An individual's position in the island's complex social hierarchy is still displayed by the motifs and colors of their weavings.
Textiles in Sumba have always functioned both as an indication of status and a means of ritual exchange. An individual's position in the island's complex social hierarchy is still displayed by the motifs and colors of their weavings. Personal wealth is measured not only by the number of animals one owns, but also by the number of weavings. Textiles form an integral part of the ceremonial exchange of gifts between the families of a bride and groom. They are required for funerals where dozens of cloths are interred with the corpse, and many more given by the guests that attend the ceremony.
In Sumba weaving is the preserve of the female members of the villages. A full sized, hand spun, Sumba cloth can take up to two years to complete and can command the same value as a buffalo. It is a time consuming process starting with the spinning of the yarn, made from local home grown cotton, using simple spindles or wheels. Now that it is available, some women prefer to buy pre-spun yarn and chemical dyes from the shops in town, in this way months of preparation and weaving are saved. However the thick hand-spun cotton blankets, with the rich earth toned natural dyes, have a higher value and are preferred over the new faster to dye, and weave, modern versions. Although it is quite common to see women weaving blankets using store bought yarn and dyes, they readily admit that they are cheating by using them.
Before weaving, the yarn is boiled in water that is mixed with black sorghum seeds, burned coconut sheathes and candle nuts. This strengthens the yarn and makes it stiffer and easier to tie the pattern of the blanket. Using threadlike shavings made of young smoked coconut leaves, the often intricate patterns are tied on to the bundles of yarn that have been set up on the loom. This is why the blankets are called Ikat, the Indonesian word meaning to tie.
Once the pattern of the first color is completed, the bundles of yarn are taken off of the loom and prepared for the dying process. The yarn is dyed in boiling water and natural dyes prepared from indigo leaves and the roots of trees. The bundle of dyed yarn is dried and thereafter re-dyed many times until the desired rich color is achieved. During each coloring process the bundles of yarn are reassembled on to the loom and once again tied off to form the next pattern; the section of previously dyed yarn must also be tightly bound so that it is not affected by the next color. This is a very laborious and time-consuming process that is repeated over and over until the colors are perfect.
The motifs in a cloth vary throughout the island and most Sumbanese can identify the wearers’ clan by the motif of their cloth. Even though many Sumbanese are now Christian, the way of the Marapu ancestral spirits continues to be vividly expressed in the symbols of birth, on-going life, death, and reincarnation woven into the island's textiles.
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