Ikat at NGOs

Case Studies of Two Ikat BGOs in Bali and Kuching

Tricia Giglio and Hana Carey in 
Threads of Life shop, Ubud.

In Southeast Asia today, ikat hand-production is fragile in many ways: weavers and dyers have long been attracted to commercial, factory-made thread and chemical dyes; fashion markets are pushing the textile type toward cheaper, rougher versions with fewer complex motifs; older worldviews that once linked ikat to supernatural powers and women’s worlds are fading in the face of ascendant monotheism and Asia’s various ‘modernities,’ based as these are in city life, science, industrialization, and world wide web communications systems.  A number of Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) have been established since the 1970s to confront some of these systematic challenges to “ikat traditions.” These NGOs are themselves deeply modern, internationalized, and located far from rice farming villages.  These non-profits harness the technologies of modernity and its economic systems to “protect” fine old ikat weaving and dyeing ways in the name of “tradition,” an idea which is of course another social product of Southeast Asian modernities.  These NGOs are enmeshed in complex discourses touching on issues of indigeneity, global citizenship, the empowerment of impoverished “local women,” and green economies.

In our summer 2012 fieldwork, we did very brief and exploratory case studies of two famous and particularly important NGOs that focus on ikat hand-production excellence and preservation.  These are the Threads of Life NGO based in Ubud, Bali, Indonesia (www.threadsoflife.com)  and the Tun Jugah Foundation, in the city of Kuching in Malaysian Sarawak (www.tunjugahfoundation.org.my). These two well-known, well-run organizations form an instructive contrast, for Threads of Life was established by two non-Asians and a Balinese associate and has a notably sophisticated marketing strategy and web presence, while the Tun Jugah Foundation was founded by a prominent indigenous Iban family, long active in Kuching politics and business life. The Tun Jugah Foundation also has a significant museum display component and sponsors library-based and fieldwork-based research on Iban traditions writ large.  The Tun Jugah Foundation has an entirely Malaysian staff, many of them Iban.

Hana Carey talks to the granddaughter of 
Tun Jugah at the Tun Jugah foundation.

The Tun Jugah Foundation, housed in a skyscraper in downtown Kuching, is forthrightly “pro-modernity” in its representations of the Iban peoples and its hopes for their future.  The Tun Jugah Foundation is also notably pro-Malaysia, as a nation state.  Somewhat in contrast to this, Threads of Life emphasizes indigenous and village-level imageries of Indonesian life in its main shop in Ubud and seems skeptical of Indonesian nationalism.  This NGO’s heart seems to be directed most passionately toward the archipelago’s individual ethnic minority societies, conceptualized as such – rather than toward the nation of Indonesia. In addition, Threads of Life pursues a cultural preservationist agenda in regard to village weaving cooperatives.  Threads of Life also stresses their own universalist green citizenship credentials.  These include membership in the WFTO, the World Fair Trade Organization.

What is occurring ideologically, economically, and politically with these two excellent NGOs as they interact today with ikat textile realms, in globalizing contexts, during a time of neoliberal economic ascendancy throughout much of Southeast Asia? What ikat weavings result from these two NGOs’ sponsorship of weaving groups? Our brief fieldwork was illuminating in beginning to answer some of these questions.

Our exhibition is fortunate to have five fine ikats woven by weavers associated with Threads of Life, through their micro-finance loan arrangements. Our field research allows us to see these Threads of Life ikats with a bit more anthropological clarity than would have been the case without our in-person visits to the NGO’s headquarters in Bali.  Our short interactions with the Tun Jugah weavers in Kuching helps us in similar ways to see Iban pua cloths in some social depth. Luckily, pua are well-studied by textile researchers and we were able to depend on that scholarship as background (see, for instance, Linggi 1998).

Threads of Life in Bali, Indonesia

Threads of Life shop, Ubud, 2012
Threads of Life: Indonesian Textile Arts Center is a non-governmental organization based in the bustling arts town of Ubud, Bali (so famous on the international upscale tourist trek through Asia that it was a site for the Julia Roberts film “Eat, Pray, Love”).  Threads of Life’s history shows it to be the brainchild of American Jean Howe and Briton William Ingram, who have directed this organization since its inception in the 1990s with a Balinese co-founder, I Made Maduarta, or Pong.  All three were our teachers in a series of lessons on Indonesian textile arts we took in summer 2012.  Bapak Pong is the organization’s main ethnobotanist and he also helps coordinate a number of the field site visits to the NGO’s weaving cooperatives throughout the archipelago. He is assisted in this by staffers from Java, Timor, and Sulawesi.

This impressive NGO seeks to revive traditional weaving and dyeing techniques throughout village Indonesia.  It also aims to empower women in impoverished Indonesian communities in places like Sumba, Flores, West Timor, Kalimantan, and most recently the Toba Batak area of North Sumatra.

