The Cepuk and Kawis textiles of Nusa Penida

Nusa Penida is green at this time of year

A field trip across the narrow strait from Bali to Nusa Penida gave us the chance to learn more about the small island’s culture. The limestone island is green and lush at this time of year but will soon dry out and turn brown as the year wears on.

The islands traditional houses are harder and harder to find

We traveled to the village of Ampel and met weavers making kawis. A feature of the village is the old houses, which are striking both for their appearance and their rarity. And they are getting rarer as the government pays people to replace them with more comfortable, modern buildings. The old houses are dark and cramped inside, so the change makes sense, but it is a shame that a middle path cannot be found that both preserves the vernacular architecture and houses people comfortably.

The cassava harvest is processed and dried

In a household busy processing and drying cassava roots to store and eat throughout the year, we met a kawis weaver. She makes synthetically dyed kawis textiles with a cepuk motif that may be used for wrapping bones that are exhumed for a cremation, or to wrap the bagia offerings used in the periodic rededication ceremony for a temple.

Yarn being Sseined to make a kawis cloth

Kawis are loosely woven textiles made of commercial “gos” thread that is spun from cotton fibres too short to make high quality yarn. Gos is sometimes hard to distinguish from hand-spun cotton.

The open weave of a kawis textile

Each kawis is about sixty centimetres long and has one full cepuk motif. It is woven on a hand-powered mechanical loom and, once a loom has been warped, the weaver can make sixty such motifs, each selling for Rp 40,000 (USD 2.75). If a weaver can complete three warps per year, she makes Rp 7,200,000 (USD 500) before deducting her costs.

A natural dyed Cepuk textile

By contrast, a weaver making natural dyed cepuk can earn Rp 25,000,000 (USD 1,725) selling what she can make in a year. A cepuk will have rows of diamond patterns called bintang kurung. The name literally means ‘enclosed stars’ but is more accurately translated as ‘guarded light’, the cloth being used to protect its wearer from those intending harm. Surrounding the bintang kurung are tebih bands. Tebih means section and also refers to a single rice field. The suggestion of boundaries and containing further protects the light of the central motif field. The word cepuk itself derives from cepukan which means unification, underlining this idea.

Weft ikat frame for a kawis cloth

As protective textiles, cepuk are used in tooth filing ceremonies to safeguard the participant during the ritually vulnerable moment when they are being reborn into adulthood. They are also worn as hip cloths by dancers, playing the witches sisia apprentices in the Calonarang trance ritual, and are worn as well by Rangda herself as queen of the graveyard and patroness of magic.