Sikka Weft Textiles: A Tribute to Weaving Women
By Rita A.Widiadana
On the hillside of Watublapi village in Sikka, 30 kilometers from the largest city in Flores, East Nusa Tenggara, a number of women meticulously weave some of the world’s most refined and elaborate warp ikat textiles.
Thanks to these women’s superb talent, this centuries-old tradition is still well preserved and blossoming in the region.
Once called Copa de Flores in Portuguese — or the Isle of flowers — for its beauty, Flores is one of the Lesser Sunda Islands located in the eastern part of Nusa Tenggara Islands.
Locals called their island Nusa Nipa or the land of the snakes to illustrate the island’s shape and its grandeur. Snake designs have inspired various textile patterns and designs, and found their way onto house ornaments and a myriad of art local artefacts.
The island became a landmark when Portuguese traders and Catholic missionaries landed there in the 16th century, unravelling the richness of its culture and its nature, flora and fauna.
One of the region’s cultural gems is textile weaving. Prominent textile scholar John Gillow penned in his book on Traditional Indonesian Textiles that textile weaving was part of
Magic hands: A woman meticulously weaves an ikat, one of the world’s most elaborate textile, in Flores.Magic hands: A woman meticulously weaves an ikat, one of the world’s most elaborate textile, in Flores.Most fine textiles in Indonesia, including in Sikka, Flores, have been produced by women. Men undertake some of the work in factories and workshops, such as building the tools used to produce these textiles — metal stamps or wooden looms. However, all the steps in creating the cloth — from preparing the ground, planting the cotton and gathering dye plants to weaving the patterned fabrics, are traditionally and exclusively undertaken by women.
In the village of Sikka, which was named after the mighty Queen Sikka Du’a Go’it of Sikka Kingdom, women play the most important role, running the textile “industry” for domestic, ritual and commercial purposes.
Given the island’s tropical climate, clothing requirements are relatively meager and garments are simple, traditionally composed of rectangular cloth.
Sikka women weave four main types of textiles: kain, which wraps around the waist and legs; sarong made of smaller kain shewn into a tube-shape; selendang breast and shoulder cloths and selimut, large-wrap-around mantles of blankets.
Women from these communities weave ikat textiles on backstrap looms during the quiet hours of the day, in the shelter of the recess under their stilted houses. Young girls learn the simpler techniques on small looms, leaving the finer weaving to their mothers and grandmothers.
Their weaving skills tend to make them the breadwinners in the family as they sell textiles in village markets and other provinces such as Bali, where tourists always look for exquisite and antique textiles.
Dong Song Legacy
Ikat (to tie or to bind) is a weaving method whereby the patterning of a textile is obtained by tying fiber tightly around the warp threads and then immersing the tied hanks in a dye bath. The basic ikat technique can be applied either to warp or to weft threads alone. Alternately, certain sections of the textile can be warp ikat, such as borders and other parts of weft ikat.
Traditionally, the color of the ikat has come from a wide variety of vegetable dyes, the most valued color originating from the natural, organic dyeing materials including great morinda (turkey red, mengkudu or kombu), true indigo, turmeric and sappan wood.
Warp ikat is primarily the preserve of ancient people who built the megalithic civilization, and the legacy of the Dongsong culture, which was preserved either in the rugged mountainous interiors of the main island, or on the outlying islands.
Dong Song culture introduced to the Indonesian islands the technique of weaving warp-ikat textiles on a simple backstrap loom.
In Indonesia, the ikat textile tradition spreads from North Sumatra across to Kalimantan, Bali, Lombok, West and East Nusa Tenggara including Flores and Sumba. Each region developed its own styles and patterns blending local and other cultural influences.
Spinning: Women from the village of Watublapi in Sikka, Flores, turn cotton slivers into yarn, before weaving ikat.Spinning: Women from the village of Watublapi in Sikka, Flores, turn cotton slivers into yarn, before weaving ikat.The textiles have a ritual significance that far exceeds utilitarian need and play a vital role in maintaining harmony and balance between spirits and humanity.
The world is changing fast in the late century. The culture of the Sikka people is still very strong, but prolonged contact with the outside world is bound to have detrimental effects, which will most probably lead to a lowering of the quality of their textiles.
The spreading of factories, machine-manufactured textiles into the remote island of Flores has threatened the existence of the village’s textile weaving heritage.
Women weavers are grouped into the village’s aging population without having opportunities to pass on their weaving skills to younger women in the community, who show less interest in preserving the tradition as the world is now wide open for them to pursue other career paths.
Despite modernity, Sikka’s wealth textile craftsmanship must continue to strive with help from various parties — the government, the private sector, artists, and individuals who care about the island’s priceless heritage.
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