Howe and Ingram were originally running a tour company for international heritage and adventure travelers in the eastern Indonesian islands in the 1970s. One place they often visited was a whaling community on the coast of Lamalera, near Flores (we found in interviews with Howe and Ingram in summer 2012). During the Southeast Asian economic crisis of 1997-98, Howe and Ingram noticed that the indigenous people of Lamalera were selling heirlooms, particularly textiles, in their desperation for cash for such needs as food and school tuition payments for their children. Furthermore, Howe and Ingram noticed that inherited textiles proved difficult to preserve over time due to the hot, humid climate of the tropics. Therefore, they decided, the best way for textiles in Lamalera and other eastern Indonesian islands to be conserved would be by actual re-creation. Threads of Life was thus created by Howe and Ingram to aid in this process and specifically to save the traditional methods of creating these culturally important cloths. Once dyed and woven by the (revived) old techniques, the weavers’ ikats would be  widely marketed by Threads of Life.

Today, Threads of Life partners with eleven weaving communities throughout Indonesia and runs a prosperous, well-respected organization that sells the weavers’ ikats to an upscale international clientele.  These ikats are exceptionally well made and typically sell for about US$200 to US$900. Customers include ex-pat residents of the Ubud region (for instance, Australian baby boomer retirees), upscale inns and hotels in Bali (where the Threads of Life ikats become part of the décor) , international collectors, and Indonesians with a special interest in fine ikats.  Most of the weavings are traditional in format in that they are large pieces that could be used as sarongs or cloaks (although many customers do hang them on walls); other products are old-style (but newly woven) ikats made into sofa pillows and other small housewares.

Threads of Life Economic Package and Business Model

As we found in our summer 2012 interviews, when Threads of Life first began in Lamalera, the need for a strong business model was immediately evident. Although Howe and Ingram wanted to provide weavers with the means to produce a high quality textile by using traditional weaving and dye techniques, the founders of the NGO soon discovered that the weavers were not comfortable with debt. They quickly set in place a Symmetrical Debt System, which centered on exchange. The weavers refused to accept any commission previous to making the textile (another sign of their then-distance from secular capitalism). In the face of this, Threads of Life worked out a long-term plan in which a balanced payment allows for mutual benefit on both the weavers’ side and Threads of Life’s side.  Education in Euroamerican business practices is indeed a key part of the Threads of Life “package” presented to village weavers and dyers. In fact, the Threads of Life website cites “capacity building” in the sense of business capacity as one of its primary aims in working with weaver women in places like Flores and Sumba.

Howe emphasized in a June 2012 interview the importance of relationship and trust in this business model. Drawing on the published international textile research and word of mouth, Threads of Life directors and staff will identify a community that previously had great dyeing, tying, and weaving traditions but is under threat of losing some or all of these. Indonesian staff members are then sent out to talk to the dyers and weavers, inform them about Threads of Life, and build a relationship based on trust and mutual respect. To establish themselves in a community, Threads of Life is faced with the challenge of convincing older, knowledgeable weaver women to share the secrets of their skills and techniques with other weavers. The organization will then provide the whole circle of weavers with various materials, ranging from handspun cotton to the essential mordants for the natural dye process. Threads of Life then essentially puts an American-style credit union into place for the group of weavers. The organization works out a quality control standard for the quality of textiles that will later be sent to Bali for retail. Threads of Life commissions the weaver to make a specific type of textile (indeed, often an ikat) and pays her one third of what they will sell the textile for in retail. Threads of Life then markets the textiles in person in their shop in Ubud or via the web to well-off, heritage-conscious international clients.

This commission is 370% more per hour than a weaver would make using synthetic dyes and selling their works themselves, we discovered in a June 2012 interview with Ingram. The Threads of Life directors have such exact assessment data since they often use such information in grant applications to foundations (such as the Toyota Foundation).  They do an estimable amount of research on Indonesian textile heritages; some of their discoveries go toward encouraging weavers in places like Sumba to return to using old motifs or old natural dye colors.

Threads of Life Staffing

A Balinese staff person at 
Threads of Life dye studio.

In our June 2012 interview as we all sat in an informal classroom space above a tourist restaurant in Jl. Kajeng, William Ingram placed emphasis on the importance of relationships with local weavers in the success of Threads of Life. He spoke specifically of the advantages of having a largely Balinese staff, as opposed to one that hailed from outside Indonesia. The organization is proud of its carefully trained Balinese workers, and Ingram believes that the Balinese are able to recognize the same basic ceremonies across different Indonesian cultures. Consequently, in his view, they can connect to other Indonesian peoples like residents of Lamalera. In addition, Ingram mentioned that the Balinese are able to show weavers from other regions that it is possible to maintain traditions and make a good living in the current national and international economy, by participating in export production and international tourism. Bali certainly has strengths in those two realms.

Although there may be some advantages to having a predominantly Balinese staff, Threads of Life is perhaps oversimplifying the presence of their Balinese workers in the NGO’s target areas in the “outer islands.”  The Threads of Life directors may be overlooking the cultural complexities of their staffing plan.  Ancient Bali was composed of a variety of Indianized kingdoms, while most of eastern Indonesia had smaller-scale, village-based societies with chiefs. Today, Bali is extremely different from the other islands in economy, standard of living indicators, religion, and political structure. Bali is also known as a lavish tourist destination and is constantly blooming, while other areas farther to the east remain hard to get to and deeply impoverished. In addition, one major hindrance in having a predominantly Balinese staff which Ingram and Howe may not fully recognize is the religious divide. Bali is a Hindu society whereas eastern Indonesians usually follow indigenous religions or Christianity.
One Balinese Staff member helps display textiles and explains motifs during a lesson at Threads of Life.

