New Straits Times, 9 August 1997: "Dyeing that's certainly not dead."

Kim Jane Saunders: Contemporary Tie and Dye Textiles of Indonesia. Kuala Lumur, Oxford University Press, 1997. 107 pages.

Review by Otto Steinmayer

Nobody knows when weaving began. Cloth is so useful that the making of it goes back to the beginning of Everything Else. You can bet, however, that as soon as people invented cloth, they started patterning it. Spinning and weaving are the big chores; it takes so little extra effort to make a fabric that catches the eye better than plain écru.

    Of the dozens of ways of turning a textile fabric into a work of art, the technique of ikat, along with batik, is the special boast of Southeast Asia. “Ikat” of course, means “tie up,” and that’s exactly what you do. The idea is to dye yarn (not necessarily wool, the word ‘yarn’ means the thread that’s spun but not yet woven) selectively, just where you want it, so that when woven into a cloth a pattern appears.

    You carefully wind yarn over a frame, measuring the length of the piece you finally envisage, then tightly tie up the threads with strips of plastic raffia or palm-fiber where you want no dye to reach. Plunge it into the dye-vat, repeat the process for other colours if you please, weave it up in a simple over-and-under weave, and there you are.

    Although the ikat technique is simplicity itself, you can take it as far as you want. Some cloths have astonished me with the painstakingly halus texture and minute detail of their dyeing, and with the elegance, power, and fantasy of their designs. No wonder that among the Iban, the most skilled Malaysian weavers of ikat, the art was called kayau indu, ‘the women’s warpath.’ A Iban weaver who excelled in skill and was spiritually strong enough to realize the potent designs revealed to her in dreams, received the title ‘orang pandai’ and respect equal to that enjoyed by a successful warrior.

    So, ho-hum, another “traditional art” of “traditional culture.” But, though ikat may be dyeing, it certainly isn’t dead! Plenty of scholars have written on the ancient style, Saunders takes a happy tour through present day Indonesia, and celebrates the many living, inventive women and men weaving modern ikat in all its variety.

    Ikat fabric is created and worn from Sumatra to Tanimbar. Saunders herself got taken with ikat textiles while she travelled through Indonesia, an experience reflected in her book. She studied weaving by collecting it. There is, I reckon, little in ikat cloth to exercise the mind or heart apart from the cloth itself; the thing is its own reason to delight in it. Therefore, Contemporary Textiles is, as it should be, a handbook for collectors. And, since Saunders confesses she has left gaps in her broad treatment, her book is an excellent invitation for explorers to fill them in on their own.
With Indonesia so very near to us, it makes sense, if you like ikat, to take a visit and seek what you like. For those who would rather stay at home, Saunders’ generous pages of lovely colour photos, from Bali to Suva, are a collection in itself.

    Ikat flourishes in Indonesia, as songket in Malaysia, because—in a word—people still wear it. People wear ikat for reasons other than a simple preference for the designs. Unlike batik, ikat technique will succeed only when woven into shapes determined by the loom, rectangles, strips and squares, which also determine the kinds of designs one can make. Ikat fabric, then, has been worn in the traditional ways as sarong, selendang, or breast-cloth. I myself proudly own a rare piece, a modern, full-length Iban sirat woven throughout in ikat.

    The sarong for daily wear is fast vanishing in Malaysia, but in many parts of Indonesia ordinary women and men still go about their daily affairs in wrapped lower garments. One of the most popular items of ikat is what Saunders calls the “beach sarong,” a length of ikat, usually in cotton/rayon blend and dyed a gay colour. Sure the tourists wear them; yet many Balinese men and women wear them, too. The fabric is supple and drapes beautifully when tied in Balinese kamben style.

    Tourist money has been a lot of help to weavers. “Commercial,” however, does not at all mean “poor quality.” Nor do modern adaptations, chemical dyes, synthetic yarns, and mechanical looms, destroy beauty and authenticity. As anybody who has visited the Central Market knows, ikat made on a power-loom can be attractive and sturdy. How many of us have bought and use the large and comfortable ikat blankets manufactured in Sumatra? Saunders herself, when still a novice, bought two such under the impression they were Batak ulos cloths. Disabused she did not treasure her coverlets less. We could use more of such an accepting attitude to modern developments in crafts.

    Commercial weavers also produce much high quality, often silk, ikat in modern fashions. Successful experiments in fitting ikat fabric to tailored fashions are also spreading the use of ikat among sophisticated urban Indonesians.
Skilled individual weavers also, because of the good market, can afford to exercise the whole range of traditional techniques: use of handspun cotton, pineapple fiber, or silk, vegetable dyes, and the backstrap loom. A good example is the kain gerinsing of the Bali Aga people. This they weave with a double ikat technique, that is, the weft (the yarn that is inserted by the shuttle) is dyed with a pattern, as well as the warp stretched on the loom. And this in three different colours! Pieces may take years carefully to come to completion.

    Saunders puts it through clearly that apart from its esthetic charm, ikat survives and thrives for a deeper reason. Whether city-dwellers or islanders, the weavers and creators of ikat know their craft as a part of their way of life and identity. The patterns of ikat are not merely beautiful, they are meaningful. Adat continues to claim respect, and ikat, as the weavers say, is the “skin of adat.”

    Try the cloth on your skin, and Saunders’ charming book on the skin of your eyes.