Twelve Years in Timor, Part 1 – Continuing the Art of Weaving

I remember Kupang, West Timor, in the late 1990s as a small, rough frontier town facing onto the Savu Sea. There were few cars or motorbikes and people either walked or rode bemos (mini buses) for short distances.

Kupang facing onto the Savu Sea

Beyond Kupang: A Traditional kbubu and a modern house with palm frond walls and a tin roof

Today Kupang is growing quickly. It has at least seven new hotels on the sea front including the luxurious 16-storey Aston Hotel. New banks and government offices are among the more elaborate buildings being constructed and there is a new mall with a Hypermart and other chains. Bemos still cruise the town pumping out outrageously loud music and touting for passengers, and our driver in Timor for the last decade, Om Hanis, told us that the louder the music the more likely a passenger is to get on that bus. Hanis should know: he used to drive a bemo and is now partially deaf.

Once out of Kupang and off the main road along the island, things have not changed much over ten years as we drive out to the communities where we work. Roads continue to be rough and only passable in the dry season. Erosion brings landslides that cover the road or the road simply slips away into deep ravines with people only able to pass by foot or motorbike hugging a ragged remaining edge.

Roads of Timor often require crossing rivers but ONLY in the dry season

Electricity now reaches many remote areas

Yet even with the state of these roads, the national power company has managed to install power line poles. It is unfathomable how they managed to get a truck with these heavy metal pillars up the mountainsides – but the power line stands there waiting for households to gather funds to pay for a connection to their home so they can have a television or a refrigerator.

We started in Timor with three weaving groups in 2004 and today we have almost twenty communities scattered throughout the west part of the island from Kupang to the eastern border of Timor Leste. I joined this recent trip to see the newest groups that Threads of Life has begun to work with, as well as to visit older groups to see what they are up to. This article is one of three on my reflections about this trip.

Mud dyed threads create the ikat pattern being woven on this backstrap loom

Bokong weavers work as a community

One of our field staff once stated, “If there is one woman left who remembers the art of making traditional textiles – and she is passionate – then it is possible to revive the art.” This has become Threads of Life’s unspoken motto and it continues to guide us. In 2005 we started with three weavers in Bokong. Today there are thirteen. What is precious about this place is the intact lineage and passion for the art: great grandmothers, grandmothers, mothers and now their children are all involved in some way in creating the textiles. And more remarkable, the husbands are equally proud of the income generated from the work and help out with harvesting and planting dye crops as well as caring for the children.

The Bokong story inspired us to take on two weavers in Kuso to see what they may produce over the years to come. Independent of Threads of Life, a pastor from the local church paid for a workshop that brought weavers we work with in Bokong to teach these two women the red dye technique. And the pastor asked the senior weavers to connect these new weavers up with Threads of Life so they would have a market. We were thrilled as the initiative to revive this art came from within the community.

Two women were taught the red dye process as a local initiative

Left: Yolanda with her tying frame in 2005 Right: Yolanda today with her daughter

We met Yolanda ten years ago, when she was a girl. At that time she was making what she saw as a more simple motif – the ma’kaif pattern on the ikat frame (left) using synthetic dyes. Today she is still weaving while bringing up two children, and her tying frame contains the more complex beso motif which is a form of the ancestor. The color, then and now, is pure indigo made by her grandmother in the ancestral village in the hills. It was wonderful to see the progress and spend time with Yolanda and her daughter eating my favorite snack jagung bunga (literally, corn flowers), which is popcorn.

We returned to Bali, tired after two weeks on the road but inspired as work in the communities is going so well. The true achievement, however, was the revival of this traditional costume once worn by meo warriors in the area of Mollo. It consists of nine pieces of intricately woven slit tapestry weave with separate parts tied around the head, waist, arms and legs. The long fringes covering the face was said to create a veil between the worlds as men went into battle knowing they were facing death.

Successfully reviving the meo dress