I wrote about the gorgeous buna textiles coming out of Timor a while back now, but today I wanted to talk about their ruddy lovely ikats.

The island of Timor is one of the major landmasses of East Nusa Tenggara, poking out of the Savu Sea between the Solor Archipelago and Australia.  Similar to Papua {which I wrote about recently, see here}, it is split slap bang right down the middle, into the very young country Timor-Leste {or ‘Timor Timur’ – which confusingly means ‘East East’} on the errr east, and the Indonesian province of West Timor {‘Timor Barat’}.

Indonesia’s long long line of volcanoes bypass this island, and head northwards passing through the Moluccas, but its landscape is still very dramatic both above sea level…

…and below it:

The island was originally settled around a million years ago {give or take a few decades} by Homo erectus, and then successive waves of  Austro-Melanesians rocked up.  From 3000 to 1000 BC, lots of Austronesians made the island their home, just like in nearby Papua, and they introduced many of the fundamental aspects of the island’s history and culture, some of which like animist religions, tattooing and headhunting, are still in practice today.  Ok maybe not the headhunting, but that does sound interesting.

From the 14th century onwards Chinese, Indian and Javanese traders popped into Timor for their fix of honey, beeswax and sandalwood.  In fact it’s said that the reason there are so many horses in Sumba {which I also wrote about recently, see here} is that the Indian merchants brought them from Arabia to trade for this precious aromatic wood.

{Who’s this bloke in the middle?!  And what’s with this lower-leg-wrapping situation?  These incredible old images are courtesy of Amsterdam’s Tropenmuseum}

Before the Euros poked their noses into the island’s affairs Timor was split into lots of mini kingdoms, each with 500-10,000 people, and many with distinct languages or dialects.  However the Portuguese eventually got wind of the abundant natural resources on the island and decided to join the party in 1515.  They first nicked a small portion of the island on the northwestern coast {now called ‘Oecussi-Ambeno’}, and then managed to get hold of the whole eastern half of the island which they held onto for over four hundred years.

Then those ubiquitous Dutchies were at it again and settled the western half of the island in 1640.  I suspect the two sides were not exactly besties, think they scrapped over ownership for the next few centuries until the border was formally agreed on in 1914.  Both sides did their usual trick of converting as many people as they could to Catholicism or Protestantism, depending on which half of the island they happened to call home.  And the Dutch also totally bulldozed the original mini kingdom power structure by creating rajahs who each controlled huge swathes of the island and all the kingdoms within them.

Portugal had a pretty major revolution in 1974, got rid of its nasty dictator and decided that its colonies should really be given their land back after, you know, a piffling four centuries or so.  So East Timor {including the funny little enclave of Oecussi-Ambeno} became its own sovereign nation very briefly before Indo invaded in 1975 and started calling it ‘Tim-Tim’.  The East Timorese were pretty unimpressed {that name is enough to annoy anybody, I imagine} and proceeded to rebel for the next 25 years {actually I should not make light of this, it was all pretty nasty from what I can gather} until full independence was granted in 2002 and it became known as Timor-Leste.  So it really is a very young country, just a teenage tiddler.

Compared to this the West Timorese had it pretty easy.  In 1949 ‘Dutch Timor’ just became part of greater Indonesia when it became independent under Suharto.

I find it so fascinating that the reverberations of the Euro colonialists’ meddling all those years ago were still being felt in 2002.  Crazy.

So anyhoo, let’s get onto the textile goodies.  Timorese ikats are extremely varied, in fact it’s said that only Flores {more info here} surpasses it in terms of pattern and stylistic diversity.  Apparently there isn’t really a Timorese identity as such, due to all the traditional mini kingdoms being so distinct from each other, instead most people identify themselves by their clan background.

As on all the other islands of the archipelago that I’ve written about, textiles and weaving play a huge role in women’s lives.  Indeed there’s a saying about newborn babies, that roughly translates as ‘bringing a thread and bobbin’.  Quite a big deal then.

See here for information on the weaving process and natural dyes used, which are very similar across the different islands of the archipelago.

