Feature: The Lesser Sunda Islands of Indonesia

Publication of this guest blog is for information only and does not indicate an endorsement of this tour by the OATG.

THE LESSER SUNDA ISLANDS OF INDONESIA

OATG member Jenny Spancake recently joined a Textile Tour of the Lesser Sunda Islands of Indonesia on which fellow OATG members David and Sue Richardson were the textile experts. Here she shares her some of her experiences:-

My husband and I moved to Kuala Lumpur in 1983. One of our first trips in the region was to Bali where a friend asked if I would buy her a piece of ikat; this was my introduction to this technique. As an embroiderer, I was fascinated with ikat and wanted to learn more about it. Living in a number of locations around the world, including around four years in Thailand and seven in total in Kuala Lumpur, I was able to learn quite a bit about the ikat textiles of Southeast Asia. However living in mainland Southeast Asia meant I focused on weft ikat, mostly done on silk, and these are the type of ikats we began to collect. With travels to India, Central and South America and Central Asia, I broadened the base of that knowledge. What was needed to close the circle of study was a trip to the islands of Indonesia.

The perfect opportunity came in May 2019 with a trip to the Lesser Sunda Islands with David and Sue Richardson. As these islands we visited are part of the province of Indonesia known as Nusa Tenggara Timur I will refer to them as NTT. Traveling with the Richardsons was a good choice for us as they are very willing to share the knowledge of Indonesia and its textiles that they have gained over many years. The Richardsons focus on the textile techniques and visit only villages that still do natural dyeing.   As my husband’s undergraduate degree is in Chemical Engineering, he was eager to travel with someone as interested in the chemistry of natural dyes as David Richardson is.   The islands of NTT were perfect – a gorgeous landscape with fascinating textiles still woven in the traditional way with natural dyes.

Cotton threads which were bound with strips of a palm leaf and then dyed indigo.

At each village we visited we were welcomed by villagers dressed in their traditional costume, dancing their traditional dances and perhaps the most unexpected joy, playing their traditional music. Videos truly are the only way to capture the magic of these moments. The music is not heard looking at pictures in books and the music is the way the spirit of the village is actually captured. We were entertained in one village by a man playing the hoe as the main performer. In still another village, it was obvious that when they had done the planned program, they continued to play and sing for the sheer joy of the music. These are the moments that only visiting in person can provide.

This man was having such fun and creating great sounds just by hitting his hoe with a stone!

A visit to the village of Lamalera was of twofold interest – of course, we saw textiles. But we also talked to the villagers about their traditional livelihood of whaling and saw a demonstration of how they actually practice it. It is very easy for us in the West to see whaling as only the large scale enterprise that has a negative impact on the existence of whales. We forget that traditionally villages existed in harmony with the environment and depended and still depend on the whales for food and products. Risking their lives to harpoon a whale is a different way of life. The number of whales taken by a village is also a small fraction of that worldwide. [Editor’s note: this is the village where OATG founder Ruth Barnes did much of her research].

A demonstration of traditional whaling from a small boat at Lamalera.

In every village we saw demonstrations of the entire process of creating a textile from picking the cotton, processing it, spinning, dyeing, tying, and then the weaving process. In NTT textiles are produced in cotton in the warp ikat technique. As stated above, one of the things that most appealed to us about this tour was its emphasis on natural dyeing. Natural dyes are making a comeback in some parts of the world, but it is in fact an uphill battle. It is more expensive to use natural dyes because it takes more time to create the desired color. Synthetic dyes are much quicker, so cheaper in the long run when the final price of the piece is considered. In today’s market it is difficult for a weaver to charge a price that reflects the extra time spent in using natural dyes. Also part of the price must reflect the time it takes to produce a multi-colored complex design in ikat. Therefore, what tourists generally see are textiles produced with synthetic colors and a very simple ikat design – which exactly describes my first purchase. But as I learned more about ikat and dyes, I began to desire the more complex, naturally dyed examples. Steve and I have always tried to buy the most well produced pieces as we travel to encourage women to keep weaving at a high quality. Weavers must be able to earn a fair wage so that traditional textiles can continue to be made.

Patterns showing naga, which is very traditional in many parts of Southeast Asia.

I plan to describe just a few interesting experiences from the trip. First, natural dyeing involves a complicated chemical process. Dyers in the villages use both inherited knowledge plus trial and error today to create a wide range of colors.   In NTT the two major colors are indigo (blue) and morinda (red). It is very interesting to see that each village had its own variation on using these dyes.   Indigo is perhaps one of the most common dyes used around the world. Morinda is less well known and I will concentrate on this dye.

Threads dyed with morinda at a workshop on Timor.

