Plagues and Possibilities in East Sumba

Left/Above: A view from the plane across eastern Sumba. Right/Below: An ikat-dyed warp on the loom and ready to be woven.

This past August Pung and I returned to Sumba for the first time since the pandemic began to visit and purchase textiles from the traditional communities that work with Threads of Life. We were there only two weeks after the end of a locust plague that had devoured most crops, stripped the leaves off of bamboo and trees, and consumed even the mold off wooden houses. These plagues are unfortunately a common recurrence in Sumba due to loss of bird predators. In Rindi, Tamu Rambu Hamu Eti was devastated to find that the rice fields that Umbu (her husband who passed away in December 2022) had planted only produced thirty kilograms of rice instead of the usual two tons.

Left/Above: Tamu Rambu Eti’s daughters at work. Right/Below: The pandemic left time for weavers to produce many textiles.

 “I give up!” Eti reported to us despondently. “Farming is too hard and too uncertain. I will focus all our energy on weaving now that Threads of Life provides us with a market again. This is the only income I can rely on”. We heard this same line of thinking from other weavers we visited who had spent their time weaving during the forced stay-at-home time of the pandemic and were eager to find more consistent means of income having endured the recent locust plague.   Buying so many textiles that had been made during the pandemic meant that we more than doubled what we had intended to spend during this field trip to Sumba. We were impressed with the wonderful quality of the textiles we found as the pandemic provided everyone with lots of focused time for weaving.

Above: The groom arrives for a marriage betrothal between Rindi and Kaliuda.

Left: Kaliuda is renowned for the depth of its red dye.

We came home with both wonderful new Sumbanese textiles to offer and a new relationship with a community that we have hoped to work with for the last 25 years. This access was provided to us through the engagement of one of Umbu and Eti’s daughters to the son of the last king of Kaliuda. The textiles of Kaliuda attracted our attention from the early days of Threads of Life in the 1990s with their whimsical motifs and deep red and dark blue-black colours. In the past, the colours were so intense we were convinced this could not be purely a natural dye process.

Left/Above: Developing deep relationships grants us access to family dye recipes. Right/Below: Whimsical horse and chicken motifs are hallmarks of Kaliuda textiles.

Pung and I were privileged to meet Eti’s daughter’s new family, who are extraordinary weavers and dyers in Kaliuda. The trust we have developed with the Rindi family facilitated our access in Kaliuda, allowing us to see, discuss in depth, and come to understand the oiling and red dye processes for Kaliuda’s signature red color. Ironically, this is the same family I collected textiles from in 1998 when I was hoping to develop a working relationship with weavers in Kaliuda. What a small world! And how it once again reinforces to us the importance of relationships. It is through these relationships that access to new avenues and possibilities opens to us.