embroidered section of a Kroe skirtcloth Iban jacket with 'epaulettes', from BorneoHeirloom painted long cloth from Sulawesi

Indonesian Textiles at the V&A

A look at Indonesian textiles with Rosemary Crill

Wed 4th November 2009

Victoria & Albert Museum
Cromwell Road
London SW7 2RL

Comprised of more than 18000 islands spread either side of the Equator, the Indonesian Archipelago covers an area comparable to that of the contiguous United States. Its 215 million people represent many different tribes and ethnic groups who variously follow two major religions or older animist beliefs. The archipelago lies on global trade routes, with resulting strong cultural influences from China, India and Europe at various times during its history.

The textile style most readily associated with Indonesia is batik but Rosemary had decided to focus her display of items from the collection around the almost equally well-known ikats of Indonesia, following the sweep of the islands from Sumatra, through Java to Timor in the east and then back via Borneo (Kalimantan) to Sulawesi.

What became apparent during the presentation was that, despite the diversity of the archipelago, there are a number of important common threads running through the textiles that were demonstrated. The great majority are made from cotton – either locally grown (which tends to be coarser) or imported, most probably from India. The background fabric is almost universally in plain weave (but whether woven on a back-strap or fixed loom was not explored). Certain dyes, such as indigo, are ubiquitous. Figurative/animist themes are common, but the external influences – on fabric, dyestuff and decoration – are also evident, with imported silk, chemically dyed threads and Dutch heraldic motifs used in various pieces.

It was not resolved whether actual ethnic ties existed or whether the similarities were the result of cultural exchange through trade, migration of artisans and inter-marriage.

Even less could be concluded about the origin of the ikat technique, which is practised from central Asia, through India to Indonesia and the Far East. Chinese ikats from the 5th and 7th Centuries are known from Japan. However, the name ‘ikat’ comes from the Indonesian verb ‘ingikat’ meaning to tie or bind. In addition, ancient Indonesian temple figures appear to be wearing clothes with characteristic batik and ikat patterns, suggesting that this technique may have been used in Indonesia hundreds if not thousands of years ago.

Indonesian ikats play an important role in the sacred and ceremonial life of its peoples – as shrouds and funerary decorations and court textiles, for example – and confer ‘status’ on their owners and wearers. These textiles are therefore important and a great deal of time and effort can go into their manufacture. A good example of this is the length of time (up to eight years in Central Flores, according to Buhler), taken to dye the cotton used in the weaving of certain ikats (cotton being a notoriously difficult fibre to dye, requiring lots of preparation).

Whilst there are similarities which make Indonesian textiles easily recognisable as a group, there are differences which make it possible to assign a given textile to a particular island or even a particular region in that island. This became apparent in the presentation of the textiles.

Sumatra

We began with a skirt cloth from the south of the island dating from the late nineteenth century. It was made up of brown & cream ikat panels sewn ether side of embroidered ones, six panels in all. The 'squid' cloth was so called because of the fine cream floss embroidery on an indigo ground depicting squid, complete with squirling tentacles.

In quite a different vein, a cotton skirt cloth in a very appealing colour range, predominantly orange and mole brown, was embroidered not only with narrow stripes of small motifs but also with a sprinkling of metal disks, by the Kroe people from the Lampung district. Another piece was embroidered with gold, either wrapped round a core yarn or left as a flat foil and simply couched onto the fabric.

A Malay style silk cloth from Pelambang, with a subtle ikat design, mirrored with gold supplementary weft decoration, (songket) was probably dyed with lac, which produces a rich, deep red. These silk ikats echo the design of the double ikat ‘patola’ cloths, originally woven in Gujerat (India), which became the desired cloth of the wealthy in Indonesia.

Note The Batak ‘ragidup’ shown to us features in ‘The Art of the Loom’ by Ann Hecht (p120, 121). This explains the process by which the varied techniques were combined into one cloth. The supplementary weft pattern is woven onto new, white warp threads that were fastened into the last few rows at the top and bottom of the central field of dark, striped, material. The remaining dark warp threads are then cut away and the new weaving carried out exclusively on the inserted white warp threads.

Most pieces were for ceremonial use and a striking example was a cloth of woven cotton with supplementary warps and wefts depicting a sturdy ship complete with the people on board. "Ship' cloths are much associated with death and the after life.

From the Batak people of north Sumatra, we saw a 'ragidup', a shoulder cloth, used ceremonially at weddings. Several panels, made in a mixture of techniques, ikat & supplementary weft designs, were sewn together. A beautifully patterned border right across the end was not sewn on, but woven at right angles to the panels of the main fabric using the warp ends as wefts for the border. Following some discussion it was decided that warp twining was the technique employed to produce this very stable and secure finish.

