The traditional art of ikat weaving


We recently ran a post about ikat, a special type of weaving that’s done in Indonesia. By coincidence, I was reading the classic Island of Bali by Miguel Covarrubias (first published in 1937) over the holidays, and came across a passage about ikat weaving and the significance of the cloths created by the Bali Aga people. It’s absolutely fascinating:

The Balinese believe that human beings were sacrificed in Tengenan to make dyes for their famous ceremonial scarfs, the kamben grinsing, a cloth that, because it is supposed to be dyed with human blood, has the power to insulate the wearer against evil vibrations and is prescribed at all important Balinese rituals.

These scarfs, in which the warp is left uncut, are much in demand by the Balinese.

The kamben grinsing is a loosely woven, narrow scarf of thick cotton with intricate designs in rich tones of rust-red, beige and black against a yellow background.

The process of dyeing and weaving is unbelievably long and complicated, and over five years are required from the time the cotton is prepared to the finished scarf, according to Korn. The threads are left in each of the dyes for months, macerated in kemiri oil for months to fix each color, and then dried in the sun for months after each stage.

The design is obtained by the double “ikat” process (ikat, “to tie”): that is, the threads of both the warp and weft are patterned previous to weaving. To do this warp and weft are stretched on frames, and groups of threads are tightly bound with fibers at certain points before they are dipped into the dye, so that the tied part remains uncolored to produce the design. This is repeated with each color, the part already dyed also protected by the fiber binding.

When the threads are finally colored and ready to be woven, the design of the weft is fitted exactly into the one on the warp, and a mistake spoils the work of years.

Taking into consideration the laboriousness of the dying, the painstaking, difficult weaving, and the mystery that surrounds the secret process, it is easy to understand why the popular mind has endowed the kamben grinsing with such extraordinary powers. In Tengenan the scarfs are an essential part of ceremonial dress, and I-Tanggu told me that if he sold his he would lose his place on the village council. Only the finest scarfs are worn in Tengenan; imperfect ones of those in which the dyes fail to produce the required tones are sold to outsiders.

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This extract is from Island of Bali, written by Miguel Covarrubias and first published in 1937. According to its sleeve, this book is still regarded by many as the most authoritative text on Bali and its people… if you’re planning a visit to Bali, or have ever visited the island, this book should – absolutely – be on your reading list.


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