It is thought that the technique was introduced from India. The distinguishing feature of Indonesian weft ikats, fashioned by tie-dyeing the weft threads of clocth before weaning, is that they are generelly produced in silk. Sericulture was probably introduced from China at a fairly early date, but it was only later, after Islamic trades began to popularize silk ikat fabrics made in India, that Indonesians seem to have begun producing them.
Weft ikats occur primarily in the Islamic coastal tranding ares: Palembang, Riau, Gresik and Ujung Pandang, but also on the Island of Bali. The Palembang and Bangka weft ikats are extremely sophisticated, done on silk in rich tones of red, blue and yellow, ofteh with supplementary gold threads in the weft. Indian, javanese and Chinese motifs are all employed, sometimes simultaneously, reflecting the cosmopolitan milieu of these tranding ports. Today, inferior examples are still produced near Palembang, and are worn on holidays and at weddings as part of a formal, ritual costume.
Tenganan Pageringsingan in eastern Bali is one of only there places in the world (the others being in India and japan) to traditionally produce the fabulously difficult double ikat-fabries decorated by tie-dyieng both warp and weft before weaving. These so-called geringsing cloths are dyed with indigo and mengkudu red, producing a reddish-purple design on a cream background. Loosely woven, some apparently imitate the Indian patola (also a double ikat). Others are clearly indigenous in design, such as the geringsing wayang kebo with its symmetrical groupings of wayang figure around a central four-pointed star. Considered by the balinese to be the most sacred of all textiles, geringsing cloths are used in many important ceremonies throughout the island, including tooth-filings and cremations. Within the village of Tenganan, wearers of these cloths were once said to be protected from evil influences and illness (geringsing means “without sickness”), but there are reports that Tenganan residents no longer consider the cloth to be powerful.
The fact that tenganan is one of the few Bali Aga (original – i.e. non-Hindu) vilagges on the island is intriguing. Either the geringsing cloth is of very ancient, pre-Hindu origin or the production of the cloth is surrounded by certain taboos which only the Bali Aga disregard.
It appears that a textile revolution took place in Indonesia after the 14th century, when Islamic (and later EUropean) traders began to flood the archipelago with Indian textiles. Not than Indian textiles were something new – they had probably been imported for centuries for the nobility. Rather it was the scale of the trade and its impact on local textile usage that was unprecedented.
It has been argued that the use of cotton and silk was traditionally the preserver of the Indonesian aristocracy. Warp ikats – the indigenous cotton fabrics of Indonesia – are very time consumming and hence expencive to produce. The same is true of silks and many vegetable fibre fabrics. In fact the production of all dyed spun-fibre textiles is extremely labour-intensive, and in a world where labour was at a premium, it is unlikely that any but the rulers or aristoctrats could have possessed them.
A democratization of textiles occurred as a result of the spice trade. Traders discovered that they cloud obtain valuable Indonesian spices (worth their weight in gold in some corners of the globe) in exchange for Indian cottons and silks. Indonesians, meanwhile, discovered that they cloud have fine textiles in exchange for easily gathered cloves, nutmegs, peppers and aromatic woods. Perhaps the most important innovation of this period was the cotton plain weaven now found throughout Indonesia and worn by a majority of people as the all-purpose sarung od body-wrap. Characterized by its simple striped or checked design, it was a signifikant advance over the cruder bark cloths and plaited vegetable fibre fabrics that the common man previously wore. these plain weaves today go under a variety of names and are produced in or around the great coastal trading centres founded during the Islamic period – on the north coast of Java, the north and east coasts of Sumatera and in south Sulawesi. The plain weave is found inland also, for instance in cenrtal Java where the striped lurik is a part of the traditional Javaense costume, and in the Minangkabau regions of west central Sumatera.
The Indian textile revolution extended also to fabrics that were considered rare and valuable, or even magical. The Indian patola, a double ikat silk fabric produced in Gujarat, became the single most influential and widely imitated textile in Indonesia. It was incorporated into the ritual life of many peoples and became part of the costume of kings on many islands, including Java where it was known as cinde. The bright, shimmering colours of the patola must have appeared quite unusual compared to the more somber reds, browns and blues of the native ikats. As fewer of the cloths were imported after about 1800, many weavers in Indonesia set about producing replicas in silk and action. Today the characteristic eight-pointed flower or jilamprang design is seen everywhere.
Another textile inspired by the flowering of trade with the Islamic world is the songket-weavings produced with gold- and silver covered thread importal from India.
The most famous songkets are those of Palembang – with glittering gold threads woven into bright res silk to form a fine geometrical pattern than often covers the entire cloth. Unlike the plain weave, in which the warp and weft threads alternate in a regular fashion, the songket is produced by “floating” the metallic weft over and under a number of warp threads at a time. This is done by laboriously counting off the warp threads into indivudual sheds and then inserting sticks, called lidi to guide the weft. Traditionally, real gold-plated threads were used but now only a kind of flat tinsel is available and gold trheads are reserved for special pieces.
The Minangkabau of west Sumatera are also known for their silver-threaded songkets, produced against a abackground of songkets are produced, from simple sarungs with small geometric gold or silver patterns, to wildly exuberants festive costumes combining gold and silver design in silk of purple, green, yellow and blue. Some Balinese animal and wayang figures are also executed in songket and some years ago, an Italian designer even began to use Balinese tinsel-striped cotton songket fabrics in a range of disco wear.
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