The skull tree and the mamuli, a gold ornament which is also an indicator of status, are also specific to Sumba’s textiles. Through interaction with other cultures, symbols from Ming dynasty China, which arrived on Chinese trading ships, and images from Dutch coins also make appearances.
The natural blues, reds, blacks, purples and browns, that are a trademark of Sumbanese textiles, derive from just two dyes: indigo blue, which is harvested locally from the shrub Indigofera tinctoria; and the Morinda red from the tree genus Morinda. It is with great skill and decades of practice, that these master dyers can manage this complex dye recipe and process to obtain such varying intensities of colour. Within these hues, generations of local knowledge culminates. Yet as the popularity of chemical dyes increases, a local craft as vibrant as the colours they create, becomes at threat.
Ikat pieces are now worn only at special ceremonies that are unfortunately becoming less frequent. The number of weavers is decreasing and this time-consuming traditional method struggles to compete with commercially woven cloth. While the lines of the ikat weave may be blurred, the importance of protecting this ancient craft is much clearer. Its beauty, its history, its role and its value, are all worth protecting.