Balinese workers will bring their Hindu beliefs to the field with them and may not completely understand the equally complex religious practices and beliefs of 
One Balinese Staff member helps 
display textiles and explains motifs 
during a lesson at Threads of Life.

different Indonesian societies. The staffers may be tempted to over-simplify what are actually significant religious divides between Bali and eastern Indonesian societies; these religious worlds, as is evident by now, are deeply entwined with ikat textile production and use.  Threads of Life’s website today notes that its staffers include not only Hindus but Muslims, Catholics, and Protestants.  Left out of mention here are the indigenous religions that animate so much ikat weaving and use.  The NGO does seem to be predominantly Balinese and international in its core identities.

Lastly, the Balinese staff at least appeared to communicate to other peoples through the national Indonesian language, Bahasa Indonesia. But, to truly understand a weaving culture, one must understand the indigenous language of the community as well as the national language. Ikat dyers and weavers often have much of their esoteric textile production knowledge lodged in an indigenous language, such as a Sumbanese language or Toba Batak.  This knowledge often takes the form of sayings, rhymed couplets, and ritual speech orations---cultural production that is largely closed off to observers who do not speak that one indigenous language (and its ritual high registers, to boot).

In light of these factors, Threads of Life’s predominantly Balinese staff is not solely an advantage for the NGO’s work but could at times be (we suggest) a drawback. Threads of Life may be making the common mistake that NGOs fall into by homogenizing the heterogeneous group of people they are trying to help.

Environmental Considerations

Pak Pong, the ethnobotany and natural dye expert 
at Threads of Life.

Attention to weaving “tradition” is obviously important to Threads of Life but another factor in their organization is their pronounced environmental consciousness. They display their “Conservation Efforts” prominently on their website, and highlight “sustainable forest management” as one of their prime goals in their work in the islands beyond Bali.  Indeed, de-forestation of many areas of Kalimantan and eastern Indonesia is a severe problem for Indonesia.  Threads of Life brings international-level knowledge of sustainable forestry practices to their weaving revival activities in places like Flores.

Much of this revolves around the NGO’s promotion of natural dye use (for instance, through encouragement of sustainable dye gardens, as opposed to simply urging weavers to go back to natural dyes and then have villagers quickly deplete the surrounding forests of dye plants). The use of natural dyes in itself is generally considered by international activists to be an environmentally friendly practice, but Threads of Life takes this rhetorical assumption even further and treats it with more seriousness.

As part of our fieldwork, we were able to spend two days at the Threads of Life dye studio in Ubud. Situated behind the main office, the studio opens into a large, beautiful garden. This is filled with a thriving multitude of small plants, shrubs, and trees used to make dyes. (See images below of Garden). For example, they have a morinda tree which is used to create red dyes. The bark from the roots is harvested to produce a deep red and can also be used for yellow and brown dyes. The garden also has different varieties of indigo and strobilantes plants, which are used to create blue dyes. We were able to see the production of this firsthand. Indeed, Threads of Life staff are happy to arrange for formal lessons like ours, for any interested travelers or researchers.


In our lessons we discovered the following.  The leaves of the plants are first soaked in water to extract the color and then are removed from the bath. Next, a lime salt is added which turns the water a greenish, yellow color. The mixture is then blended thoroughly and eventually takes on a much darker color, due to oxidization. Now the dye is ready to be used. By growing the plants to produce their own dyes, Threads of Life has a large bank full of colors that they can continually regenerate with little to no negative environmental effects. They can then recommend these “best practices” dye plants to their partner weaving communities throughout Indonesia. In other words, this plot is an experimental garden used for research and teaching purposes, as we experienced during our lessons at the studio.

Keeping this sense of awareness towards sustainable practices, Threads of Life has extended their efforts far beyond their own dye garden. For instance (as noted earlier), in an effort to promote dialogue and revive old weaving practices, Threads of Life hosted two ambitious weaving conferences in 2005 and 2006. (picture of conference shown at right). Foundation-funded, these meetings provided a forum for weavers from all over Indonesia to come together and share knowledge as well as address problems. After the conference in 2005, Threads of Life staffers discovered that there was a severe shortage of symplocos trees. The symplocos tree produces the aluminum salt needed as mordants to make many different natural dyes. Increasing deforestation in eastern Indonesia has led to a decrease in the number of these trees and thus has made the process of creating dyes more difficult, if not impossible in many regions such as Sumba.

Threads of Life conducted several experiments on this tree and found that the richest aluminum salt content comes from the fallen leaves. Furthermore, they found a large population of especially healthy symplocos trees in a national forest in West Flores. Now, the Threads of Life staff harvests and manufactures the aluminum salt found in symplocos leaves in this forest. They process and package a powder made from the fallen leaves to send to weavers all around
Packaged aluminum salt ready for distribution 
at Threads of Life dye studio.

