Making Great Strides in West Timor

The women of the Com Esa weavers’ group of Helong, under the guidance of Thersia Ngaing (in front with pink shirt)

In 2008 when we first sought out weavers in the Helong area, Thersia Alle Ngaing was in her late 60s and was the last woman who still had the knowledge required to weave the ethnic group’s traditional textiles. Today 11 women work with Thersia. Together they have revived the natural dye art by weaving both the woman’s Sembeg Hata textile and the mans’ Sembeg Klobe hip cloth.

The Sembeg Klobe has an ornate fringing technique which we had once seen on a textile that was in an antique shop in Kupang. The textile was sold before we could show the weavers and we have since tried to find older women who remember how to do the fringing. No one remembers. This last trip we bought a very good Sembeg Klobe but it did not have the traditional fringing.

Sembeg Klobe man's hip cloth

Ornate fringing used on the Sembeg Klobe textiles of Helong

Earlier this year, our friend Patricia Moncrieff, a textile conservator in Freemantle, Australia, sent us pictures of a textile she was working on and wondered if we could identify it. By coincidence it was a Sembeg Klobe and it had the traditional fringing! We asked Patricia if she would send photos so that we could see the fringing in detail and then take it back to the weavers.

We are certain that from this photo the weavers can relearn to make their traditional fringing. It is small details like this that add value to a textile and increase weavers’ incomes. We are grateful to Patricia and her client for helping bring this information back into the collective memory of the weavers of Helong.

Yohana Leo is one of the younger weavers from Helong

West Timor weavers are making exciting progress despite the difficult conditions they live in

Threads of Life began its work in West Timor with one weaving group in 1998. Today we work in 20 different communities. With our June 2010 visit we could not help but reflect on the exciting progress these groups are making despite the harsh conditions they live in. The progress we are seeing is not only with regard to the quality of the dyeing and weaving but also the groups’ commitment to cultivate dye plants, their understanding and application of bookkeeping and microfinance systems, and perhaps most important, their sense of pride.

Rebeka Melu is the head of the Nek Mese weaving group in Bokong. When Threads of Life met Rebeka and her friend Antoneta Sae in 2004 they were making synthetic dyed textiles for their own use and had never sold to an outside market. Today the group they formed has 17 members and they are assisted by the men of their families to cultivate and harvest the dye plants that they now use to make their textiles.

The Nek Mese community of weavers and farmers of in Bokong

The revival of the Mau Naik mans hipcloth made with natural dyes and mud dyed motif centerfield

When we started working together they were making one type of textile called a Tais Buna. Their repertoire has increased remarkably as they have revived several different types of textile. This means that their income has also increased. With encouragement from our Timorese fieldstaff, Willy Daos Kadati, they revived their community’s traditional Mau Naik man’s hip cloth that is made using ikat mud dyed patterns in the centerfield.

In the village of Nasi, not far from Bokong, there are a number of women weaving handspun textiles using natural dyes. In the past the textiles of Nasi and Bokong would have been very similar. However, in the 1990s Westerners were intrigued with the buna warp wrapping technique and asked if an entire man’s hipcloth could be decorated using this technique. In response to strong market demand, the weavers of Nasi made buna hipcloths even though men from the village will not wear such a textile.

Weavers from Nasi with their textiles made for the tourist market

A traditional man’s hip cloth as worn by men in Nasi

During this last trip Wenten asked the weavers to show an example of what their traditional man’s textile looks like. They showed him this synthetic dyed textile with a large motif in the centerfield. Wenten asked if they could make this textile again using natural dyes.

Molo is a small village an hour or so out of the city of Soe. Village life is simple and most people work in the fields where they grow corn, peanuts and tapioca as well as raising livestock. Most people still prefer to live in a traditional house called an Ume Bubu or round house.

People in Molo live in round houses called Ume Bubu

Alferratni Oematan-Pea, a weaver in Molo, holding a textile ordered by Threads of Life that took a year to complete

The weavers of Molo make a textile using an open tapestry technique weave called kelim. In the past, long ribbons of kelim hung from the headdresses of the meo warriors covering the eyes. Threads of Life has worked with a small group of kelim weavers since 2008, encouraging them to refine their work to more be more like it was in the past.

We are hoping that there will be increased interest in weaving traditional textiles in Buikoun, which is near Belu in the far eastern part of West Timor. At this time Katarina Tae and her daughter are the only ones interested in weaving, but we know that this is often how things get started, and believe others will join if Katarina is seen to be profiting from her work.

Katarina Tae of Buikoun weaves with her daughter