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Women’s ceremonial skirt, circa 1960s-70s
Lembata Island, Eastern Indonesia
Three-paneled warp ikat sarong
Heavy handspun cotton, natural dyes
Anne and John Summerfield Textile Study Collection
Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Art Gallery, College of the Holy Cross

woman's ceremonial skirt woman's ceremonial skirt detail
woman's ceremonial skirt detail

This densely detailed, beautifully dyed ritual skirt is also an important object of ceremonial exchange at marriage: such textiles are used as gifts presented by the bride’s lineage to that of the new bridegroom.  In this region of Eastern Indonesia, counter gifts from the groom’s side (that is, from the wife-receiver house’s side) can consist of elephant tusks or precious metal ornaments such as pendants, earrings, and chains.  In Lamalohot, ivory balances gifts of ikat cloths and the pair form a supernaturally-charged two-in-one union that empowers a new marriage and makes it fertile.

Weavers in Flores and the nearby very small island of Lembata weave on back-tension looms.  These women often derive their rich red-brown dyes from roots of the Morinda citrifolia tree.  The roots are scraped and this material is beaten in a mortar. Later other substances are added. This ikat cloth’s profound hues took many, many dye baths to achieve over months or years, before the cloth was woven. This skirt also shows that “seeing ikat” demands careful attention to the subtlety of the dye work—something that other Indonesian weavers will surely look for in evaluating a neighbor’s textile.

Expert dyers, often older women, first ask the dye plants for their kind permission to use their magic substances, before the formal dye processes begin.  Prayer to the botanical world is a key part of the natural dye process in many areas of Eastern Indonesia.  If the spirits are not treated respectfully, the colors will not come out right and the ikat will be ruined.

Lembata women weave on a continuous loom that typically leaves a narrow section of the warps unwoven.  Weavers often leave the cloth uncut and do not seam the raw edges or form a fringe. Wearers fold a part of the garment over the “unfinished” part.  In marriage exchange of textiles for their various counter gifts, an uncut ikat has enhanced power and value.  When such textiles are bought by foreign art collectors or travelers and hung on their walls at home, cutting the ikat and treating it in that way is an issue worth thinking about.