New Products and Livelihoods for Timor

A few of the members of the Nek Mese weaving group.

On this trip to Timor I went with a very specific purpose: to look for non-cotton fibers that are growing in the communities we currently are working in that may be used for a new product. We decided to start in Bokong, Amanatun, where we have a good working relationship with not only the weavers but their husbands, as this new product would most likely be one that the weavers husbands would make.

In Timor the people refer to having two seasons; one they call the wet season and the other they call the hungry season. The terrain during the dry season is indeed dry. This is a good time to weave but it is not a good time to gather food for ones daily needs. As the land yields so little income, men in these eastern islands often leave their families in search of work in Malaysia or Kalimantan working in the palm oil plantations.

During the dry season there is little that can be harvested.

Young gewang leaves are harvested to make fiber.

There are a few plants that can be harvested year round that are or were traditionally used as fibers. Gewang (Corypha utan), ek fui (Agave sisalana), and nunuh (Ficus)are among the most common fiber plants used. Gewang (Corypha utan) has many applications: the fruit can be used as food for animals and people during food shortages, the leaves are used for roofs, and the stems are split and used for walls. Fiber can be stripped from the leaves to make rope.

The leaves are then stripped into fiber as thin or as thick as required. These sliced fibers are then twisted into fiber that can be used for rope or tyes for construction of fences or houses.

Gewang fibers being cut into thin strips.

The agave leaves are pounded to remove the flesh so that the fiber is easily extracted.

Ek fui (Agave sisalana) and nunuh (Ficus) are used for making rope. To make fiber from Ek Fui (Agave) the longest and oldest leaves are harvested. Nunuh bark is stripped bark from young branches. Traditionally Ficus trees were copiced so that there would be a renewable supply of branches to harvest each year.

The Ek fui (Agave sisalana) leaves are then pounded to remove all the flesh and soaked for three days to one week after which the fiber is easy to extract.

The longest and oldest leaves of ek fui (Agave sisalana) are harvested.

Mud dyeing ek fui and gewang fibers to a black color.

Bokong has a tradition of mud dyeing the cotton threads used in their textile production, so we wanted to also try to dye the ek fui and gewang to see if these fibers would retain a black color. These black fibers could then be used to create patterns when combined with undyed fibers.

We were very pleased with the dyed results. The next step is to make products with these fibers that use the basketry and mat-making techniques the community is familiar with. We believe there may be markets for such work that could provide additional income for these communities – especially for the men. We hope that by the middle of 2013 we will have some sample products for the men to try their hands with, so they can earn a living and stay with their families!

Drying black fibers.