The motifs used on these textiles are still mostly very traditional, with a few modern additions for good measure.  Each of the old mini kingdoms had their own ikat patterns, so that you could identify people through their frocks {rather like in Sabu}, and this is actually often still the case today.

Because of the meddling colonial missionaries most Timorese consider themselves to be Christian, but many of their old animist beliefs still lurk within their religious practices {more info on this here!}.  Tales from the pre-colonial period live on in the form of legends and mythology, and these are frequently represented in ikat weaving.

Also interestingly, each of the clans of the island identify themselves with an animal or plant, almost like a mascot I guess.  It is strictly taboo for them to kill, cut or eat their own sacred totem, and they use its motif profusely in their textiles.  For instance, this ikat below shows the wild rooster:

A very common feature of Timorese ikats are the repeated narrow accent stripes, in a variety of bright synthetic threads.  These bands are often finely ikated with diddy geometrics like dots, dashes and squiggles, like this beaut:

Probably the most common motif on the island is the ‘kaif’, or ‘hook and rhomb’ design, which represents the weavers’ connections to their ancestors, a part of the ancient animist religions.  These kaifs are depicted in a whole load of different designs, with a range of complexities.  The rhombs {the overall diamond shapes} are usually large, with only two to four per textile, the curved hooks running along the sides represent members of the weaver’s clan, and the dots show the guardian spirits of the family.

In this example, you can see just two rhombs per panel, nested five deep, and a whole load of hooks and dots:

As well as the clan animal/plant motifs, Timorese ikats also feature a whole smorgasbord of natural goodies: human figures, crocodiles, geckos, frogs, roosters {representing virility}, fish, stars, turtles {representing fertility} and other birds.  The most important is the crocodile, the totem of ‘Uis Neno’, the supreme being of the animist religion.

Sometimes these figures are very lifelike {as in the example below}, and sometimes they are more stylised where you have to use your imagination a little.  Often animal motifs were reserved for use by nobility.

This textile below is an incredible example of an ikat/buna combo – a main panel {showing large scale patola-inspired motifs} and narrow side panels in ikat, and then striped ends in buna.  Delectable.

I’ll write about the beautiful patola motifs in a future post I think, they deserve their own piece of the limelight!

Like with the buna textiles coming out of Timor, it’s common to see ikats made with synthetic dyes, unlike almost all of the rest of our gorgeous all natural pieces.  Natural dyes, particularly indigo, are still often used, but chemical dyes have been incorporated more and more as accent colours since the 1960s.  These synthetic shades can be either bright and fun, or gaudy and fake, depending on the piece in question and your particular viewpoint, but I personally quite like them {although am concerned about the use of natural pigments totally dying out {pun not intended} in the future}.

Sadly older ikat textiles using all natural dyes are very hard to find, because the vast majority were damaged or lost during the East Timor independence conflicts.

Almost all Timorese ikat textiles are used as clothing.  As on other islands, women have two {or sometimes four} ikat panels stitched together to form tube skirts, and men have the ‘selimut’ rectangular waist wraps, in addition to shoulder and head cloths {like the chaps below left}.

Most people in Timor still wear these traditional ikats, but it varies by clan/family as to whether it’s everyday or just for festive or ceremonial occasions.  And apparently people have also largely kept to their clan/kingdom motifs too, although the taboo on weaving these is not as strict as in the past.

In addition to clothing, ikat textiles also play a key role in bridal exchanges.  Usually a bride’s family gives ikat sarongs to the groom’s, and they then reciprocate with horses and/or water buffalo as well as other high value items like gold jewellery and elephant tusks.  Wow, these textiles really are valued very highly!

Here at Anserai we’ve currently got a couple of Timorese ikat selimuts in our collection, one of which is the stunning pastel peach-y/coral-y number in the pic below {on the left hand cushion}.  I’m still deciphering its motifs but they’ll be fully translated and available for purchase in pillow form soon!

{credits: Anserai / Tropenmuseum / Wikimedia Commons / Indonesia Travelling Guide}

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