West Timor and Threads of Life
Our communities and weavers in beautiful West Timor, Indonesia
The iconic houses are vanishing, except in the stronghold of Boti. In other parts of Timor these important cultural buildings are being replaced by cement buildings as the government hands out free money to communities. Why can’t both happen? Why must the traditional houses be abandoned? “We are told we are primitive and backwards." Architecture and textiles are the strongest material expressions of culture, but government seeks to throw out the old for the new.
Community, Land, Generosity, Compassion. I am reminded of my first trip to Boti and meeting the clan Elder Ama Nune Benuwho passed away in 2005. The Elder answered when I asked, 'what would you do if someone stole something' with 'I would send the community to bring pigs and chickens and maybe even cows, plus food and seed so we can plant his fields and give him everything he would need so he'd never have to steal.'
Scattered beyond the eastern tip of Flores lie the islands of Lamaholot: Solor, Alor and Lembata. When the Portuguese first saw this archipelago in the sixteenth century they named Flores after its easternmost peninsula, an area they called the Cape of Flowers. The name almost mocks reality for few places in Indonesia have such a long or harsh dry season. The Portuguese were the latest in a long history of traders to visit the islands seeking the spices that were worth a queen’s ransom
Guardian of the land: The depiction is called atoni, or human, and is of one of the community members that works to support the clan elders and works the land. This carving was done by a Meo elder who had more time to work on carving during the quiet of Covid after carrying out all the work that is required in the fields.
We recently had the good fortune to visit our partners and friends in Boti. Boti is a village of some seventy families, isolated in the Amanuban Highlands of West Timor, unconnected to roads or electricity. The only path to the outside world ran to the market town of Oinlasi, a five hour walk in good weather, and an impossible journey during the rainy season. Boti is a very special place.
Timor has a wide range of textiles with various techniques including ikat, supplementary warp wrap called buna and supplementary warp patterning called sotis. This textile uses an ikat technique with a teke motif or gecko. The gecko, along with the frog and crocodile, are all representations of the ancestor. It is said if you hear a gecko call out it is acknowledging that what is being spoken is correct or true according to the ancestor.
The sandalwood forests that once blanketed Timor vanished long ago, and most Timorese today survive through herding and farming. Clusters of conical traditional houses (kbubu) dot the countryside like haystacks, accessed by tiny doors just over a meter high. Thick thatch keeps out the heat of the day and holds in the warmth of the kitchen fire at night.
In the late 1990s, a government program in Timor aimed at supporting weavers’ livelihoods required all government employees to wear uniforms made from locally woven cloth. While well intended, the rapid pace of production resulted in the replacement of natural materials with rayon and synthetic dyes, and highly refined traditional motifs were enlarged and simplified to save time. This further devalued the textiles and resulted in many women abandoning their looms to seek other employment.
More than 10 years ago when we first met Timorese weavers, many communities had only 2 or 3 women who could still spin, dye, or weave. Today, many of these same groups now consist of 15 or more women working together to produce traditional cloths. It has been a delight to see these groups grow. As a dear friend once said, “If there is one woman left who remembers the art of making traditional textiles, and if that woman is passionate, then it is possible to revive the art.”
Weaving remains a vital tradition throughout Timor. The diversity of textiles is striking, and each of Timor’s many distinct groups can be identified by unique aspects in the weaving. Every detail, from the different designs, layouts, use of colour, addition of supplementary work, and even style of fringing are distinguishing features for each region. Warp ikat, single panel, twisted fringe, commercial cotton, natural dyes. Ikat tied, dyed and woven by Yeruton Sae in Amanauban, Timor, 2020.
Pilu Saluf is the local name for a fifteen -part man’s textile costume that was worn by meo warriors in the past. These parts worn; on both the arms and legs, at the front and back of the head, as well as the front and back of the waist. This is the first time in many years that the Mollo weavers in this area have reproduced a pilu saluf using all natural dyed threads using the complex naisa or slit tapestry technique.
Snapshots of a Successful Timor Field Trip - Threads of Life A Tais Klar Duka from Malaka is a man’s hip cloth only worn during ceremonies such as the Tebe Mau harvest ceremony and during a wedding. The revival of this textile is the result of four years of working together. Last year the weaver finished half of this piece, which we purchased to fund her continued work, and returned with it this year so it could be sewn to the newly finished matching half. This is so exciting for us!
Ibu Wihelmina Nesi weaving in Manunain. Manunain is a village in the old kingdom of Insana. Insana has mostly left behind their old ikat and indigo work in favor of synthetic dyes and the warp wrap technique called buna. The Insana textiles traditionally were blue in color and had beautiful motifs such as manu (chicken). The Threads of Life team has looked for a long time to find any weaver still wanting to make the more traditional ikat textiles using natural dyes.