Please note that I have used the website of David and Sue Richardson, Asian Textile Studies, as my source for the information detailed here. A great deal more information is included on that website than I will present here. On this trip we saw very detailed demonstrations of how red and brown colors are achieved by using this dye.   This can take a huge amount of root to complete the process to achieve the color desired for the finished textile. Once the bark is collected and prepared to begin to dye, a complex process begins.   Cotton that is to be dyed with morinda must be pretreated and a mordant must be used to fix the color. In NTT the most frequently used mordant is the leaf or bark of the tree belonging to the genus Symplocos. I was intrigued to learn that what made this possible was that the tree draws aluminium from the soil and accumulates it in the leaves and bark. Once processed these produce aluminium salts that then act as a mordant.

However, this process does not work unless the cotton is prepared before the dye made from morinda is applied. The first part of this preparatory process is cleaning the cotton. This is done by washing the yarn in water filtered through wood ash, thus creating an alkaline solution.   Then the cotton must be soaked in oil made from the candlenut tree, widely known as kemiri. Oil is produced from the candlenuts themselves. I have just described in a very simplistic way how cotton is dyed with morinda; for those interested in more detail and the chemistry of this process, please consult the morinda page of the Richardson’s website. The final process of any dyeing sequence is to rinse the cotton in water and here was the insight that interested me most.   I had of course read about the dramatic difference credited to the water of certain production areas when oriental rugs are woven and then washed after their completion. But for some reason I never carried that thought on to natural dyes and cotton and silk textiles.   It was one of those ideas that floats around in your mind but then one day you suddenly say, “Of course, the water is the final important piece of the dyeing puzzle.”   Water is a localized issue; each source of water has its own particular chemical makeup and the minerals present are the final creator of the color produced by the natural dye in question. Pointed out by the Richardsons on this trip, I finally saw the obvious.

Adding alkaline ash water to the morinda dye bath.

Although the main colors that we saw produced were blue and red from indigo and morinda, on one particular island we saw an astonishing array of different colors – all from natural dyes. This was on the tiny island of Ternate where we saw how they made dyes from a huge variety of plants as well as sea sponges and, most fascinating of all, a gastropod called a sea hare. We were told they had dived at 5am to get these creatures, which release purple ink as a defense mechanism. The innards are also used to make a pale green color and finally the sea hare is cooked and eaten so nothing is wasted.

An amazing demonstration of dyeing on Ternate.

Another highlight was our visit to the workshop of Freddy Hambuwali on Sumba. Modern hinggi, a man’s cloth with a long history, are created with a very high standard of warp ikat and finishing.   We were able to see all of these steps, beginning with the drawing of the pattern on the warps. I was particularly interested in the beautiful shade of indigo blue produced here. The ikat threads are dyed with indigo and morinda but a different method is used in Sumba to add a yellow dye – it is painted on after the weaving of the hinggi.   Another Sumbanese method is used to finish the hinggi; the hinggi is turned and the warp threads become the weft as a band called a kabakil is woven on to the bottom to create a finished end to stop the threads from unraveling.

The hinggi produced here are very detailed and are made in a wide variety of designs. We also learned about the computation of bundles of threads to facilitate the process of tying and dyeing. I myself was most attracted to the hinggi that are so obviously based on the patterns of Indian patola cloths. These patola have been a high status cloth in Indonesia for hundreds of years and are preserved as heirlooms in many households in the islands.   The layout of many Indonesian textiles can be seen to originate in the design of patola. Involving complex ikat, these hinggi were for me personally the most interesting ones.

I have oversimplified all of the aspects of weaving and dyeing just briefly mentioned here and have omitted so much, especially the supplementary warp weaving techniques we encountered.

Supplementary warp weaving on Sumba. Here we are being shown how the pattern is kept on sticks.

And I have not even begun to describe all of the villages visited, the many rewarding encounters with villagers and all that I learned. I relaxed on the beautiful Ombak Putih with its attentive crew, delicious food and comfortable cabins, learned so many new things about textiles, experienced new cultures in majestic landscapes and made new friends. I doubt one can ask for more in life.

What I really wanted to express to readers is the great joy that I experienced throughout this trip, which is extremely well designed and lends itself to a constant learning experience.  We’ve been on many textile tours, quite a few led by textile experts, but none of these leaders have ever been so generous with their knowledge as David and Sue – they love Indonesian culture so much it’s infectious and inspires you to want to learn more We’re always looking for trips that focus on textiles and this one exceeded our expectations.

For full details of this tour visit the Tour page of Asian Textile Studies or email David and Sue directly.

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News: Focus on mud dyeing

Event date: 15 June 2019 at 14:00.

 

Following on from yesterday’s blog we now have the details of the second dyeing talk and demonstration.

