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Krista Knirck-Bumke

April 17, 2006

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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. [1]

Fig. 1

Fig. 2

Fig. 3

Fig. 4
In former times threads were always dyed with natural dyes from local sources. The most common ones were indigo (blue) and morinda citrifolia (red), which when blended, resulted in shades of brownish red. Increasingly over time, commercially dyed threads in bright colours came into use and were attractive because they were so different from the traditional dyes. Often the tiny small monochrome stripes - many of them consisting of one or two threads only - were made from these dazzling colours with a remarkable brightening effect on the fabric and for many of the weavers this seemed to be very appealing. In these modern textiles, where more colours occur, the customary sense of colour as well as the local style in the overall appearance remain clearly visible.

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. [2] 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.


Fig. 5
It is indeed amazing how many variations exist in arranging stripes within the direction of the warp on a rectangular cloth. Monochrome stripes along with a great variation of patterned bands with two or three colours are gathered for multiple kinds of arrangements on the cloth. Very tiny monochrome lines of only two to four threads are often clustered around bands of larger sizes with ikated patterns on it. The ikat stripes can be of various sizes as well, and the smaller bands are always arranged in symmetrical order on both sides of a centre stripe. Grouping several clusters like this together leads sometimes to several overlapping series of stripes. How many of those groups a panel possibly contains varies greatly, but within a region or a village certain sets are in common use and in this way are a major characteristic of regional styles. In many of the textiles larger monochrome sections in black, blue, red or brown are put into defined place of the sequence as distinctive feature. In every region there are different arrangements prescribed in a traditional sarong, which includes not only the order of bands but also the ikated motifs.

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 formal similarity.

Fig. 6
In Savu the smaller monochrome stripes are called roa which is the same name as for the space between rafters for a roof or beams of the hull of a boat. Savunese society is divided into two matrilineal descent lines. They have two distinctly different layouts of sarongs which differ basically in the number of black stripes (roa) they show on each half of the sarong namely seven for the ‘greater blossom’ (hubi ei) and four for the ‘lesser blossom’ (hubi iki). Interestingly the number of these stripes has gender connotations as well, as uneven numbers are associated with the male and even numbers with the female principle. The monochrome middle seam is also indicative of the moiety to which either the weaver or the wearer belong; it is red for the greater and black for the lesser blossom. The widest monochrome band in Savunese sarongs is not loaded with any specific meaning and its variation of its size seems to depend mainly on the over all length the future wearer requires. [3] In Savu, a set of 4 threads (mostly patterned with small ikated dots in white on blue background) inevitably has to border a band of more elaborate motives. These dotted lines can never be left out, and help make up the basic characteristic of a Savunese textile.

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” [4].


Fig. 7
The Sikka in Flores still produce very complex sarongs for exchange in marriage. Bernard Lewis has found out that the order of stripes in the three panel sarongs for marriage exchange are until now closely connected to the patrilineal clans. These textiles are an important manifestation of the complex network of social relationships. The main motifs are always arranged in bands which cover the whole centre field. The sequence of ikated bands with the surrounding monochrome stripes, is called hura. The order of hura is rather complex as the various bands and stripes form clusters of different sizes, and often are overlaping since the small sets of threads are frequently located within a larger group of bands. The order of the hura represents the “paternal house”. When, after marriage, a weaver moves to the house of her husband she starts to lay out the warp in the sequence of her husband’s clan, while before she used the sequence of her fathers clan. [5]

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.

Fig. 8
In Tanimbar where three main types of sarongs are still in use, the evidence for a direct link between design and social structure cannot be established any more. But still the layout in sarongs show at least some characteristics typical for a certain village and family origin. This is the case for the top and bottom edges and their arrangements and the distribution of stripes and dotted lines [6]. Sarongs with large monochrom centres represent the most high-ranking type of cloth used in ceremonies and have always a monochrome black, blue or reddish brown border. The width of this border increases with the status of the wearer, although in some areas it is not more than 15cm wide if used for ritual (adat) exchanges [7]. The edges of these sarongs are often additionally decorated with smaller bands, sometimes also ikated. Supplement decoration with shells might have further enhanced the value of the textile. Whether in former times in Tanimbar societies the relevance for social relations was attached to the design more clearly and more detailed is not known.

