April 17, 2006
(click on the small image for full screen image with captions.)
Ikat cloth from all over Eastern Indonesia reveals a striking similarity in basic elements of layout. The majority of textiles are composed of stripes of various widths laid out in the warp, which in the final garment appear horizontally on the wearer. Skirts and shoulder cloths alike are made as rectangular cloths with bands of ikat patterns, which interchange with a variety of small monochrome stripes. In most of the textiles, bands of solid blue/black or red/brown colour of various sizes are included in the design. In general the ikated patterns range from very simple dots to small geometric shapes or very large geometrical and pictorial motifs, so that the widths of the bands are dependant on the type of pattern. Some of the simpler and smaller ikated bands are repeated several times all over the textiles, whereas the main motif in the normally widest band of a woman’s skirt is restricted to two areas at each side of the cloth in symmetrical order.
A woman’s skirt or sarong consists of several panels sometimes up to five in which case it is a very long tubular skirt. The number of panels varies for each region and additionally is dependant on the purpose for which the cloth is made. The most common form is made from two panels, but in some areas (e.g. Sikka/Flores, Lembata) three or four panels are in use and essentially required for sarongs that are exchanged in marriages. The two outer panels have usually the same design and pattern, since the ikat was tied for both parts at the same time. The larger sarongs have a centre field with a different layout, but additional side panels are normally also symmetrical. In some cases the width of the panels are not identical, i.e. recent types of sarongs in Tanimbar, which have a much smaller top panel. 
Indonesian textiles in Museum collections all over the world are dated mostly from the last two centuries except for a number of trade cloths which can be dated back to the 15th and 16th century. However there is only limited information on the meaning of design and patterns in these textiles. Frequently the exact origin is not known. This makes it very difficult to determine precisely their original role and function. Research during the last decade has shown that even in those places where weaving is still under way the original knowledge of many significant details has faded and often is lost.
Ethnographic studies during recent years nevertheless
gave some insight into the function and use of textiles in various Indonesian
societies. It has highlighted the important role textiles play as an essential
part of material exchange between families and clans at marriages and
other lifecycle ceremonies. Moreover, in many islands people bury the
dead with the most precious cloth they have and often they use not only
one but many. 
The high value, which is assigned to cloth in these societies is in various
ways expressed in the rules and regulations of how to make and when and
how to wear them. In all the similarities and differences of ikats in
Eastern Indonesia, certain tendencies in dealing with the given frame
of stripes, show that the concerns of the weavers are commonly linked
with family affiliation.
In contrast to the layout of stripes, which are associated
with male descent lines the motifs and patterns itself are more closely
connected to the world of women. Patterns can show the family of origin,
the village, where they come from or live in, the female descent line
and the status or rank, respect and fame for their weaving skills. Although
in Eastern Indonesia most of the societies are patrilineal, matrilineal
descent lines are still of great importance for certain aspects of life
as well. In general this is reflected in dualistic constructions of many
aspects of life and underlines the perception of complementary relationship
between the two genders. Male and female principles are ruling everyday
life as well as ritual and ceremonial performances. Consequently the ornaments
and patterns on houses, ancestor figures, and also textiles, do express
these perceptions in particular ways and nevertheless often with great
The patterns in the ikat bands belong to certain groups within the two moieties. Each moiety has not only a certain layout ascribed to it, but also the right to use certain sets of patterns restricted to them. The larger of the two parts, the ‘Greater Blossom’, has seven branches (wini) and each of these branches owns a number of motives exclusive to its own weavers, which are not accessible to other groups. Ceremonial textiles are kept in special heirloom baskets. Textiles do not circulate at the occasion of marriage. They remain within the subgroup and are a means to “re-enact the ties within a progenitrix line during life crisis ceremonies” .
|In producing and wearing cloths with various arrangements,
a weaver may represent not only the paternal house to which she belongs
but also show her matrilineal family affiliations. Women share certain motifs
to create the ikated patterns with a wider group of women, with whom they
are related through their mothers. In order to make the right kind of cloth,
a weaver must be well informed about the network of relationships within
Sikka society in general and within her own family in particular, be able
to set up the proper formation of bands and the suitable motifs for a specific
sarong. Thus sarongs are an important manifestation of
complex social relationships, and a sign of the central role which women
play, to remember and preserve the social network within their societies.
This extends also to the contacts, which the Sikka maintain with the surrounding
neighbours and other islands, from where occasionally motifs are included
into the local repertoire. If family members study or work outside and increase
by this the families’ reputation, a motif from these places is just
a visible expression to it. Textiles therefore can be seen as a means of
reinforcement and consolidation of relationships, which are handled and
expressed through the skills of the weavers. This framework for the layout
doesn’t allow much space and freedom for innovation. Changes are more
a matter of combination of structural elements and only within this frame
an expression of individual inventiveness is allowed.
Patterns in Taninmbar are women’s personal possession and are only passed on from mother to daughter. At marriage the eldest daughter would receive a sarong with a set of motifs from her mother, who herself once got it from her mother. If she has sisters they would receive copies of this sarong made by their mother. “Through these motifs women feel that an alliance with their female ancestors has been consolidated”, observes Marianne van Vuuren . These motifs are regarded as personal property of the women and whenever small changes were made, these would remain for the future as a specific inheritance.
