One of several special textile moments on my trip.
We dropped anchor on the northern edge of the island Sumbawa to explore a rumor we had heard about this boat-building/weaving village called Wera. Sure enough the wooden boats, mid construction, could be seen on the shore. Hand made masterpieces. There was soon a huge crowd of laughing children around us and leading us deeper into the village. Within moments I could her the familiar sound of beating cloth coming from beneath the first house we came to. Every house had someone underneath it or beside it weaving her brightly checked cloths; the design favoured by the seafaring people of Indonesia since the Muslims began trading there centuries ago.
These fabrics seemed to echo their buildings so completely in both colour and style. Crouching in the dust beside them I was able to mime my enthusiastic reasons for my interest to the weavers and soon I was invited to try my own hand at it. I squeeze myself into the space she occupied and look down at the back strap loom. The basic set up is familiar, a toothed reed made out of actual reeds for once rather than the industrialised metal reeds I’m used too. The reed has set the density of the cloth to about 40- 50 threads per inch. There is a flat 2 inch wide piece of dark wood a little longer than the warp itself with points at both ends. It has a worn almost glossy finish from the many thousands if not millions of times it has been pushed keenly through the shed of the back strap loom. Unlike a large dobby loom this stick is the thing that you beat hard against the back of the reed to push the weft yarn in place. Out of habit I bang the reed itself against the weft and hearty peals laughter ring out from all around me. They find my clumsy movement extremely amusing but seem delighted at my attempt. I’m soon ejected by a woman with brown stained teeth; from the beetle nuts they chew, she is determined to show me how it is done and smartly whacks the beater stick as the cloth grows quickly under her swift fingers. An amused crowd has gathered to watch my efforts but there is genuine intrigue and expectation at our visit. Soon several bolts of cloth appear, neatly folded into thick fabric parcels, not more than 50cm wide but up to 3m long. A welcome and rare opportunity for these women to sell their cloth. The signature cloth of this village is a brightly coloured check in either small 4-5cm or a larger 15-20cm squares. The cloth has one perfect seam and one seam where loose threads show where the colour changes are made; and it’s this seem where the length would be cut in half and sewn together to form a wearable sized sarong. The houses are all raised on stilts with a narrow porch at the front. A woman outside her house has a small winding machine, a bit like a miniature laundry wrangle, she is feeding small buds of raw cotton into the mouth of the 2 rollers where the cotton fibre is grasped and extracted out the other side into a waiting bowl. She also smiles a toothless red gummed smile and eagerly shows me the results of her work. A huge vat of raw cotton stands by her side ready for spinning and yet I see no evidence of the dyeing process. Nearby a set of brightly synthetic coloured twisted hanks are laid aside ready for weaving. Their glaring saturation means there is no natural dye at play but the colour palette is distinct none the less, bright fuchsia pink, apple greens, scarlet red and mid blue, a vibrant almost electric purple and a strong lemon yellow show a primary palette worked in such a way to remind me of African Kente cloth; this is very different to anything else Indonesian which I have come across. The weaving itself is a simple plain, checked weave but there is something charming and heartening about these cloths. A simple reflection of the aesthetic of the village where these woman live. Wooden painted houses raised from the ground create a cool, dark bamboo enclosed space beneath where these woman can weave in comfort away from the heat. The distinctive sound of the cloth beater alerts me to another smiling woman under her house weaving a brightly coloured cloth. She has a modesty and smiles shyly at my camera. The external wooden shell of the house echoes the cloth being made beneath it. Bright colours outline the windows and always contrast with the main colour of the house. The windows make a grid, their dark interiors punctuating the hot pink frames almost exactly like the warp and weft check of the sarong. The children run through the streets giggling and laughing. The men are by the black volcanic shore building boats, deep wooden hulls expertly moulded, slotted and secured into place with rough wooden pegs packed tight with a kind of rafia and shawn off; also finished by being painted in a strong spectrum. It makes perfect sense that these people adorn themselves with a simple brightly coloured check. Colours across a grid; a shared language between dwelling and cloth, a village society dominated by skilled craftmanship illustrating a true fabric of Indonesian life on this remote island.