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 [8]. 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.


Fig. 9

All end panels of the sarong in Ende contain a wider monochrome black band [9] 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. [10] This would mean that formerly textiles must have played a more specific role in ceremonial transactions within the communities.

Fig. 10
Many people who are interested in Indonesian ikats are fascinated by the great variety and interesting shapes of patterns, and tend to ask for the specific meaning or symbolism of each of the motifs or their combination. The range of patterns and motifs is immense indeed. Certain patterns are recurrent in many places, where they are modified to match with other components in a weaving. Broadly there are two main types of patterns: the large variety of non-figurative, more decorative or purely ornamental patterns on one side, and the large floral and figurative motifs on the other side. The smaller patterns have rather geometrical shapes like zig zag, waves, meandering lines and spirals. Many bands consist of simple dots and slashes. The larger main motifs, which range from stylised geometrical forms to very naturalistic motifs, are more complex and elaborate. Here again another division can be stated between patterns, which are more abstract and those which are more figurative. The more abstract forms of pattern are combinations of various forms like vines, scrolls and lines arranged into a square, oval or rhomb space. However, various plant and animal forms and stylised human beings are also part of this type. Some of the features, especially where serial arrangements are used, have fascinating parallels in tattoos, stone carvings or house decorations of ancient people in Indonesia and in many parts of the world [11]. Other figurative and floral motifs can be clearly related to influences coming from outside the islands. Two main types feature large in many textiles, first is the influence of the patola from India and second the flower motifs and sceneries from European missionary embroidery.


Fig. 11
The strongest influence came definitely from the Indian textiles, not only in East Indonesia but in other islands in the west as well. Along the routes of trade for spices, sandalwood, and many other items the Indian textiles were very much in demand. Beside bulks of monochrome cotton fabrics and printed cloth, the double ikated patola from Gujarat in particular, became an essential part of family wealth and a status symbol. They attained an important role in exchange of valuables between clans and families in Eastern Indonesia. Patola were kept with other objects like jewellery, elephant tusks and others as heirlooms in hidden places within the adat houses where extended families would regularly gather for important occasions. Only during special ceremonies or under ritually prescribed circumstances, these textiles would be displayed or used as protective covers in sensitive transitional conditions for humans or objects. The patola’s value was derived from their fine silk, their outstanding bright colours and the intricate double ikat weaving. The patterns included a range of motifs representing auspicious objects like flowers and animals (parrot, lion, elephant, peacock), which covered most part of the centre field in serial replication. The patterns attracted the weavers and they imitated many of them in the single warp ikats on the backstrap looms, which they still use today. Over time, many variations developed and for each region specific adaptations came in use enhancing the repertoire of local patterns and designs.

Fig. 12
In India, patola were specially made for the Indonesian market and they conform in size with the format of a selendang, but keep the original layout with a large centre field of evenly distributed motifs. Everywhere in the eastern islands the weavers found their own specific ways of using the attractive patterns of the patola cloths. Certain bands and areas of the traditional textile were decorated with reproductions of the valued Indian patterns. In many regions a third middle panel was added where the Indian inspired motives could be spread out in a similar manner, as in the centre field of the patola. [12] But unlike the double ikat models, the replicas were made in single warp ikat technique only, and were simply reshaped and reorganised to fit into the given form (Savu, Ende, Lamalera). The original layout of patola cloth was never fully adopted. In some places like in Roti the right to wear patola patterned cloth was reserved to the descendents of the rulers only. [13] The eight-pointed jelamprang, a very popular motif everywhere was especially valued and therefore appears in many variations and forms.

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 markers.

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.

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