Preserving Textile Weaving: Bali

Life’s threads are drawn from tales of the past; its rituals and religions woven into the fabric of culture and lands. Across Indonesia, this weaving of life’s threads is a link to history, and the stories of lives embedded in textiles. For centuries, women across the archipelago have been the storytellers of their cultures, daily writing across the warp and weft of their backstrap looms the cloth of bridal dowries, infant swaddling garments and shrouds for the dead. Before the advent of tourism, these textile heirlooms were handed down from mother to daughter — their motifs, colors and weaving forms, different in each region, copied and learned by osmosis over generations. However a late 20th Century shift from a bartering to monetary economy threatened to break this tradition.

A little over ten years ago, Balinese tour guide Lolet Made Rai Artha took a group of tourists to Lamalera in Flores. He was disturbed to see people selling their heirloom cloths to tourists according to Trisha Sertori.

“In 1998, I was in Lamalera and saw that heirloom textiles were being sold to tourists. I knew that if this continued our traditional textiles would be lost because these antique cloths were the models for the weaving of new textiles. If the old (ones) were lost, the motifs also were lost,” Lolet said.

He added that women weavers used the heirloom pieces like textbooks that could be read to show how the warp and weft were laid, and the colors tied and dyed to create the motifs exclusive to their cultures.

“This was not only happening in Lamalera, but everywhere,” he said.

As the fabrics of these societies were being sold off — often far below their true value — the insidious creep of modernity, like moths in the dark, was also chewing away at the selvage of cultures, says Lolet.

“There was a real risk of loss (of these textiles). There was a growing idea among the children and young people of these communities that the traditional way of life, and the weavings, was primitive, old … they didn’t understand its value,” said Lolet, adding there was a move away from learning the ancient arts in preference for the cell phones, motorbikes, jeans and t-shirts of the modern world.

Lolet and others recognized that only a viable economic return for the weavings would save them. So Threads of Life and its sister foundation, the Pecinta Budaya Bebali, were born.

Together, the business and foundation established weaving cooperatives across nine islands, including Sulawesi, Kalimantan, Java, Bali, Sumba, West Timor and Flores. The business arm, Threads of Life, has created a worldwide market for the traditionally produced weavings, offering communities true value payment for their works.

Threads of Life is a Fair Trade certificated business. The foundation is an Indonesian non-profit organization that works with communities to “recover dye skills and sustainable dye-plant use” as well as empower women, create healthy environments and rebuild weaving skills.

Together the foundation and business have turned around the cultural view of weavings in many communities. With the recognition that these skills have economic value in the modern world, young people are again learning the art.

“Young people are seeing with selling this cloth it is highly respected. There is again pride in culture. If we don’t make this combination of the modern world with the traditional culture, it will be lost. The modern world and traditional cultures can live in harmony. This can be seen in Bali,” Lolet said.

He points out the making of these traditional cloths binds entire communities; weaving passes down a community’s history, offers women a disposable income that can be spent on school fees or medical needs and restores personal respect, pride and belief in self and cultural roots.

The weavings also impact positively on the environment, says Lolet.

Textiles are one of the most important elements in a community; a link into the culture — the threads of life that bind environment, society, culture, education, economy, ritual and capacity building. (Weavings today) places in people’s hands both the modern and the traditional worlds.”

Dyes used in traditional weavings are made from barks, roots, flowers and leaves of local plants. With the growth in textile production, the foundation has helped communities establish dye gardens to ensure the ongoing supply of source materials.

“In the past, the natural environment was healthy and produced the materials needed for the textiles. Plant use for textiles was not an economic focus, but an heirloom production. The situation now is different as communities try to develop a textile based on income.”

The developing textile economies could have exhausted natural resources as people were not aware of the volume of plants available, however the foundation has established environmental programs to grow plants needed for the dyes.

“There was a potential risk that over use would wipe out the plants needed for dyes. That would also have spelt the end of textile production and (led to) cultural collapse,” said Lolet.

Today, weaving communities are environmentally aware, growing plants needed for dyes and effectively greening their environments.

This has had a positive health impact, according to Lolet, who says community health has improved because “the environment is good, culture is good, economy is good and people are living a harmonious and low-stress life”.

He adds the protection and preservation of traditional textiles is as important as the preservation of other arts.

“I love ikat, I love textiles. Textiles are like a painting. You can tell the area it came from, who the weaver was from the motif and the technique by the weaving and the region by color. The red from Sumba is different to the red from Timor because of the soil, the process and the culture.”

Indonesia’s women weavers knot the past to the present, binding cultures to their lands with threads of life that link the intricate warp and weft of those cultures to future generations.

Fair Trade

The International Fair Trade Association (IFAT) is an organization comprising more than 300 member organizations across 70 countries. IFAT seeks to develop fair trading practices for disadvantaged groups around the world.

Threads of Life is a certified Fair Trade business. IFAT is transparent and ensures disadvantaged communities’ access to fair prices on the international platform for their wares.

Traditional weavings produced across Indonesia can take more than a year to create, these are high art pieces and are priced accordingly.

To find out more visit Threads of Life and Pecinta Budaya Bebali in Ubud, see or phone (0361) 972 187.