Clothing has always straddled the line between art and function. Born out of necessity, methods of creating and wearing textiles have evolved to represent cultural values as well as individuality. With evidence of its existence dating back 27,000 years, weaving is one of humanity’s oldest activities. It is also one of the most universal, as it manifested across almost all human settlements – with hemp in the Middle East and Africa, cotton in the Americas, silk in Asia, and wool and linen in Europe. No other artform is as entwined with so many aspects of life. A region’s textiles reflect its natural resources in the materials used, the sartorial needs and aesthetic preferences of the population, as well as the myths and histories represented in the patterns and motifs.
These days, it’s easy to take textiles for granted thanks to the industrialization of manufacturing. But in remote islands of Indonesia, it is possible to see the manual craftsmanship that was once the norm. Dyestuff such as indigo, morinda and mango tree bark are harvested by hand, then fermented, pounded or boiled. Cotton is picked, cleaned and spun with tools made from local wood, coconuts or shells. Looms and weaving tools are usually carved by the men in the village.
The incorporated designs, symbols and colors are intimately connected to a village’s beliefs and way of life. For example, the weavers on the small island of Savu are known for the rich russet tones they achieve with their morinda dye. Each weaver can trace her matrilineal line back to one of two sisters and the ancestors of each line wove particular ikat motifs into their clothing.
By creating and wearing cloth that is a result of generations of tradition, the people embroider the past into the present. Many of these villages have no written records and weaving is their way of preserving their unique stories and history. It plays a role in every stage of a person’s life. Babies are strapped to mothers’ backs in slings woven at home. Certain patterns and symbols are worn to ward away evil. In some villages, a woman is not considered eligible for marriage until she has become competent in weaving. The dead are buried wearing beautiful pieces bearing family motifs, which will allow their ancestors to identify them in the afterlife.
Weaving is also an artform that is intricately linked to womanhood. Historically, women’s access to the arts, especially writing and painting, has been limited or even nonexistent, but weaving and textile creation have always been viable and celebrated channels for women to express their voices. It is no coincidence that every known god of weaving is female.
Unfortunately, it is harder now for women in these villages to make a living as weavers, and many of the younger generation are emigrating to find employment. There is a real possibility that this art and all the history it carries could be lost. Those interested in learning more about this ancient tradition or learning how to use a loom themselves are encouraged to reach out to Lynelle Barrett, who was instrumental in writing this post.
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An Irish-American residing in Singapore, Laura Jane O’Gorman Schwartz is a writer of fiction and non-fiction. Her work has been featured in publications such as The Wall Street Journal and The Shanghai Literary Review.