Indonesia. Because the entire symplocos tree has some level of aluminum salt content, the complete tree was often destroyed by villagers in their search for mordant.

Threads of Life’s discovery curbed the effects of deforestation of this tree specifically by working with tropical botanists at Kew Gardens in London to conduct experiments to find exactly which part of the tree had the highest content. By using the fallen leaves, Threads of Life conserves the population of these trees while still providing high quality aluminum salt powder to those who need it. Also, this arrangement makes creating and using natural dyes an easier, more sustainable practice.

So, Threads of Life is an NGO that conducts its cultural preservationist mission for reviving weaving “traditions” throughout Indonesia with environmental impacts in mind. But, in so doing, they are intervening heavily in Indonesian cultures, as seen in this same symplocos tree example. The discovery of the symplocos leaves had a positive effect on weavers but it also may have had some unintended political and economic consequences in terms of village communities’ overall agency.

Because Threads of Life provides the mordant powder to weaving communities, these settlements begin to depend on the organization for the salts needed for their natural dyes. In doing so, a power dynamic is reinforced in which the Indonesian weavers rely on the foreign Threads of Life staff to help them continue their textile work, to make money to support themselves. This arrangement may in part perpetuate difference and inequality, despite some demonstrated and undeniable benefits to local weaving communities.

Reviving Tradition

Threads of Life attempts to conserve old textiles by recreating high quality replicas through the use of traditional weaving, dyeing, and tying techniques. Often the organization is faced with the challenge of reviving various weaving traditions that have passed from the scene. Threads of Life strongly encourages, and at times demands, that commissioned weavers use natural dyes and traditional dying methods. A naturally dyed textile is more valuable and generally considered
Threads of Life commissioned a weaver to make a copy of the
dark red, middle textile. Due to loss of knowledge about the dye
process, the first textile made (textile displayed on the bottom)
faded to a light brown. After additional attempts, the weaver is
almost able to recreate the original textile (top textile).

better quality than a cloth dyed synthetically. However, an increasing number of women no longer use natural dyes because synthetic dyes allow for much easier and quicker color processing. As a result, many weavers do not know the secret dye recipe of their ancestors which yielded rich colors and rarely faded over the years. Threads of Life urges weavers to re-learn the old traditions.  They provide weavers with the necessary depleted supplies and they help revive lost knowledge.  Why some of this textile knowledge got lost in the first place (and has stayed lost) does not seem to be as prime a concern as is revival.

In addition to reviving the traditional use of natural dyes in ikat production, Threads of Life also attempts to revive old patterns and motifs. The directors and staff of Threads of Life will give a weaver an older cloth as a pattern cloth (a sort of template) and ask the weaver to replicate the cloth at the same high quality. The designs present in the field of the textile, along the fringe, or in the supplementary work may be intricate and beautiful patterns that are no longer
Original textile shown on bottom, and replica 
commissioned by Threads of Life 

produced in the region. During one of our visits to Threads of Life, William Ingram mentioned one specific instance when a staff member showed pictures of an antique Timor ikat to a weaver in Timor and asked the weaver to revive the specific patterns. The weaver did not know how to create the pattern as the knowledge of the specific design was lost. However, after many attempts she was able to produce an ikat of similar quality with the same pattern.  

It is notable that this sort of revival effort to bring back old textile-making conventions is taking place at a time of increasing technological modernization of “traditional textiles” worldwide, as detailed in some of the articles in Patricia A. McAnany and Walter Little, editors, Textile Economies: Power and Value from the Local to the Transnational (2011).   

Threads of Life Ikat Textile Marketing

Threads of Life shop, Ubud. The video shows village scenes
of weavers and dyers at work.

As noted, Threads of Life is quite forthrightly set up as a self-sustaining business that both empowers Indonesian, local-level weavers, cloth-designers, and dyers and brings in enough cash flow on a regular basis from the sale of weavers’ products to allow the NGO to continue its work on into the future. The Threads of Life mission consists of doing research on Indonesian-area heritage textiles and cloth-making technologies and encouraging villagers and townspeople in places like Flores and Sumba to use (or to return to) natural dye processes and older ikatting and weaving techniques and technologies.  Threads of Life seeks to aid traditional cloth designers, dyers, and weavers in their efforts to maintain high standards of cloth-making excellence, in terms of subtlety of dye color, motif complexity, and thread type.  In this present-day age of cheap, factory-produced textiles throughout Asia, all of these high standards for old-style weaving cost money to maintain.  Local weavers have long been tempted to use more industrialized processes of cloth production, for quick profits. Cloth quality can suffer. Threads of Life is organized so as to counter these large-scale processes of commercialization. The idea of “old traditions” of dyeing and weaving excellence is an integral part of the Threads of Life ethos but also lies at the heart of its business plan and marketing strategy.

