SYNOPSIS:  About chasing the perfect piece of Ikat.  About its production, its tradition and its symbols.    About landscapes, prisons and crime in Sumba.

We all have our priorities.  Some people travel half around the world for a perfect diving spot, others go for the one and only culinary experience, rare plants or animals, and I at times, try to hunt down a perfect piece of art.  In Indonesia, I had it in my head that I was going to buy a special piece of Ikat. 

Ikat are woven textiles which are unique in that the design is created before threads that are ultimately woven, are dyed.  All other woven textiles use pre-colored threads to weave, and the weaving is the part where the design is created.  In Ikat — at least the particular type I observed (and there are others) — the weaving is the easy part and done with a monochrome color to “thicken” the design.  Time and effort are spent in first creating the design by wrapping the un-dyed white warp threads with raffia-fiber or strings.  Ikat, in fact means “sting” or band.  Multiple colors require multiple wrappings and unwrappings of various areas.  Look carefully at the white design and you will see that some of the wrapping ends in a knot to be untied at some point — later those areas may turn red or blue, yellow or brown.   Other areas are tied once and until the end with no knots — those will remain white.  If you click on the link provided above and look at my images, some of this will hopefully become more clear.

I have owned two Ikat pieces of clothing for the longest time (about 30 years) and have always been fascinated by this process.  I never fully comprehended it.  I know one of my pieces was using new Ikat made with industrial colors; the other had small antique pieces of Ikat sewn into it using the traditional natural colors.  I wanted to find out what all of this meant and I wanted to own a typical piece of traditional Ikat produced by the world’s leading Ikat masters — those in Sumba.

Yohn, my guide was not thrilled — Ikat production is centered in the Eastern part of Sumba.  I was in the West and he had hoped to drive me around in the culturally more interesting South and Western part of the island.  But I am paying and so we went on the three-hour ride East, heading for Waingapu.  It was rainy — a perfect day to spend entirely in the car.  For all blog and adventure purposes, this was a boring day.  But I got what I was looking for and learned a thing or two. 

Ama Tukang’s home and Ikat production was located in the center of Waingapu in a village inside the town.  From the modern city center we turned into a side street and found ourselves in a different world.  Unpaved roads, free-ranging animals and small huts – this place had every feel of a village and it was a village indeed, even with its own name:  Kalu, meaning Banana Tree.  Indeed, they were around everywhere providing shade and food.

Ama Tukang and Rambuana are the best-known husband-wife team in the Ikat home industry of Waingapu.  Women are the ones involved in making Ikat and Rambuana is the fourth generation of weavers, now training her own daughters to continue the tradition.  Men trade, provide the materials, and are mainly the “bystanders” of the process.  No question, Ama Tukang is a shrewd and successful businessman; the only private person I met in Indonesia who had the equipment to process credit cards which promptly got me to spend a bit more than I had calculated.  More power to him!

Ikat is not just any textile.  It used to be the sacred cloth of Sumba and other areas that traditionally could only be afforded by the high classes and was reserved for ritual and funerary contexts.  Designs go back hundreds of years and incorporate the local belief in the Marapu Spirit and other typical and symbolic elements such as the famous Pasola Ceremony — mock spear battles between different tribes, still performed to date and on horseback in annual festivals; traditional architecture, references to royalty, fertility, community, and else. 

Some of these historical and religious symbols are:

  • The king associated with the crocodile or a central flower in the design
  • The power of woman depicted as turtles or as a vulva sign known as maraga, mamulli or tabello.  It is also found in carvings and jewelry.
  • The rooster symbolizing the power of men.
  • The pig representing wealth, and the duty of women to feed the family.
  • The horse, a sign of wealth, of family and of transport into heaven after death.
  • The buffalo, another sign of wealth, often associated with sacrifice in death. 
  • The cockatoo bird, signifying the importance of the community.

Purely geometric designs are also known and may vary by the producing village.

In the 19th century and with the arrival of foreigners, Ikat began to be traded and new designs were introduced.  Possession of Ikat to this day is a sign of wealth and even currency.  It is possible to pay debts with Ikat cloth.  Ikat is a valued gift for weddings.  Ikat is known to increase in value over time and has now been collected by anthropological museums all over the world.

Antique pieces — that means pieces woven by the previous generations — are becoming rare and go for up to several thousands of dollars.  They are true collector pieces.  Hand-dyed newly woven pieces fetch several hundred of dollars depending on the complexity of the design and the size.  Pieces woven from industrially made yarn are still very attractive and quite affordable and good enough for daily use.  

Women are not allowed to weave until they have reached puberty a wise rule as otherwise they would ruin their backs in the hours that are required to sit bent down. 

But nobody in Indonesia works themselves to death.  Ikat is done in between cooking meals and doing other household chores, between raising kids and going to market.  Still, a single piece of Ikat can take months to complete; large pieces up to a year.

Pieces are woven up to a maximum standard width corresponding to the width of the back of a woman.  Larger pieces are done in several strands and sewn together. Lengths can vary according to desire but usually correspond to a typical bedspread size.  The two single-width pieces, naturally dyed with traditional Sumba symbols which I acquired are over 3 meters long.   I was as happy as a clam. 

The added benefit of the trip was to see the differences in the landscapes of East and West Sumba.  The East is even more arid than the West.  Vast rocky mountains with a thin green cover are not even enough to provide animal pastures.  Where there are rice fields and cashew plantations in the West, there are rocks in the East. 

As Sumba counts among the poorest islands of Indonesia, the East is even poorer than the West.  Waingapu has a sizable port going way back.  As everywhere else in Sumba, port towns and villages are typically populated by Muslims. 

Both East and West Sumba have a prison, each with the capacity of about 200 prisoners.  We passed one and I asked John about crime.  Oh yes, we have a lot of criminals, he replied.  Lots, that means a maximum of 400.  For a population of 700,000 that is roughly 0.05%.  Compare that with US prison statistics

Crime is not what I expected, such as burglary, drugs, or assault.  No, the most common crimes according to John are real-estate fraud and the “re-direction” (stealing) of animals like cows or buffalos.  Further crimes are burning other people’s homes or even entire villages as acts of retaliation and feuds between families.   Crime against ordinary and unsuspecting victims or crimes in “bad neighborhoods” as we know it in the U.S. is virtually unknown.  Crimes against tourists, despite all their desirable gadgets and the cash they carry is also unknown.  That might be some food for thought for those who frequently claim that poverty is a main driving force for crime.  It certainly is not in other parts of the world, neither in the Arab world, nor in Mali, nor here…

The real estate issue however, is a major problem for Sumba.  People are poor and Sumba — a pristine island with lots of isolated and uncrowded beaches, has become the subject of much real-estate speculation by foreigners as well as rich Javanese and Balinese.  According to one account, all beaches in Sumba and all ocean properties have by now been sold (in some cases fraudulently multiple times); most of it in the last 20 years.  What used to be village property is now held in the hands of foreigners, few of whom ever intend to live here, many of whom intend to “develop” remote Sumba into perhaps the next tourist paradise after Bali is choking on too many tourists? 

Well, I am glad I went now and it is unlikely that I will be back soon — unless, Oro Beach proves irresistible…