Machi Textiles of Fais Island

The island of Fais in the Carolina Islands of Micronesia.

In March Threads of Life presented an exhibition of textiles at the Isla Gallery of the University of Guam. During our time there we were able to meet with Dr. Donald Rubinstein, an anthropologist and faculty of the Micronesia Studies Program. In 2001 Donald along with a young man, Sophiano Limol, proposed a cultural revival program for Yap State in the Federated States of Micronesia. As Sophiano is from the 2-kilometer-long island of Fais in Yap, the important ceremonial machi textile from Fais was chosen as the focus of this revival.

Traditionally, the machi textile is made with a warp and weft of banana fiber (Musa sp) and a supplementary weft of hibiscus tree bark fiber. Textiles very similar in materials, design and motifs were made on the Indonesian islands of Sangihe and Talaud, located between the Philippines and Sulawesi, and in the far past, banana fiber and hibiscus bark were used across Indonesia before cotton was first used.

Making fine strips from banana fiber for the warp threads of the machi textiles.

A machi textile is made using banana fiber for the warp.

The process of making a traditional machi textile requires the women to follow the traditional law of Fais by wearing traditonal dress which entails the women not wearing an upper garment. Sophiano found that there were less than thirty women over the age of thirty who still knew how to weave a machi textile, They were still using banana fiber but they were using synthetic threads for the weft pattern. On the nighboring island of Ulithi Atoll the knowledge was completely lost. When the project began in 2004 no one remembered how to achieve the natural dyes required in a traditional machi textile. To make the supplementary weft, strips of bark from a hibiscus species are collected and left in sea water ponds where they are softened before they are separated into fines strips that will be dyed and used as the supplementary weft thread producing the motifs on the machi textiles.

Like many islands in Indonesia the bark of the root of Morinda is used to create a red dye. On Fais prepared hibiscus fibers are soaked in this Morinda red dye which also has lime mixed in. Limol Sophiano tells the story that the group could not get the red to adhere to the fiber until one of the men whose wife was a weaver dreamed that his recently deceased mother, a master machi weaver, gave him a machette and told him that iron was the missing ingredient. The Threads of Life dye team is eager to experiment with Morinda dyeing on hisbiscus to see what we can come up with.

Hibiscus bark is stripped and left in sea water ponds while it softens so that the fibers can be used for the supplementary weft threads.

Making red dye from the bark of Morinda with some lime added. This process had to be rediscovered through trial and error.

These colored hibiscus fibers are then added one by one by the weaver to create a pattern between the warp threads.

The motifs are highly stylized; some represent human figures and different kinds of fish. I was interested to read that Rubinstein (“On Machi Textiles”, University of Guam, Donald Rubinstein, 2004) writes that the machi conforms to “a strict formal symmetry and corresponds with the design structure of other weavings, of tattoo motifs, architectural forms, and even the social ground plan of the village…” Such concepts would also be true for the geringsing weavers in the village of Tenganan on Bali.

Placing the single hibiscus fiber between warp threads to create a pattern.

All the motifs and design positions are named and do not seem to have changed over the last 100 years.

On Fais there are several local chiefs and a paramount island chief. These local chiefs hold responsiblity for different ritual obligations associated with fishing, canoe construction, dance, and even machi weaving. The women from the chiefs’ families are required to weave at least one machi textile a year to be presented to the island’s paramount chief. When a chief receives this textile he lays it on the central “spirit shelf” in his house for four days and only then is it wrapped up and put away. Senior men on the island are wrapped and buried in and among machi textiles.

In 2004 six women successfully completed the training of becoming machi textile makers. Each woman produced two pieces. This was said to be the first time in over a century that machi were produced entirely from natural materials. Since then others have been taught and there has been a renewed sense of pride in the culture especially by women.

A senior man wrapped in a machi at death.

The older generation of machi weavers having successfully trained a younger gerneration in the art.

Threads of Life was approached in March to take five of these machi textiles back to Bali on consignment in hopes of finding a market that will support the continuation of the production of machi textiles on Fais. As with the revival of textiles anywhere, it is important to find an informed and enthusiastic audience to appreciate and buy these textiles. At Threads of Life we feel that the high degree of cultural and technical continuity between the weavers we have worked with until now in Indonesia and those we now have contact with in Micronesia make it sensible for us to work with the Fais weavers. We trust we will find an appreciative audience for their unparalleled work.