“Amami Oshima is an island in the Ryūkyū archipelago, southern Japan. It is renowned for Oshima tsumugi, a kimono cloth dyed by dorozome (mud-dyeing), an ancient technique that gives a unique black colour to textiles. The dyeing workshop KANAI KOUGEI specializes in dorozome for Oshima tsumugi. Alongside their own products dyed using plant materials sourced from Amami’s unique natural environment, KANAI KOUGEI also dye fashion and interior objects for international contemporary designers. This is a rare opportunity to see the process of Dorozome by Japanese practitioners using actual materials from Amami Oshima in the UK.

This talk and workshop are initiated by designer and anthropologist Charlotte Linton, University of Oxford, who has invited Yukihito Kanai (vice-president/dyer) and Akiyo Shidama (maker/dyer) from KANAI KOUGEI to present with her a lecture about Amamian traditional textiles.

Following the talk, there will be a tour of the Dye Garden with Wesley Shaw, the Head of Horticulture at the Horniman Museum.

Workshop
In addition, a small number of participants will be able to dye a furoshiki (wrapping cloth) using dorozome materials brought from Amami. Due to limited materials and supervision, the workshop numbers are necessarily small. Lecture attendees are welcome to stay and watch the workshop.

Please note that this event is only suitable for children over 16.”

This event at the Horniman Museum in London is free and open to the public, but booking is necessary. For further details of the event visit the website of the Japan Society and follow this link to book. Please note spaces are very limited so early booking is essential!

 

A selection of mud-dyed textiles. Photo by Kentaro Takahashi for The New York Times

An excellent article by Martin Fackler on the economic issues facing the kimono producers of Amami Oshima appeared in The New York Times in 2015. He describes how 20,000 people were once employed in this profession, but that number has now shrank to 500. His article ends with the following words from Yukihito Kanai – one of the presenters of the Horniman event:  

“We need to become more like artisans in Europe or artists in New York,” said the younger Mr. Kanai, 35, who said he is one of the few “young successors” in the island’s kimono industry. “Even traditions have to evolve.”

The production of a kimono on the island of Amami Oshima is so meticulous that a single mistake could squander the efforts of every artisan in the process. The BBC series Handmade in Japan tracked the year-long transformation of the island’s famous mud-dyed silk into an exquisite garment. Although the full-length programmes are no longer available online, short video clips still are. These cover the various people involved in making a kimono – the starcher, the designer, the binder, the mud-dyer, the weaver, the inspector and the tailor. They can be viewed on the BBC website under the title Mud, Sweat and Fears.

For more information on mud dyeing (more correctly mud-mordanting as it is the tannin which produces the dye) see the work of OATG members David and Sue Richardson on their Asian Textile Studies website. David and Sue have also documented the process of mud-dyeing used by the last practitioner of this craft on the Indonesian island of Sumba and will be adding this to their website in the near future. In the meantime here are a few photos to whet your appetite!

 

 

 

 

 

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Article: Kisar Textiles

OATG members David and Sue Richardson are passionate about Indonesian textiles and recently have been researching the weavings of the small island of Kisar in the Lesser Sundas, to the east of Bali. As part of this research, last year they corresponded with Sonja Mohr, the curator for Insular Southeast Asia at the Rautenstrauch-Joest-Museum – Cultures of the World in Köln, about the museum’s collection of Kisar textiles. These were collected by Heinrich Kühn in 1888, Professor Alexander W. Pflüger in 1900 and Wilhelm Müller-Wismar in 1914. Sonja very kindly invited them to Köln to examine these textiles for themselves. The information gained during that visit, along with field research, has resulted in the publication of the final page on Kisar textiles on their website Asian Textile Studies. Below is their report of their trip to the museum.

Most of the visitors heading to Köln in December are there to see the Christmas markets, but we had a different objective in mind – textiles – and not just any old textiles, but textiles with excellent provenance collected on Kisar in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.

Textile heaven! A fantastic selection of Kisar textiles ready for us to examine.

We had corresponded with Sonja Mohr for several months and she and her colleague, Senior Conservationist Petra Czerwinske-Eger, had gone to great lengths to prepare for our visit. Christian Andert, the chief storekeeper, had brought the Kisar textiles from the main storage area to one of the laboratories so that we could all examine them in detail. All of the information they held on each piece had been printed out, along with questions it was hoped we might be able to answer together.

We started by looking at the sarongs, which had been prepared for us. These were more varied than expected, with some, such as the one below, having very little ikat but lovely rich deep colours.

A simple Oirata lau which might date to the late nineteenth century.

We then looked at the ceremonial sarongs, from both the Oirata and Meher communities and discovered that one Oirata tubeskirt had been mislabelled as Meher.

An Oirata mauwesi lau which had been mislabelled as a Meher homnon.

