Embracing Textile Heritage
Learn more about Indonesian traditional fabrics at Threads of Life...
It was a gloomy morning in Bali, yet it didn’t stop me from visiting Threads of Life, a fair trade business that focuses on preserving the country’s heirloom-quality textiles and baskets, while at the same time helping underprivileged fabric makers in rural areas. It is a movement under the Bebali Foundation, founded by Jean Howe and her husband, William Ingram. After a walk through the rice fields to visit their workshop in Ubud, I discovered that the place is even more interesting as it is filled with people with incredible dedication towards Indonesian heritage.
The workshop is nestled within the peaceful area of Umajati Retreat. As I walked into the retreat, Jean herself greeted me. She then took me to the end of the complex where some foreigners were sitting on the batik working table in an open-air Joglo construction next to a rice field. It seemed they were joining a batik course, as one of them was seriously drawing a pattern while the other was carefully applying batik wax.
Threads of Life has been sustaining the art of Indonesian textiles since the 1980s, yet it was officially founded in 1998. It was born from a strong desire to preserve the country’s rich textiles, because each piece from every area across the archipelago contains strong cultural and valuable spiritual philosophies.
As I entered the Joglo house, Jean offered to have me join the batik course. She let me sit at the same table with other participants. There was a white plain cotton cloth, a pencil and a catalogue of batik pattern on the table – I chose the Kawung pattern because I thought it was the easiest.
I succeeded in drawing my first Kawung pattern on the corner of the cloth, yet I still had to continue until the whole cloth was fully covered. Half way through, I thought I couldn’t finish it. Indeed, making batik requires so much patience and effort on every detail, and I don’t think I have that requirement. This is exactly why batik tulis is expensive, and we should appreciate the traditional batik makers who have been doing this marvelous work their whole lives.
During the class, I was introduced to I Made Maduarta or also popularly known as “Pak Pung”, the co-founder and ethnobotanist of Threads of Life. He explained that for almost 20 years now, Indonesian traditional textile has been facing so many challenges. And based on his discoveries during his work and visit to many remote places in Indonesia, the main challenges remain about how Indonesians can maintain their culture and identity, and make a living at the same time.
To overcome the challenges, Threads of Life is currently working directly with over 1,000 women in more than 35 cooperative groups in many areas, from Borneo to Timor. Their business model uses markets to reward cultural integrity, promote environment conservation and empower families in some of the world’s poorest places to help them get out of poverty.
While explaining what Threads of Life has been doing, Jean and Pak Pung took me to the other side of the Joglo house where everyone was watching the dyeing process of their batik. Pak Pung’s staff then helped to hang the fabric and carefully put them in a tank filled with natural indigo color.
Threads of Life uses Morinda Lucida leaves for the indigo color. The leaves are fermented for 24 hours, then pressed using big stones that are heavy enough to prevent the fabrics from floating in the water. It was magical to see how the cloth slowly turned from bright green to light blue then to a perfect indigo. And indeed, it was beautiful to observe what remarkable art our nature creates.
The Threads of Life team does regular trips to many villages in Indonesia. Their mission and focus is not only on the finished products but also on the roots of the textile tradition. Threads of Life helps to revitalize traditions and do much needed field work, such as conservation efforts, applying fair trade and supporting women.
Jean explained that she and her team also did research on how to conserve the Morinda trees which is the source of indigo natural dye for batik, or the Mangrove barks that create the brown natural dye. So Threads of Life is not only using natural sources, but is also striving to grow the trees and find the best way to make them sustainable.
My discovery about textile and the amazing natural dye process did not stop there. Jean took me to the gallery of Threads of Life, their one and only store and gallery on the island, which is located in the heart of Ubud. Here, visitors can stop by and witness a number of incredible fabrics on display, including batik and ikat.
Jean also explained how a woman can make a piece of ikat with a complex, extraordinary technique. Listening to her explanation, I couldn’t stop wondering how someone could have so much patience, skill, talent and accuracy in making such detailed fabrics. And I believe we as consumers have a share to play in preserving this priceless cultural heritage too. The least we can do is give our full support to Threads of Life and the thousands of batik artists in rural areas.
Threads of Life Bali
Jalan Kajeng No. 24 Ubud, Gianyar, Bali
Jalan Subak Uma Petulu, Ubud
Gianyar (Umajati Retreat)
By Wiwin Wirwidya
Magazine issue > Craft&Culture