Indonesia *Tanah Air*

The Backstrap Loom

Watching someone weave with a hand-loom gives one an appreciation for the complexity and variation possible in weaving. Within the confines of a few web pages, I cannot hope to fully reveal the weaving process, but you can catch a glimpse of the process, and hear from the weavers themselves as they comment on their work.

Martha's the happy weaver to the left, a friend of Pin, who you may have met in a previous visit to the Fabric Center. In fact, she and Pin are working together on the weaving you see here, a commissioned piece. "We didn't actually choose the color scheme you see here," Pin said. "It was drawn by the client." She herself would have preferred a more colorful pattern.

Below we can get a fair idea of the loom's set up. The name "backstrap loom" comes from the belt worn behind the weaver's back. By leaning against it, she maintains tension in the longitudinal yarn.

Said Pin, "I like a leather strap, but you can make it out of anything: cloth, a gunny sack, even cement bag paper." Cement bags? "Hey, it works!"

The fairly large, smooth piece of wood separating the two levels of longitudinal yarn (appearing just below Martha's hands in the picture) is used to ram the lateral yarn tight as she completes each row. "We call that the senu," explains Marcia over Martha's reticence, a third weaver. "The small wand on the floor next to Martha is the sauban. It's used to raise the yarns, so that we don't need to part the strands with our fingernails with each pass. For most things though, we just use are our fingers and nails."

Note how Martha has arranged blocks of wood to brace her legs against.

Here Marcia ties off the ends of the cloth with "cat's cradle"- like movements, then passes the yarn around a few more strands and yanks it tight.

This particular piece will eventually be cut about six inches behind the wooden clamp by Marcia's lap to form a single, long, tapestry-like piece. To ensure a straight, tight border which will protect the cloth once it is cut, she cinches it down with this procedure, called in Timorese abisu .

Not all pieces are secured with abisu technique, however. "If we know that the fabric is later going to be sewn, for instance into a sarung, then there's no need to tie off the ends," Marcia said.

When asked about her choice of colors, Marcia said it depends mainly on personal taste. "A lot of folks in Kapan are now weaving after the styles of Ende [in Flores] or Bélu-- using a lot of dark colors, blues and black. But in Kapan, traditionally one would never do this. Black and blue are always separated by white. Similarly, white and yellow must be separated by a dark color, like black, blue, or green."

Would she say that the new trend of weaving darker motifs is essentially a marketing decision? Many people, after all, consider the fabrics of the Kapan area too colorful, even tacky. "Not really. It's just that some folks in Kapan, having seen and admired these other fabrics, want to imitate them."

Pin chimes in, "Most people weave for themselves. There's a man in our village who just wears regular sarungs-- the store-bought kind . . . " They shake their heads slowly. "It's definitely frowned upon if a woman doesn't weave for her family."

Is weaving to them a personal or social activity? Do they ever weave together, trading ideas and chatting up a storm? "Usually one weaves on the side-- when all the other chores have been finished," Marcia said. "Everyone keeps their own hours."

"Sometimes, though, we weave as a group," rejoined Pin. "The government has formed weaving collectives. Or say there's an important guest coming to town. They'll gather everyone together for a weaving session so that we have gifts to offer the guests. "

So local government officials will pull people together if there is an important official visit?

"Yes," said Pin, "That's right. But older family members will also gather together family if a relative is coming to visit, and we'll weave together. And then there's the collectives."

"But generally people weave on their own, in their spare time," said Marcia.

"The only time you don't weave is if you don't have yarn. If you have yarn, you weave."

Do they still make their own yarn, plant their own cotton, make their own dyes?

"Ah, I hate to bother. But yes, it's still done. We all did it when we were younger."

Marcia said, "During the day we'd lay the cotton in the sun to dry, and then in the evening clean the cotton, fluff it up, spin it into thread-- "

"Night-time work." Pin cut in. "My mother-- she'd have us at it! If we had time on our hands, there we'd be, pulling at the cotton, boxes and boxes of it . . . it would take about two weeks just to clean it all."

Would that be enough to weave for the whole year?

"Not really. The work just continues."

That's really the bottom line: it's a lot of work, weaving by hand. But it's worth it to these women.

Fabric Thumbnails
Window on Indonesia Index

© 1997 JRA.All Rights Reserved.