This can be seen from a glance at their website, at www.threadsoflife.org.  Several photographs there are representation of their self-presentation. In the sub-section on “Conservation Efforts,” for instance, two middle aged women dressed in village attire with old-style hair do’s are shown sitting on the ground, clearly in a rural village.  They are working with natural dye substances in a large dyepot.  Off to the side is a smaller ceramic dyepot.  This image reinforces the NGO’s predominant focus on “traditional Indonesian life,” in villages, in the so-called outer islands beyond Java and Bali. In a website section on the NGO’s textile revival activities in the island of Flores, older men and women are shown, again in very traditional dress, in markedly “traditional looking villages,” with thatch roof homes and stonework.  The women are generally shown wearing local ikat sarongs (not batik sarongs, which pervade the archipelago), often with ivory bracelets on their wrists.  These are all markers of very localized ethnic identity within Flores and such images do stand in contrast to the national Indonesian dress standard of batik sarong and lacey kebaya jacket for women, with a batik shoulder cloth, and peci hat, formal shirt, and dark slacks for men.  More urbanized fashion styles consist of Western type clothing for both sexes, with the addition of head coverings (jilbab) for Muslim women. Threads of Life’s website imageries of the body, in fact, have little reference to any world religion, although most Eastern Indonesians are at least nominally Christian and sizeable numbers are Muslim.
woman crafter

Threads of Life’s sales strategy is also cleverly designed to evoke these same storied oldtraditions, as the NGO aids local weaving communities which are presented to website publics as needy, deeply impoverished, and ‘culturally rich.’

Actual buyers of Threads of Life textiles get an additional image of village life: an actual photograph of the woman who has crafted their new purchase.  When customers visit the Ubud shop on Jl, Kajeng and directly buy a fine cloth made by a Threads of Life partner weaver in a place like Flores or east Sumba, two thirds of that sum stays with the NGO and one third is sent back to the weaver. But, the buyer herself or himself receives a postcard-sized color photograph of the weaver holding her cloth and posing for the camera. This establishes a semblance of a personal relationship between the buyer in America, say, and the creator of the weaving; the postcard photograph approach recalls the marketing techniques of some aid groups that ask Westerners to sponsor impoverished children in so-called developing countries.  The benefactor receives a color photograph of the needy and grateful child, represented as such.

More Questions and Critiques

If Threads of Life is promoting a return to traditional weaving and dyeing techniques in the 21st century, how will the village weaver women catch up with the technologically modern world?  Their entanglement in a preservationist enterprise gives their households some much-needed extra cash, but does this arrangement also prevent them (or at least deflect them) from gaining an appropriate education that would allow members of their communities to go to college or technical school and get a good job?

Collaboration with Threads of Life clearly allows village women to add extra income, but does it really “empower” them? It could be argued that any weaver learns a great deal about different disciplines (science, art, culture) in creating fine, naturally dyed ikat textiles; but, these women need still more, in an Indonesia where many young people on Java, Bali, and Sumatra are graduating from universities and technical institutes. There are intended and unintended effects of NGO interventions of these obviously very well-intentioned sorts. While Threads of Life does provide a measure of economic independence to indigenous women, they are also inadvertently contributing to a sustained primitive image of Indonesian culture.  The NGO is reinforcing a dichotomy between the weaving communities and the “modern world.”
Threads of Life wants to keep the tradition of natural dyes and more complex patterns and motifs alive, but for what purposes? It is important to consider what is meant by “tradition.” Natural dyes were discovered and developed in pre-colonial times to dye cloth. Indonesians developed an intimate relationship with nature through their use of natural dyes. Special powers were attributed to the natural dyes and only women could tame these forces. Natural dyes became deeply embedded within Indonesian cultures, but, this knowledge started to fade with the introduction of chemical dyes. Today, natural dyes have largely disappeared from the mainstream, and many NGO’s have taken on the responsibility to revive this tradition. In an important article entitled “Tradition, Genuine or Spurious” anthropologists Richard Handler and Jocelyn Linnekin conclude that tradition is not an unchanging natural entity (Handler and Linnekin, 1984: 287): “Instead we must understand tradition as a symbolic process that both presupposes past symbolisms and creatively reinterprets them. In other words, tradition is not a bounded entity made up of bonded constituent parts, but a process of interpretation, attributing meaning in the present through making reference to the past.”

Pak Pong tells us about natural dye substances
in one of our lessons at Threads of Life.
The tradition of natural dyes in the present does not hold exactly the same meaning as it did when it became a tradition in pre-colonial times. It can mean something else entirely. It has not just been revived but reinvented. Similarly, the tradition itself is not the same in the present because the process of using natural dyes was passed on by word of mouth. Much has been lost about the process, and plants that thrived in the past are nearly extinct now. NGO’s like Threads of Life have had to discover or rediscover efficient natural dye plants and processes. Natural dyes in the present are reminiscent of the past; they evoke a certain integrity purportedly found in that imagined past. Furthermore, to outsiders natural dyes have come to represent environmental awareness and sustainability while also symbolizing the current global trend of green consumerism.

It is clear that Threads of Life and similar NGO’s seek to revive traditional cloth production practices to preserve cultural integrity, but they have also tied new meaning to these practices, especially the natural dyes. As noted in the section on natural dyes (Natural Dye Link), Threads of Life emphasizes the fact that Indonesians do want to preserve this tradition of natural dyes. Is this really the case?  Why exactly do Indonesians want to preserve this tradition? Is “tradition” of this sort in need of saving? And, how does the meaning behind the reinvented tradition translate to Indonesians? These questions reveal the “double edge of NGO interventions” in which thoroughly well-intentioned organizations seek to maximize input by indigenous partners but also impose change, reflecting outside priorities and ignoring local perspectives.

