The island of Flores is one of the Lesser Sunda Islands of Indonesia, just a short hop across the ocean from Sumba {which I wrote about recently – see here}.

It is a hugely diverse place in terms of tribes, topography, textiles and tongues.

Because of its strategic location there were many invasions by foreigners in prehistoric times, which led to a diverse ethnic mix in the population.  The Portuguese rocked up in the 1500s, and their traders and missionaries had a significant impact on the island’s languages, religions and cultures particularly along the southeastern coast.

The Dutch then came along and prompted a long-running tussle over ownership for the next few hundred years, during which time the Catholic Dominican Order managed to effectively rule the island, and heavily influenced not only its culture, but also shipping, trade and finance.  In 1854 Portugal finally admitted defeat, sailed home and ceded all control to the Netherlands, which then did its best to replace all things Catholic with its own Protestant beliefs, and ruled the island until World War II, after which it became part of independent Indonesia.

The island is covered in lush mountainous jungle, deep ravines and active volcanoes, which makes getting around the place a tad tricky.  The Dutch did not help the situation as they did practically nothing to develop the interior, and instead just traded with the islanders through coastal villages.  Even since independence the infrastructure remains dire, and it is common for it to take three days to get from one end of the island to the other.

Because of the near impossibility of travel within the island, and because of the prehistoric multi-ethnic intermingling, there are a huge number of distinct and very insular ethnic tribes and clans, which over the years have developed their own languages, customs, legends and cultural products.

The main groups include the Ngada, the Ende, the Lio, the Sikka and the Manggarai.  Because of all the Catholic and Protestant missionaries influencing the population in colonial times it’s a mainly Christian island, but interestingly many of the ancient animist rituals and beliefs are still mixed into people’s modern day offerings and ceremonies.  For instance, the construction and appearance of the homes of the Ngada people, circular huts with thatched roofs, are symbolic of their owners’ links with their spiritual ancestors.

Totemic structures and megalithic stones are also very common, and relate to the protection given to villages by their ancestors.  And because there are so many different tribes, each with their own set of beliefs and legends, the objects symbolising their protective spirits are very varied – check out all these chaps below:

{these incredible images are courtesy of Amsterdam’s Tropenmuseum – see here for more}

‘But how does this relate to ikat weaving?’, I hear you say.  Well I’m glad you asked.  Each of the tribal areas produce massively distinct types of textiles, in terms of the palettes and motifs used, and there are even wide differences between clans of the same ethnicity.

We’ll start on the left {err….west?} and work right.

The Ngada people live in the west of the island, and are famed for their indigo-dyed ikats populated with very primitive ‘stick figure’ stylised motifs.  Horses are the most common and are a sign of nobility (as in Sumba).  Occasionally pieces are also ’embroidered’ with shells and trade beads.

The low-lying terrain of the Ngada lands is perfect for indigo cultivation, but the morinda tree does not do well – this explains the almost total lack of red and brown dye in their textiles.  The dyers achieve an amazing deep vibrant blue by steeping the threads in the indigo dye for a really really really long time – in fact it’s for so long that some of the blue shade enters the wrapped sections of the threads, so the patterns are usually a light blue colour instead of the usual ecru {see here for more info on this process}.

The Ende Regency is on the central southern coast of Flores.  The Endenese people are descendants of the original inhabitants and Islamic Macassarese seafarers, who intermingled many years ago, and who were the principal traders in the Savu Sea.

Because of the Islamic influence it is common to only see very stylised versions of animal motifs in their textiles, as the religion forbade the depiction of any living beings.  They were often stylised {read ‘disguised’} to such an extent that they became more like geometric motifs.  The elephant motifs in the example above are not particularly sly, but we think they’re beautiful nonetheless.

The Lio Regency is famous for its detailed and very beautiful ikats full of patola-inspired motifs.  As with the example below, they are often depicted in yellow or light brown, on a deep red or brown-red background.  These textiles could take up to eight years to create, as the intense colours required multiple dye steepings, and there were cultural taboos which prevented working during certain times of the year.

Portuguese merchants trading in spices first brought the exotic patola cloths from India in the 16th century.  These prized textiles were thought by many to have magical powers, and were widely imitated across the whole archipelago, but particularly well by the Lio and Ende tribes.  I’ll go into more detail on these in my Timor post next week, but the most common motifs in Lio were the stylised elephants and the eight-petal flowers.

The Sikka Regency is on the north-eastern coast of Flores, and has always been influenced by its links to the ocean, through trade and fishing.  Exquisite ikat textiles have been produced there for generations upon generations, and they are still sometimes used in bartering for items at local markets.

Sikka was heavily influenced by the Portuguese and then the Dutch, which impacted the ikat weaving trade through the introduction of European-style motifs.  The ‘mawarni’ ikat features motifs of roses, which were originally inspired by crochet patterns brought to the island by Dutch nuns in the early twentieth century.  Deer, doves and lions were other crazy foreign concepts that weavers caught glimpses of on crests and coins, and then imagined their own versions of through their textile creations.

There is a strong link between these motifs and the ones coming out of the islands of Sabu {to be featured next week}, which is explained by the strong trading links forged across this small stretch of ocean – well, I just made that up actually but it does make sense…

The ‘okukirei’ motifs are also common, and symbolise their seafaring ancestors’ lives on the ocean –  fishing boats, fishermen and animals such as crabs and shrimps are important.

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

The only differences in Flores are the sources of a few of the natural dye pigments.  The nira palm leaves of Flores give a cracking blue shade, which is often used instead of the indigo plant.  And green is created by mixing indigo {or nira} and turmeric.  It is said that there are at least 11 colours that can be produced from these natural pigments.

Our first collection features a range of vintage ikat pillows and framed ikat artwork from Flores, in varied palettes and with a whole load of motifs that we’re still busy deciphering.  Available from very early 2015, make sure you stop by for a look!

{credits: Anserai / Tropenmuseum / Indonesia Travelling Guide}

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