The Embroidered Story Cloths of Negara, Bali

Initially, I did not find the embroideries of Negara very appealing. To my taste, the threads were coarse, uneven and garish. I was comparing these textiles to the more elegant bebali textiles from other parts of Bali such as the supplementary weft (songket) or the weft ikat (endek)cloths, not to mention the superb double ikat geringsingfrom Tenganan in east Bali.

During the ten days between the major Balinese ceremonies of Galungan and Kuningan you can see our shrines decorated with lamak, which are narrow vertical cloths depicting symbols related to the rice goddess Dewi Sri, and umbul-umbul, which are tall, thin flags usually decorated with dragon motifs. Then there are embroidered cloths that contain stories of the Mahabarata and Ramayana and Bali love stories like Sampik Ingtai.

My understanding began to change after reading and looking at Joseph Fisher`s book “”Story Cloths of Bali”” (Ten Speed Press, 2004). In this book I found there were many types and sizes of cloths, such as a leluur ritual ceiling canopy, or an ider-ider narrow horizontal cloth used to decorate the eaves of a roof during a ceremony. This shrine dedicated to the God Surya is wrapped in a embroidered textile.

The method of drawing these stories is very interesting to me. The pencil lines are drawn by an artist who has special spiritual attributes, such as a shadow puppet master or a traditional architect. This person would have a deep understanding of the traditional stories. Then the artisan will embroider threads over these pencil lines, sometimes adding glass mirrors for further enhancement.

I have spent the last three years trying to find artists in Negara who would like to continue to make these embroideries to the level of quality I see in Joseph Fisher`s book. I feel that it is important to maintain the production of these textiles as they are identified with the area of Negara in West Bali. Just looking at the textiles I can also read the stories and it makes me want to understand more. It connects me to my Balinese identity.

After three years of meeting many people who knew a little about these story cloths, we finally found Ibu Ratih and her group of four embroidery artisans last month. She is eager to work with us and to bring the level of quality back to what it was twenty years ago. I plan to bring her some of our natural dyed threads next time I visit and also some handspun white textiles from the weavers of Seraya to use as her background.

I am sure that as the quality of these story cloths improves there will be a market among Balinese as well as visitors from outside of Bali. We have seen this happen with other Balinese textiles such as the natural dyed Songket textiles with complex motifs from Sidemen, which we supported and which the elite of Bali now seek. So why not the embroidered story cloths of Negara next.