The island of Sumba is part of the province of Nusa Tenggara, surrounded by the Flores Sea:

It’s always been a little-travelled spot, which has allowed it to keep its traditional culture and animist ‘Merapu’ religion intact for longer than a lot of places.  It’s so isolated in fact that it’s said that it took six entire months for the news to arrive that the first president of the brand new nation of Indonesia, Sukarno, had declared independence from the Netherlands in 1945.  Six months!

Since ancient times it’s been inhabited by a number of small ethno-linguistic groups or clans, each with their own very distinct social structures, cultures and customs/ceremonies, which provoked long-running tribal warfare over land and trading rights.  These conflicts produced ‘skull-trees’, or ‘andung’, in each clan’s village whereby the heads of vanquished enemies were displayed in a rather gruesome manner as a lucky omen for good harvests.  An early form of the Eurovision Song Contest, perhaps?

Moving on to the 18th century, the Dutch United East India Company suddenly discovered Sumba’s huge resources of sandalwood, and then proceeded to nick it all.  Sumba became known as Sandalwood island.  Then in 1866 the Netherlands decided that they may as well just take over the whole shebang, and added it to their existing Dutch East Indies possessions.

Now the interesting thing in this little history lesson is how all of this impacted the ikat weaving trade on the island.  Sumbanese ikats had been produced for centuries, but the industry was always very tightly regulated, and restricted to those people in the aristocratic classes.  When the Dutch colonised the island they put a stop to this monopoly and opened up the trade to a much larger market along the thriving Asian trading routes.  This increase in demand led to women along the whole north-east coastal strip of the island starting to produce these textiles and so the motifs and style of the pieces started to evolve.

The Indonesian word ‘ikat’ means to ‘tie’ or ‘bind’, which alludes to the intricate and long-winded process of creating these incredible textiles.  Firstly the raw cotton is spun into threads using a traditional spinning wheel between the months of July and October.  They are then stretched onto a frame and patterns are ‘wrapped’ using pandan leaves or raffia, from September to December.

{these incredible images are from the early 20th century, courtesy of Amsterdam’s Tropenmuseum} 

After the monsoon season ends in April, these bound threads are dyed, and the wrapped sections produce a resist pattern where the dye cannot enter the threads.  The pandan leaves are then removed and other areas are bound, and this dyeing process is repeated as many times as there are colours in the textile design.

The threads are then finally woven together from August onwards, by stretching the warp yarns over a backstrap loom and weaving a plain weft thread.  So all told it takes upwards of 14 months to produce one piece of fabric, and depending on the complexity of the design, it’s not uncommon for it to take up to two entire years.  We can’t remember exactly how we know this but we’ve heard they are sometimes valued as equal to a water buffalo – that’s some weaving.

The motifs used in the textiles were always very traditional, passed down through the generations, and were often specific to the clan or village where the ikat was being made.  Most of the ikats we see these days are from East Sumba, where motifs are largely Merapu ancestral spirits, and animal and human forms, interspersed with the occasional geometric.  Ikats from West Sumba show mainly geometric motifs.

Sea creatures, crocodiles, cockerels and dragons are very common.  ‘Patola Ratu’ (or ‘King’s Patola’) is a popular abstract motif.  Horses are to this day a significant status symbol in Sumba.  Traditionally ikat horse motifs were reserved for the aristocratic class, along with sea creatures.  The skull tree motif was always a popular one, and is even more so these days driven by grisly tales told to unsuspecting tourists:

Occasionally extra patterns were even ’embroidered’ onto the textiles using nassa shells, another gorgeous detail to the workmanship.

However as with all art forms, popular designs evolved over time and due to foreign influences.  For instance by the 1920’s, non-traditional motifs had started to creep in to the weavers’ vernacular, such as lions and sceptres from the Dutch coat-of-arms (like these chaps below), and full on portraits of Queen Wilhelmina (we’re not kidding, we’ve seen them – just incredible, very cartoon-like, they almost seem like they’re taking the mickey):

The dyes used are still almost entirely natural, from deep rich blues to earthy browns, rusts and ochres.  Dried loba leaves, the bark and roots of the merinda tree and indigo leaves are the most common ingredients for red, blue, brown and purple.  And the bark of the kayu kuning produces a yellow shade, traditionally reserved for the aristocratic class.

Ikats were traditionally only worn on special occasions such as the harvest ritual, and still do play an important role in weddings and other life-cycle rites, when they are exchanged between families in the community.

These days there is some Western dress around the place, but still a lot of traditional gear, especially at weddings.  Women wear long ikat tube skirts, or ‘pou dula bunga’. They grow their hair long and wrap it around their head, and after the birth of her first child a woman may tattoo her arms or legs as a form of status symbol.  The men wear a short ikat sarong, or ‘hinggi, around their hips, and a belt with a sword (and mobile phone). They also have an ikat turban for their headband.

{Not sure who those Euro chaps are on the RHS, but they are rocking that ikat headwear}

Anserai’s first collection features a limited number of gorgeous deep indigo Sumbanese ikat throws, depicting a whole smorgasbord of animal and patola motifs.  We’re launching on December 12, be sure to stop by to take a peek!

{credits: Anserai / TropenmuseumWikimedia Commons}

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