The objective to revive “tradition” may be a way in which this NGO legitimizes itself morally and economically. A language of “old weaving traditions” provides them with a reason to implement neoliberal economic models in order to aid impoverished communities. Somewhat veiled in these processes are the ways that neoliberalism itself reinforces these communities’ persistent impoverishment.

The Future of Threads of Life?

Tricia Giglio and Hana Carey examine a Toraja textile under
the guidance of Threads of Life co-founder, Jean Howe.

Finally, it is important to address the future and sustainability of Threads of Life. When we asked the director Jean Howe in an interview in the summer of 2012 about the future of the organization, she responded with a realistic, level-headed answer. Most of the weaving communities that Threads of Life are involved with are very remote from Bali.  Weavers cannot independently market or sell their textiles to a well-off, internationalized clientele. Howe admits that these weavers are wholly dependent on the Balinese field staff who can transport and market their textiles. Although Threads of Life has ensured that their Balinese staff is well trained, there is no guarantee that the staff will have the drive or desire to continue Threads of Life after the organization’s founders are gone. Howe also states that foundation and grant funding will be difficult to gain after Ingram and herself are gone. Threads of Life is currently attempting to set up a business in hopes that the business’s income will be a source of funding for the NGO’s weaving partnerships in the future. In addition, Threads of Life is building two houses near Ubud which they hope to rent to expatriates and then use those funds for the NGO’s needs.

Howe’s honest response displays both hope and anxiety, as well as vulnerability. Will Threads of Life continue to help empower female weavers and revive “tradition” after Howe and Ingram leave the organization? Or will the organization plunder in their absence, and leave those dependent weavers without any buyers, struggling to make ends meet?

 Tun Jugah Foundation of Kuching, Sarawak, Malaysia: An Indigenous NGO

Tun JugahIn contrast to Bali’s Threads of Life NGO, the Tun Jugah Foundation in the thriving commercial city of Kuching in Sarawak was founded by people from Sarawak itself, by members of a politically prominent Iban family.  The foundation is named after the man who inspired it: the late Tun Datuk Patinggi Tan Sri Temenggong Jugah Anak Barieng, a former governor of Sarawak State and a business pioneer there (Sutlive 1992). He highlighted his dual or even triple identities in formally posed photographs, which can be seen on the foundation’s website at www.tunjugahfoundation.org.my.  There he appears in a Western-style formal business suit but with a distinctly Iban hair cut (a sort of bowl cut).  His elongated earlobes for ceremonial earrings (another Iban diagnostic symbol) are also evident.  Tun Jugah was at once a modern citizen of the world, a Malaysian public figure, and an Iban chief.(Above left: (Above: Tun Jugah’s image is displayed above natural and synthetic dye materials at the Tun Jugah Foundation.)

Sarawak River and skyline, Kuching, Malaysia

Sarawak River and skyline
Kuching, Malaysia
Sarawak River and skyline
Kuching, Malaysia

The foundation occupies comfortable, modernistic quarters in an upper floor of a luxury high-rise building of upscale stores and business offices in downtown Kuching, near the Sarawak River.  This building itself is named the Tun Jugah Tower; citizens are left in no doubt about the political prominence of this family.

The textile arm of the foundation is dedicated to the preservation of old pua cloth weaving and ikat design techniques.  The foundation’s main offices in the Kuching tower includes a small, international-style research library with study tables, several international-style museum galleries displaying old and new pua ikats and Iban beadwork, and an expansive weaving floor (that is, a studio space).  Most days during the work week, several women weavers and ikat tyers come in to this weaving pavilion to work on their pua-in-progress.  Visitors to the Tun Jugah Foundation are invited to observe the pua weaving and design work and also to chat with the craftswomen as they work at their looms.  The weavers range in age from their twenties to their eighties (the latter, in the case of Tun Jugah’s own youngest daughter). One of Tun Jugah’s granddaughters is a docent in the museum and in a nearby room that shows natural dye materials and ikat tying technologies.

Visitors to the weaving studio and museum include Sarawak residents of all ages as well as international tourists. Kuching is a scenic old trade town and a gateway to Sarawak’s interior, upriver Iban villages.  Tourism  in the state is increasing, and the city of Kuching has famous museums such as the colonial-era Ethnological Museum and a state textile museum (devoted largely to pua but also showcasing the textile traditions of Sarawak’s Chinese and Malay communities).  These museums act as a further draw to tourists; hotel staffs and travel agencies tell visitors not only about the scenic 5 pm cruises on the Sarawak River and the city’s museums but also about the Tun Jugah Foundation and their pua cloth displays and educational activities.

Overall, this prosperous-looking foundation located high up in the imposing Tun Jugah Tower consciously blends architecture and imageries of Malaysian and wider Southeast Asian technological and architectural modernity with “pua cloth traditionalism.” This is done to promote Iban heritage today with pride and also with museum design and commercial savvy.  In-person and on-line visitors to the Tun Jugah  Foundation are encouraged to purchase one of the excellent pua ikats that the foundation weavers produce.  The Tun Jugah Foundation presents Iban weaving and dyeing traditions as a key component of Iban modernity, seen proudly as such.

