The Bida Mitan Weaving Collective in Takaplagar village, just outside Maumere, Flores, is a group of around 30 women who are working hard to preserve their traditional textile art - kain ikat. I recently learnt more about the incredible skill of these women, and the efforts of organisations like the Nusa Tengarra Association (NTA) to help them preserve their invaluable knowledge, and support their communities.
The NTA are a small Australian- Indonesian NGO, who has been working with rural communities in Flores and West Timor for more than 30 years. Their main donor is Australian Aid but they welcome support from those interested, which is how I was first introduced. I met with the NTA, and learnt about their work throughout the Sikka District, helping to improve the welfare of communities through activities in water and sanitation, income generation and agriculture, and education.They directed me to Takaplagar Village, where visitors can take a tour, and members of the Bida Mitan Weaving Collective will demonstrate their incredible skill at creating traditional textiles.
The day of my visit coincided with a visit from government officials, who were there teaching the women how to blend the green, red and yellow dyes that they already had, to make new colours. All of the dyes they use are natural extracts from leaves and plants found locally, so creating and blending these dyes takes a lot of skill, and is an art form itself.
Once the dye-making session was finished, I was introduced to the weavers – a group of about 18 women, the number of whom fluctuates depending on the competing demands of household and village duties. This group of women have become even more important to their families and the village, as the work they do as weavers creates an income through sales of their beautiful textiles as well as an increase in tourism to the village.
The weavers showed me how they ‘beat’ the cotton, removing any seeds, and then winding it around on itself to form balls of yarn. The method might seem rudimentary, but their agile fingers turn what looks like a cotton wool clump to begin with, into balls of yarn for weaving.
The next step is the design process, when the yarn is carefully thread onto frames and wrapped in such a way that thin pieces of plastic or ribbon can be pushed through the gaps in the yarn. This forms the pattern. The colour is then used to create the design and the colouring and drying process can take weeks.
The weaving machine looks very similar to a rowing machine at the gym. The ‘operator’ sits within the wooden loom and moves her arms back and forth as if rowing, except with a lot more force to ensure the pattern and weaving stays together. The whole process to make one sarong or one piece of fabric, can take up to two months depending upon the design and the number of colours used.
The weaving women have become an important support network for each other, and the group allows them time out from families where they can talk and share stories with each other, while creating a beautiful weave that will earn them money. Many of the women in the group are members of the same family, and for those bringing along their babies to the group, there are always many practised hands to help out.
Visitors on the tour get ‘dressed’ by the women in traditional clothes, and can have photos taken at any of the weaving stations. Even though I had no idea what I was doing, despite numerous demonstrations, the women made me feel welcomed into their fold, and included in the easy warmth of the group.
The work of the NTA supporting communities like Bida Mitan to keep their traditional customs alive, and at the same time, create an income for the village, is vitally important, as it greatly reduces the incidence of poverty in these areas. The weaving circle encourages intergenerational story telling and support, creates an income for the village, and breathes new life into industry and old customs. Once upon a time, women who couldn’t weave were seen as unfit for marriage – I’m happy to report that now the value of weaving is seen as greater than a woman’s marriage prospects, and makes a vital contribution to the happiness and well-being of the entire community.