Indonesian Textiles – The Symbolism of Textiles

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The spinning and dyeing of yarns and the weaving of them into pieces of cloth was Traditionally

Regarded as symbolic of the process of creation, and of human birth in particular. Weaving was generally an exclusively female function. Men were permitted to participate only in the dyieng of certain colours of the trhead, analogous with their role in human conception.Dyeing sessions required the utmost privacy – partitions were often set up around the dyeing areas Trepasseres were publicly expelled and punished by being made to taste the dye, for it was believed that otherwise the dye would spoil. Dyers were forbidden to speak of death pregmant, menstruating or sick women were barred.

The mounting of the threads upon the loom was done on an auspicious day, for at other times the threads would break. In some coastal villages this meant a full moon and a high tide. If a death occurred in the village, the weaving would stop at once, otherwise the spirit of the departed would exact vegenance, bringing sickness upon the weaver and causing the threads to lose their strength. A finished product was sanctified by such metaphysical and psychological associations, and this is perhaps why certain textile were traditionally regarded as powerful objects that could protect the weaver and which were necessary for the performance of magic and life-cycle rituals.

An entire language of textiles developed. For example, the brown and white ragidup (pattern of life) cloths of the bataks were presented to a woman seven months pregnant with her first child, as a “soul cloth” (ulos ni tondi). Her inlaws wpuld drape it around her shoulders and then the pattern would be “read” by a knowledgeable elder. The sacred maa cloths of the Torajans of South Sulawesi are still necessary for the performance of all maor rituals as decorations and offerings. A divine origin is ascribed to the threads of qhich they are woven, and they are carefully kept in special baskets. Some maa are considered effective for the population of fertility spirits, and opening a powerful cloth is said to bring immediate rainfall.

On many islands, specific textiles are required as payment of the bride price and on the island of Buton, small squares of cloth were used for centuries as currency. The best known Indonesia ritual textiles are so-called “ship cloths” once found in several areas of South Sumatera. The motif they have in common resembles a ship, or sometimes also a bird: a central platform with one more angularly extended arms. Human figures are generally depicted on the ships, often together with a variety of plants, animals and valuable objects – a kind of Noah’s ark. This ship motif was a frequent design element in traditional Indonesian art and architecture, and not surprisinngly, it seems to be associated with concepts of change and the passage of time. Up until the 19th century, a ship cloth was essential for the performance of all important South Sumatera life cycle rituals: rites of birth, circumcision, marriage and death.

Certain cloths, colours and motifs were also set aside for the exclisive use of kings and nobles. Such sumptuary restrictions are a common feature of all pre-modern societies; the wearing of designer labels today can be thought of as a similiae attempt to express class distinction through costumes. In Indonesia, not only class distinctions but also specific courtly duties were once designated by a particular fabric.

–> Read Also : Indonesian Textiles – Primitive Textiles

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