History of Tun Jugah Foundation.

Pua textile, Iban weaver, shown
in exhibition. See Textiles in the
The Tun Jugah Foundation, founded in 1985, aims to “preserve and promote” Iban culture in a broad sense. The Iban people live mainly in Sarawak in Malaysia; the closely related Dayak peoples live in Kalimantan (Indonesian Borneo). As mentioned, the founder Tun Jugah Anak Barieng (1903-1981) was a Malaysian politician and an extremely well-liked chief of the Iban for over fifty years. His relatives started the foundation in his memory to keep Iban culture, art and language alive and to create a global understanding of Iban culture. Indeed, in its English-language brochures and website, the Tun Jugah Foundation does use those very terms: a “society,” the Iban, having a culture and a distinct art and a namable language.

The foundation’s well-produced brochure and website detail the organization’s various endeavors. They sponsor research on all aspects of Iban traditional culture, especially oral folklore and old weaving and dyeing styles. The foundation seeks to “preserve and promote the traditional methods of Iban weaving, for the benefit of the community and the general public.” Further, they encourage the publication and public accessibility of books on such research.  They are forthrightly preservationist in their aims but they also clearly put such goals within a larger framework of Iban modern life. This is shown in the way they approach pua weaving.

Pua Cloths—In Kuching and the World

The major ritual textile woven by the Iban is the pua and the Tun Jugah Foundation revolves around this magnificent ikat cloth type. This ceremonial cloth is often used in rituals involving rites of passage, such as births or funerals.  Pua are also material-form invocations to the Iban spirit world, and their designs act as mnemonics for telling old stories and myths about the spirits and the tropical forests.

A pua is a handwoven warp ikat typically done in earthy tones of browns and reds, with natural dyes. The motifs are inspired by the environment of the region and pua can sometimes serve as a visual chronicle of beliefs and values, as a kind of memory-jogger for sacred narratives. Women’s secret knowledge in particular is often indexed by important pua cloths. These textiles are definitely works of women’s hands. In fact, preparing the yarns for weaving a fine pua is sometimes called “the women’s warpath,” in contradistinction to the men’s warpath, which was once a more literal one of going to battle against enemies and taking their heads.

Figures like crocodiles or frogs are depicted in the motifs to represent spirits or omens (the latter are very important in pua interpretation and village use). The largest, most well-known form of pua is known as the pua kumbu which are extremely large and made from two blanket-sized textiles sewn together. This cloth is often used in marriage ceremonies or as a part of dowry paid by the bride’s parents. The ability to weave a large and fine pua was even once seen as a marker that a girl was ready for marriage. Clearly, the textile in and of itself as well as the actual weaving of it are both important aspects of Iban culture and women’s knowledge and daily practice there.

As mentioned, one of the main projects of the Tun Jugah Foundation is to protect traditional Iban weaving techniques as well as to promote a greater global understanding of Iban textiles. But in effect, the Foundation is also working to make old-style pua weaving an integral part of Kuching city and Sarawak state modernity.

As we found in interviews with Shirley Vilin Ikok, the weaving coordinator at Tun Jugah, the textile museum and gallery within the Foundation aim to create high quality woven textiles for both local and international markets. (One such interview is shown on the right). She went on to tell us that modernization has led many weavers to forget the traditional weaving techniques and shift to chemical dyes and machine woven fabrics. She told us proudly that the Tun Jugah Foundation was established to bring back more traditional techniques before they are lost. Furthermore, she told us, the Foundation works to promote Iban textiles outside of Sarawak. In an effort to spread understanding about Iban weaving, the foundation, for example, organized an international exhibit of fabrics in the United States. This exhibition included weaving demonstrations and was co-organized with the Muscatel Museum of Art at the College of William and Mary in 1998, with National Science Foundation support. A catalogue entitled Ties that Bind, by Datuk Amar Margaret Linggi (1998) accompanied the exhibition, which Shirley enthusiastically showed us.  In effect she also saw her brief work with us in interviews and tours of the Tun Jugah weaving floor as part of the foundation’s overall project of bringing knowledge of and appreciation for pua weaving to broad publics. She seems to see her work as outreach education. The foundation works to not only sustain Iban cultural traditions but to actually improve the quality of Iban textiles for, more specifically, a modern world.

Tun Jugah Foundation Today

There was definitely a professional and scholarly feel to the Tun Jugah Foundation when we first walked in, but we came to see how laid back and relaxed it was in several return visits in summer 2012. There were not more than four or five weavers there that day, the first day we arrived. Shirley Vilin Ikok, the main weaving coordinator but also an important research assistant for the foundation, told us that some women had called in sick that day or had given her some other excuse for not coming in to weave on the studio floor. This was not uncommon (note: lack of weavers in picture above). It was hard to get the weavers to come in, Shirley laments; it is also hard to recruit weavers, especially younger women. The youngest weaver is 18, and she is a college student – and thus probably destined for a non-weaving professional life. Many contemporary Iban women living in Kuching and nearby do not have much desire to learn weaving because they are more interested in receiving a formal education and work in hospitals, universities, city businesses, or Kuching’s increasing numbers of international firms.

