Sailors from the Asian mainland searching for fragrant sandalwood reached Timor, a dry rugged island at the south-eastern corner of the Nusa Tenggara islands, as early as 500 BCE. These traders carried with them decorated bronze drums made by the Dong Son culture of Vietnam, and introduced rice cultivation and the backstrap loom to the remote island.
The Portuguese and the Dutch came to Timor in the 16th century, seeking to dominate Timor’s sandalwood trade. These European powers divided Timor between them; the Dutch controlled the west from their capital at Kupang and the Portuguese held the east from their base in Dili. Today the island of Timor is again divided into two countries: Timor Leste to the far east and the west remaining part of Indonesia.
The sandalwood forests that once blanketed Timor vanished long ago, and most Timorese today survive through herding and farming. Much of Timor is too dry for wet rice cultivation, and farmers subsist on corn, cassava, sweet potatoes and a dry field variety of rice called padi ladang.
Clusters of conical traditional houses (kbubu) dot the countryside like haystacks, accessed by tiny doors just over a meter high. Thick thatch keeps out the heat of the day and holds in the warmth of the kitchen fire at night. In front of each house stands a lopo, an open pavilion which provides a cool place for welcoming guests and working. The architecture will vary as one travels along the island through the different ethnic regions.
This man’s hip cloth called tai muti is made by weavers from Amarasi near Kupang in West Timor. The man’s hip cloth generally has a white centrefield which is characteristic of people who are ethnically Atoni who predominant ethnic group of western Timor. A man’s formal dress would start with wrapping the larger hip cloth, tai muti, followed by a po’uk atoni and then tied with a nafe as a belt.
This textile, called a beti naek, is a two panel textile sewn in the centre and used by a man as a hip cloth. Traditionally textiles of Insana had no buna (supplementary warp wrap patterning) on the man’s hip cloth but only ikat patterning.
In the 1980’s the queen of Insana shifted the entire weaving production only produce the intricate buna technique throughout the entire textile and determined this to be their cultural identity and worn by all the women and men of Insana. Ironically this has changed the perception of the younger women who all weave the buna textiles: to make an ikat textile would be much more time consuming and expensive – when in fact it would take less than half the time of the buna work.
Beti krao is a two panel man’s hip cloth worn as everyday dress and for some ceremonies. The centre part where the two sections are sewn together contain bands of small full ikat patterning (inaf tuaf) with smaller strips of colour and partial ikat patterning on either side of these bands. The number of full ikat patterning bands (ina tuaf) is 4, 6 or 8 depend on the status and age of the man wearing the textile, the more bands the higher the age and status. There is a broad band of full ikat patterning (ianfa) which contains the primary motif of the cloth. If this patterning is on a blue-black field of colour it is called bete krao metom or if it is on a red field of colour it is called a bete krao nuit.
Po’uk Atoni is a man’s hip cloth worn by men from Amarasi in the southern part of West Timor. It generally has a white centrefield which is characteristic of people who are ethnically Atoni who predominant ethnic group of western Timor.
A sem beklobe is a three part man’s hip cloth with a white centre panel and two side panels sewn together. This textile is still important in the culture for use as a gift exchanges at marriage and funerals.
The Helong ethnic group of Kupang in West Timor were the original inhabitants of this area until the settlement of outsiders from Roti and Savu during the Dutch period. The remaining members resettled on the island off Kupang from Semau. In In 2008 Thersia Alle Ngaing was in her 60s and one of the last Helong weavers when Threads of Life met her. Thersia passed away in May 2016 but left her knowledge of the dye process and clan motifs with her daughter and granddaughter along with several other women in her clan.
Tais bule’en is a man’s hip cloth for the Malaka cultural group.
A tais klar duka is a man’s hip cloth for the Malaka ethnic group. It is worn for ceremonies and other celebrations such as weddings.
Tais halai laran is a man’s hip cloth for the Malaka ethnic group. It is worn for ceremonies or official functions such as festivals or to church.
Futu is a single panel man’s ceremonial belt. It is worn to complete his traditional dress. It is decorated using two time-consuming techniques; naisa or slit tapestry weave along with buna, a warp-wrapping technique.
A man’s status can be identified by the numbers of belts that he wears. A single man will wear one futu, a married man will wear two futu and a wealthy man will wear three to four futu.
Sarek barek is a man’s ceremonial betelnut bag, decorated with beads and worn to complete his traditional dress. It is carried over the shoulder with one hand holding the short strap. A man would carry his betelnut and tobacco in this bag. The betelnut quid includes the leaf of the piper betel pepper plant, a slice of the nut of the betelnut palm (Areca catechu), and powdered lime. The quids contents are served like coffee to guests and carried as a gift when visiting.