All end panels of the sarong in Ende contain
a wider monochrome black band 
accompanied by a number of ikat stripes of various widths, which are separated,
by fine stripes of plain black. The ikated bands carry names, which are
derived from the patterns they contain. The wider ikat bands often have
the same motif as is used in the centre field where it is spread out evenly,
a feature which goes back to the influence of the above mentioned Indian
patola. The layout for Endenese sarongs follow certain
prescriptions and can accordingly be divided in three main categories
with several subdivisions. Normally the sarongs are made from
three panels. Depending on the motif and their arrangement, in the centre
field the sarongs are grouped together. Within this strict order,
a great variety of cloths have been created. However, in none of the records,
any special meaning or outstanding importance is mentioned to be attached
to a specific type. Layout and names are used as a system of reference
for the weavers, who compete with each other for the highest skills and
artistic achievements. It also provides a frame of reference from which
to establish the value in exchange negotiations. Roy Hamilton in his detailed
study interprets this as a secularisation of the textiles, which came
about through contact with Islam and the outside world. 
This would mean that formerly textiles must have played a more specific
role in ceremonial transactions within the communities.
After looking at all these details in the history
of ikats from East Indonesia, there appears to be at least a trend visible
in how so many of the traditional features remain steady, even when weavers
feel more tempted to try out modern outlooks. Most significant for this
trend is the consistency of the striped layout of the sarongs.
Several reasons might be responsible for this. First, the communities
in general adhere to certain textiles as their own, and enforce their
use at important festive occasions when larger parts of the community
gather. Thus, textiles are a sign of belonging to a certain locality and/or
ethnic group of people. Second, in a more specific way, the social relationships
are expressed in the layouts and patterns that these textiles expose.
Textiles are a means to bind the traditional groups of kin visibly together
and underline the existing social ranks. Third, weavers transmit the art
of weaving and all that is related to it, within a matrilineal system
and therefore maintain the heritage of their own group. Beside that, the
skills of a weaver play an important part in the various aspects of ranking
in these societies. Certain difficult patterns are only made by the most
experienced weavers and are therefore part of a traditional cloth. Nowadays
the drive for change comes from the younger generation who feel less closely
tied into the traditional bonds of family and kin. It is also set in motion
by the exposure to new markets in cities and places with tourist attractions.
For these markets textile producers are requested to adapt their products
to the life style and taste of people from outside their own communities
and neighbourhoods. Within this new context, major modifications and changes
have become popular, which altogether abandon the traditional designs
and retain only certain elements of regional styles as a kind of ethnic
all text & images © Krista Knirck-Bumke
1. Van Vuuren, Marianne, 2001, Ikat from Tanimbar, published by the author. p.59
2. Adams, Marie Jeanne, 1999: Life and death on Sumba, in Decorative Arts of Sumba, Amsterdam: Pepin Press: 23ff.
3. Duggan, Geneviéve, 2001: Ikats of Savu. Women Weaving History in Eastern Indonesia, Bangkok, White Lotus Press. pp27-38
4. Duggan, Geneviéve, 2001: Ikats of Savu. Women Weaving History in Eastern Indonesia, Bangkok, White Lotus Press. p70
5. Lewis, E.D., 1994: Sikka Regency, in Hamilton, Roy W. (ed.), 1994: Gift of the Cotton Maiden. Textiles of Flores and the Solor Islands, Los Angeles: Fowler Museum of Cultural History, University of California: 162ff
6. Van Vuuren, Marianne, 2001, Ikat from Tanimbar, published by the author: 61+65
7. Van Vuuren, Marianne, 2001, Ikat from Tanimbar, published by the author: 63
8. Van Vuuren, Marianne, 2001, Ikat from Tanimbar, published by the author: 276
9. mité méré, Hamilton, Roy W., 1994, Ende Regency, in Hamilton, Roy W. (ed.), 1994: Gift of the Cotton Maiden. Textiles of Flores and the Solor Islands, Los Angeles: Fowler Museum of Cultural History, University of California: 124
10. Hamilton, Roy W., 1994, Ende Regency, in Hamilton, Roy W. (ed.), 1994: Gift of the Cotton Maiden. Textiles of Flores and the Solor Islands, Los Angeles: Fowler Museum of Cultural History, University of California: 132
11. Schuster, Carl, und Edmund Carpenter, 1996, Patterns that Connect: Social Symbolism in Ancient & Tribal Art. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., Publishers.
12. Barnes, Ruth, 1989, The Ikat Textiles of Lamalera. A Study of an Eastern Indonesian Weaving Tradition, Leiden: E.J.Brill: S.87
13. Fox, James J., 1979: Figure Shark and Pattern Crocodile: The Foundations of the Textile Traditions of Roti and Ndao, in Gittinger, Mattiebelle (ed.), Indonesian Textiles, Washington: Textile Museum. p39.