We then moved onto examining the male loincloths and it was again interesting to first see some very simple examples.

Sonja and David looking at a man’s simple loincloth.

The ceremonial loincloths collected in 1914 were just stunning – woven from fine hand-spun cotton with narrow bands of ikat and end sections of continuous supplementary weft.

A fantastic niala or irä from Oirata, which led to much discussion.

One of the unexpected highlights for us was the collection of waistbands, which really were little gems.

Analysing waistbands collected by Müller-Wismar in 1914.

We discovered silk threads had been used in some narrow warp stripes and the twinned end band of one of these.

Sue and Sonja discussing more waistbands collected by Müller-Wismar.

After two lengthy sessions we left the museum with a huge sense of satisfaction with our goal achieved, and looking forward to working together with Sonja, Petra and the Rautenstrauch-Joest-Museum – Cultures of the World in the future.

If you would like to read more about these textiles, along with many detailed photographs, please visit the Kisar page of our Asian Textile Studies website.

 

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Event: Textiles events in Norfolk

 

Norfolk is definitely the place to be this weekend!

It’s World Textile Day East at Mundford near Thetford and OATG members David and Sue Richardson of Asian Textile Studies will be giving a presentation on the fantastic textiles of the Indonesian island of Sumba. Yuza Sashiko Guild will be there from Japan, so you can find out how to stitch traditional hitomezashi sashiko and even have a go yourself! They recently participated in the World Shibori Symposium and will be exhibiting some pieces from their May exhibition in Yamagata city. The highlight for many visitors will be the Fair Trade market featuring Slow Loris (Chinese textiles), The African Fabric Shop, Textile Traders (mainly Asian textiles), Susan Briscoe (Japanese textiles), Tukuru Textiles (South America), and OATG member John Gillow (pictured above) with his usual eclectic selection.

Two venues in Norwich with an emphasis on textiles will be taking part in the annual Heritage Open Days – the Old Skating Rink and the Textile Conservation Studio. The Old Skating Rink is the home of the South Asian Decorative Arts and Crafts Collection with some fantastic pieces from across South Asia, including India, Pakistan, Burma, northern Thailand and Indonesia. The National Trust Textile Conservation Studio is housed in a converted barn complex where their specialist facilities enable them to treat the most significant and complex textile objects. Their conservators are a skilled and flexible team, undertaking textile conservation work for the whole of the National Trust and private clients. This is a rare opportunity to see important and unique historic textiles up close and personal and learn how they are cared for.

So many great things to see – why not make a weekend of it?

 

Textile Tidbits: Asian Textile Studies – Update

 

OATG members David and Sue Richardson have just uploaded the first of what will be two parts  to their website Asian Textile Studies. It covers the geography and history of Sumba from pre-history to 1866. Although this isn’t specifically about textiles the authors firmly believe that you need to understand a people’s history and culture to understand their costume. For example, the relationship with the Dutch led to new motifs in the Sumba iconography as shown in the photo above.

Part Two will eventually cover from 1866 to the present day, linguistics and ethnography.

They hope you enjoy reading Part One here

Textile Tidbits: Asian Textile Studies – Update

 

You wait ages for an update and then two come at once!

Following their research trip to the Indonesian island of Kisar last autumn, OATG members David and Sue Richardson have just uploaded a new section on the current state of textile production there to their website, Asian Textile Studies.

This new section looks at the textiles of the two different communities – the Meher and the Oirata – and includes a short video of how they spin using a small basket. It also discusses the unusual way they outline the warp ikat motifs after they are woven. They hope you enjoy reading it here

Textile Tidbits: Asian Textile Studies – Update

OATG members David and Sue Richardson have been working hard recently on the textiles of Kisar Island, Indonesia, and have uploaded the first two parts of what is intended to be a three-part section to their website, Asian Textile Studies. They hope you enjoy reading it.

Part I is available here, and Part II is available here. There is a great deal of well-researched, detailed historical information available here, both on the culture and textiles of Kisar, and it’s very well illustrated. I recommend taking a look!

Thanks for making this information available, David and Sue!

Textile Tidbits: New Website on Asian Textiles

David & Sue Richardson - Asian Textile Studies

OATG members David and Sue Richardson have just launched a brand new website this week: Asian Textile Studies. It is designed for those with a serious interest in traditional hand-woven Asian textiles, and thus should appeal to the vast majority of the OATG membership.

They have been working on this material for the last few years and have just uploaded the first pages, which focus on the subject of natural dyeing. Much more content will be added over time. They are inviting you to take a look, and to share this resource among the wider textile community.

The web address is: www.asiantextilestudies.com Have an explore and see what you find – there’s already a considerable amount of content.

Thanks for sharing this detailed information, David and Sue!