Tais is a woman’s tubular sarong made using natural dyed cotton threads. There are three different techniques used to make a tais; futus (ikat), sotis/lotis (floating warp patterning), and buna (supplementary warp wrap patterning).
Some examples of tais include tais hae ma’buna which is a woman’s ceremonial sarong from the region of Biboki.
Women’s sarongs are referred to as tai bife of which there are several different types. Tai ro’e is a three-part woman’s tubular sarong made by the weavers from Amarasi near Kupang in West Timor. The tai ro’e has three or four sections with a centrefield and is worn for ceremonies.
The women of Amarasi will wear the tai ro’e pulled up over the breasts and fold the upper part of the textile inward so that the textile appears like a full dress. The two-part woman’s sarong called tai tika is worn at the hips like a skirt for everyday use.
Tais marobos is a three-part tubular sarong worn by older women of Babotin for traditional ceremonies. The centerfield (tuaf) has a series of coloured stripes with small strips of simple ikat patterning in between. This is bordered by the cloth’s primary broad band of full ikat patterning (ianfa) with more narrow bands of full ikat patterning (saso’ef) as well as small strips of partial ikat patterning (tiup keta) between the bands of full ikat. The end sections (rukif) sewn on at the head and foot of the textile contain whole fields of solid colour either blue-black (metom) or red (nuit). The very end of the textile is finished with four multi-coloured stripes of colour and a small solid blue-black band.
Within the Malaka culture the red (nuit) textile is more highly valued than the black (meton). Only older women may make the more complicated and potent textiles; marobos and keut bati as well as the use of rarote patterning.
Po’uk ana is a narrow shoulder cloth worn by unmarried women and is made by weavers from Amarasi in West Timor. The po’uk ana is worn for ceremonies or special occasions.
A tais maruka nuit textile would be worn by a woman for dance performances (likurai) as well as for traditional ceremonies. The distinctive alternating coloured stripes centrefield (tuana) of the maruka textile is further embellished by using a rarote or warp wrap technique on the end sections rather than using sotis (supplementary) or ikat patterning. The bottom of these end sections are a solid field of colour, either blue-black (metom) or red (nuit).
Within the Malaka culture the red (nuit) textile is more highly valued than the black (metom). Only older women may make the more complicated and potent textiles; marobos and keut bati as well as the use of rarote patterning. These textiles are known for the use of using bright white threads to highlight the colour stripes of their cloths. Threads are bleached white by using the tuber of the tiro (Taccaceae sp).
In the tais keut bati textile the centrefield contains a solid field of the cloths primary ikat patterning (ianfa). If this patterning is on a red field of colour it is called a keut bati nuit, and if the patterning is on a blue-black field of colour it is called keut bati metom. This field of ikat patterning is bordered by stripes of colour with strips of partial ikat patterning (tiup keta) between and another small band of full ikat pattern (saso’ef) at the edge of the centrefield. The end sections (rukif) sewn on at the head and foot of the textile contain whole fields of solid colour either blue-black (metom) or red (nuit) with rarote or supplementary warp wrap technique patterning throughout this colour field. The very end of the textile is finished with four multi-coloured stripes of colour and a small band of rarote.
Only older, initiated women may make the more complicated and potent keut bati textiles. She must ask permission before tying the motif of the cloth and again later must return to the traditional house to give thanks for finishing the cloth without mishap.
A sem behata is a two-part woman’s tube skirt, still important in the culture for use as gift exchanges at marriages and funerals for the Helong ethnic group of Kupang, in West Timor.
Beit ana is the local name for a single panel woman’s shoulder cloth worn as traditional dress for ceremonies and special occasions. This textile is decorated using the time-consuming buna (warp-wrapping technique), ikat or naisa (slit tapestry). Unlike embroidery, buna is performed during the weaving process, resulting in a pattern that is the same on both sides.
A limut is a single panel shoulder scarf worn by women of the Helong ethnic group in West Timor as part of traditional dress.
Pilu Saluf is the local name for a fifteen -part man’s textile costume that was worn by meo warriors in the past. These parts worn; on both the arms and legs, at the front and back of the head, as well as the front and back of the waist.
Today pilu saluf is still worn for ceremonies and stored along with other heirlooms in the traditional house. This is the first time in many years that the Mollo weavers in this area have reproduced a pilu saluf using all natural dyed threads (from the Bebali Foundation) using the complex naisa or slit tapestry technique.