Shirley learned to weave from her mother and grandmother, but most of the craftswomen at the Tun Jugah Foundation learned how to weave there. We were shown a pua that costs about 3,300 Malaysian ringgit or US$1,100 (shown below). Most orders are from foreign collectors for this large a cloth.

In the weaving pavilion, there were several looms but most of them were empty. Most women were still in the process of tying designs onto the threads. Weavers in the “old days” got inspiration for designs from dreams (for instance, from a dream about walking in the tropical forest and seeing various animals crouching along the path.  The animal figures would then appear in the woman’s pua plans).  But, dream inspiration is not so common today, Shirley told us. Weavers now tend to work off of pieces of paper with specific designs drawn onto them; craftswomen often use children’s schoolbook graph paper for this.  But, weavers only use these grids as guidelines and are free to incorporate their own personal creativity into the design. This is a long-time boast in pua weaving: that individual weaver women have personal, individualized creativity in designing a cloth.

When talking to one weaver we found that she had been working on one pua for about two years and was almost finished. She clearly claimed this wonderful cloth as her own work.
The weaving area led to the actual museum (shown on left), which featured artifacts and information about Tun Jugah himself as well as a large number of magnificent old pua textiles. There was a special show on Iban beadwork and bead trading with the larger world.  The museum was small but quite sophisticated and well-designed.  Before entering the museum per se, there was a “Dye Room,” which weavers used for commercial dyes. We were informed that the weavers took their tied threads home to naturally dye them. In a different room, the foundation featured an chemical dyesexhibit on natural dyestuff and the natural dye process. There was also a small number of chemical dyes on display (dye exhibit shown on right). We met the curator of the museum, Janet Rata Noel; she welcomed us formally. She suggested that we visit the Foundation’s small research library, as it had good resource materials about Southeast Asian textiles.  Throughout our tour, Iban pua cloths were nested down within a professional, internationalized museum setting, which was of course located in one of Kuching’s most overtly up-todate skyscrapers.

Ideology of the Tun Jugah Foundation

What imageries of ikat cloth and ikat heritage are promoted in the Tun Jugah Foundation’s material culture and physical spaces?  We found this to be strikingly different from the ikat imaginary promoted by Threads of Life in Ubud, Bali.

Tun Jugah Foundation pua cloths are items of traditional lore presented as being of intense interest to modern-day international collectors and to modern-day scholars from the humanities and social sciences.  The foundation’s weavers are women based in Kuching city life, and sometimes enrolled in college. They are part of families with university hopes and plans, aiming toward jobs in fields such as Sarawak’s burgeoning energy sector. Museum displays of pua technologies and products are an integral part of this world, with no apologies.

The Larger Kuching City Scene: Iban Arts for Sale

On the main shopping street in the bustling city of Kuching tourists can encounter all manner of “things Iban,” all for sale.  In our brief stay in the city we found that these products included antique pua cloths, in art dealers’ shops; recently woven pua (or rather, pua-style) ikats, of varying quality; trinkets such as coin purses decorated with motifs from Iban longhouse carving; and children’s t-shirts that played on both Iban cultural motifs and on the name of the city (in Malay, the word kuching means cat).  Some of our fieldwork photographs show this range of Iban (and cat) kitsch. Many of the shopowners are Chinese-Malaysians who have long been in the business of marketing Sarawak ethnicities to travelers.


This trinket-street stands in contrast to the seriousness of the Tun Jugah Foundation but undeniably has a good deal of commercial verve to it.  Off on a side street is another establishment: an Iban-owned small restaurant offering traditional longhouse cuisine in a buffet every day at lunchtime. Kuching is very much that sort of city: Ethnicity, Inc., to borrow a phrase from John and Jean Comaroff.


Comaroff, John L. and Jean Comaroff
   2009 Ethnicity, Inc. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Handler, Richard and Jocelyn Linnekin
   1984   “Tradition, Genuine or Spurious,” Journal of American Folklore 97. 385 (1984): 273-290.
Linggi, Datuk Amar Margaret
   1998  Ties that Bind: An Exhibition Catalogue of Ikat Fabrics. College of William and Mary, Muscatelle Museum of Art.
McAnany, Patricia A. and Walter Little, eds.
    2011   Textile Economies: Power and Value from the Local to the Transnational. Lanham, MD: Altamira Press.
Sutlive, Vinson
     1992     Tun Jugsah of Sarawak: Colonialism and Iban Response. Fajar Bakti.

For Further Reading

All of the major general overview studies of Indonesian and Sarawak textiles have sections of Iban cloth (for instance, Gittinger, 1990; Fraser-Lu 1990; Maxwell  2003).  See also Joseph Fischer, 1979, Threads of Tradition: Textiles of Indonesia and Sarawak (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press. For general background on the Iban, see Vinson Sutlive, The Iban of Sarawak: Chronicle of a Vanishing World (1988, Waveland Press).