Java and Bali

Java: One example of batik was shown, reminiscent of Indian ‘chintz’, with floral patterns & Chinese style birds. This could be attributed to the northern coast of the island based on foreign influences on the design, & the use of a red dye, in combination with blue & brown. This compares with the indigo blue & soga brown dyes that would be expected on batiks produced in the royal courts of Surakarta & Jogjakarta.

Bali

Whilst Bali is well known for its ‘prada’, gold stamped or painted fabric, it is the only place in Indonesia where double ikat (geringsing) textiles are produced. Indeed, these are only produced in one village – Tenganan – that lies some way inland from the Southeast coast of the island. The villagers are ‘Bali Aga’ or ‘old Balinese’, and much is done to preserve the traditional way of life of its people, including closing the village to outsiders after dark.

The geringsing demonstrated was a ‘geringsing wayang kebo’, a style unique to Bali. This textile, said to be a man’s ceremonial waist sash (although other authors suggest that they are worn by women as a breast wrapper or shoulder sash), was made of cotton and decorated with seated male and female ‘wayang’ figures (named after the wayang kulit shadow puppets because the heads are presented in profile whilst the bodies are shown from the front). The male figure is suggested to be a priest, with the female figures members of his family and devotees.

There is no doubt that Bali was strongly influenced by trade with India and a DNA link has been established between this village and the people of Orissa. The inland position of Tenganan, remote from casual contact with seafarers, led to interesting speculation that, if there were links to Orissa, then these may have come from the ‘import’ of artisans by an important figure at some stage in the past or, more prosaically, through intermarriage.

A weft-dyed silk ikat was also demonstrated.

Roti, Flores, Sumba, Timor, Borneo and Sulawesi

Roti

Warp ikat, made from local cotton, (Gossypium arboreum), had blue (indigo) and red (“mengkudu” colour from Morinda Citrifolia) dyes, with areas overpainted in yellow (probably turmeric (curcuma)).

Flores

An old (early 19th Century) and interesting textile woven on local cotton warps interspersed with the occasional single warp or narrow band of warps of much finer, chemically dyed, imported cotton threads. These chemically dyed threads, particularly the pink, ‘lift’ the textile, which was presumably the intention of the weaver.

Sumba

Although a small island, Sumba’s ikats are amongst the most widespread and best known of Indonesia’s ikats. Whilst this and, for example, the inclusion of Dutch heraldic motifs in some textiles might suggest a deliberate effort to create an export market for these textiles, this was not thought to be the case, the textiles being made to confirm ‘status’ on their owners.

The textiles from East and West Sumba show marked differences, perhaps reflecting the influences of adjacent islands. The tubular dresses shown featured animal designs (lizards, lobsters, etc.) as well as human figures, in one case filling the main field whilst, in the other, being largely restricted to the end panels. In this latter piece, the figures were created using the supplementary weft technique, whilst the plain field was decorated with a band of bead work (an Indian influence), which appeared to have been created using the technique known as netting, and then sewn into place, rather than woven.

Timor

The textile demonstrated had been constructed from short, narrow strips sewn together width ways to create a long, narrow cloth. The end panel was heavily embroidered whilst other panels were woven.

Borneo

The Iban people of Borneo have a great weaving tradition, making intricately patterned textiles, worn almost exclusively in a cycle of ceremonial occasions that protect society. The woman’s skirt is called a bidang, measuring a bit over a metre long & half a meter in width, and decorated with fine warp ikat. The V & A example was acquired prior to 1869, and is typical of its type, with scrolls and tendrils in the centre field, with borders top & bottom, often showing birds & centipedes.

A similar piece in finer weave was produced using a different fibre, a bast fibre, possibly ‘koffo’, from a variety of banana tree.

An interesting little jacket, shaped like the Iban war jacket, had no sleeves, but epaulettes at the shoulder. Woven patterned bands decorated the front & back, with geometric designs alternating with a scroll like pattern, and three very large buttons on the left side.

Sulawesi

Textiles from the Toradja people fall into two main categories – large ikat shrouds (to the Toradja, the funeral is the most important ceremony in a person’s life) and hand painted heirloom cloths. The latter example featured a tree of life design with four sacrificial buffaloes and two human figures. The regularity of the leaves on the tree, which showed distinct branches, much fruit and some flowers, suggested that they might have been stamped.

The design on the ikat was much coarser than that seen in similar textiles from other areas and featured, apparently randomly placed, geometric designs and marks (crosses, etc.).

Also demonstrated were woven silk belts, one of which bore what was thought to be an extract from the Muslim call to prayer in Arabic script, and was most probably of Bugis origin.

The final item shown was a second batik – a long blue & white banner, much simpler and with much coarser mark making than the Javanese example, due to the fact that wax had been applied using a bamboo stick rather than the much finer metal canting used in Java.

Our thanks go to Rosemary Crill . We were also fortunate to have a visiting member from Australia, Maria Friend, whose speciality is Indonesian textiles.
Report by John Fisher with contributions from Jennifer Hughes and Sonia Lawrence.