Back to the Loom and the Land

Tutut and Wenten flying in the small 20 seat plane to Savu

Transportation to Savu is always a challenge. You can fly to Savu from Kupang once a week on the small Cassa 212 which has a capacity of 20 people. Or there is the ferry that leaves from Kupang twice a week to Savu. When the winds blow from the west (angin barat) from October to March, it brings high seas and strong winds and the ferries often will not leave port. So Tutut and I felt very lucky this time to get a seat on the airplane to Savu from Kupang.

This was Tutut’s first visit to Savu as well as to the small island off Savu called Rai Jua. The weavers were delighted that she made the trip as they had attended many of the workshops that Tutut has facilitated.

Tutut talking to Ina Hale at the sacred stone circle of Namata

As we crossed the strait between Savu and Rai Jua the crew caught a fish

We spent several days on Savu with the weavers and then headed to Rai Jua which is a two hour crossing by boat from Savu’s main village of Seba. The seas were fairly calm and the crew always tow a fishing line in the hopes of snagging a fish while we slowly make our way across the strait to Rai Jua.

On our last visit to Rai Jua in April this year I met only one elderly woman, Getreda Kana Koy, who was actively spinning and dying threads for weaving. In the past almost all of the women on Rai Jua were involved in the production of textiles, while the men harvested the nectar from the lontar palms to make palm sugar. All of the community’s daily needs were once met by these two activities. What was surplus could be traded for other goods.

Getreda Kana Koy is a senior master weaver and dyer on Rai Jua

Almost overnight lontar farmers became seaweed farmers

However, in 2000 seaweed farming was introducted to Rai Jua as well as to other islands such as Rote. The promise of easy money meant that lontar farmers became seaweed farmers almost overnight. The price per kilogram for seaweed was only 400 rupiah per kilo in the year 2000; now it is 22,500 rupiah per kilo. A farmer can harvest 25–50 kilograms every 40 days. With the cash that this crop generates, most of the people on Rai Jua no longer grow corn and tap palms but now they buy rice from Kupang and palm sugar from Savu.

I come from a family of palm tappers in Singaraja, Bali, so I know how easy it is to lose the skill of climbing the palm tree. I also know that the price of seaweed fluctuates greatly, like any commodity. There are other problems too, such as the disease on Rote some years ago that killed off much of the seaweed growing there. Such a disaster is hard on a family who is dependant on the sale of this single crop for their income.

Seaweed farmers and their families in front of their huts on the beach

Getreda and other members of the newly formed weavers group on Rai Jua

When we visited Rai Jua in April this year, Threads of Life purchased eight textiles from Getreda Kana Koy, in front of her whole family. It seemed to me that the cash from this sale has made the family more aware that weaving is a viable means of income as on this trip we saw ten women from Getreda’s extended family working with .

Now this community group is facing the challenges that we see in so many places when the art of natural dyeing is revived beyond the one person who has maintained it – a lack of natural resources. Since people have been focused on seaweed farming they stopped growing cotton. Getreda’s newly formed weaving group is now planting cotton and aware of how important their natural resources are to continuing to sell their textiles. With this attitude I feel that they are living up to the name they have taken for their weaving group, Mira Ie Hari, which means “for the good of all”.

Once again the Morinda trees are being harvested for their roots to make red dye

My favorite textile is still the Ei Pudi Wo Datu

While the weavers are making several types of traditional textiles – such as Ei Ledo, Ei Raja and Ei Worapi – my favorite is still the ritually important Ei Pudi Wo Datu. This blue black textile is dyed with indigo and tannins and has a lovely white tie-dye element made by binding a corn kernel or mung bean into the cloth before dyeing. From the sale of all textiles the weavers group is setting asside a percentage that is lent out to members in need. Tutut and I left hopeful that more members will return to the weaving art, which means returning to care for their natural environment.