Textiles, Southeast Asian Islands

views updated


The textile traditions of insular Southeast Asia, an area from Sumatra, the westernmost island of Indonesia, to the northernmost region of Luzon in the Philippine Islands, covers an equally wide variety of types, styles, and traditions. These insular people are related by language and customs from former waves of migrations and by methods of textile manufacture as well as design elements and patterns. Trade through the region influenced styles with those in direct contact adapting new techniques of weaving while peoples farthest from these influences retained older traditions the longest. The following essay examines textiles in insular Southeast Asia from the broad perspective, seeking commonalities that link groups and regions together.

Reception of New Forms

Very early on plant products (bark, leaves, and vines) were processed to use as coverings for parts of the body. In the warm tropics minimal covering was necessary; what was worn was mainly to protect certain parts of the body, the genitals and the head. Other pieces of clothing made of plant products were more decorative than functional (capes, caps, shawls, or shoulder cloths) or fabrics are made as furniture (floor mats, wall dividers, hangings, coverings) for ceremonies and festivals. The end use and function dictated the size and shape of the pieces as well as the materials employed. Thus, large woven mats were used as coverings for the ground, as wall partitions, as sleeping surfaces, or to wrap the bodies of the deceased; bark cloth, a more pliable material, served as skirts, breast coverings, headcloths, loincloths, capes, and caps or hoods.

Woven materials existed long before the adoption of loom weaving in the area. An examination of the variety of twining and net making from neighboring peoples in New Guinea reveals older customs that may have existed prior to the adoption of weaving in Southeast Asia. Mats and baskets woven of reeds, vines, and grasses are an ancient craft form in insular Southeast Asia. Functional pieces such as containers and mats were quite light, which made them easily transported. Designs were easily woven into basketry. Complex patterns from mats and baskets of some tribal groups (Iban of Borneo and Kalimantan) were readily transferred to cloth weaving. The technology employed in weaving fine mats from fibers as thin as thread was in use in the Philippines. Such plaiting can withstand folding without breaking the fibers, unlike coarser materials used in mat weaving. Twining using bast fibers may have been an intermediary step between loom weaving and basketry. Here the process of spinning strands to produce a continuous thread was known, but the loom frame necessary for maintaining tension on the threads to produce a tight weave was yet to be discovered or adopted.

Origins: First Cloth

Cloth from the bark of trees was used to make practical items of clothing such as loincloths or G-strings for men and narrow hip wraps for women. Scarves would have protected the head from sun or rain. To produce bark cloth, the inner layer of certain kinds of trees was removed, then beaten to produce a soft, flexible material that could be worn next to the skin without chafing it. Clothing that was cut and sewn together and pieces that were elaborately decorated were probably reserved for individuals of high status and wealth or for communal ceremonies. Old photographs and early museum pieces stand as records of early examples of bark cloth from Southeast Asian peoples.

In Indonesia some of the finest examples of bark cloth clothing are found among the Toraja (from the highlands of central Sulawesi), where women's blouselike tops with sleeves were decorated with painted designs. The Kayan people of Borneo created vestlike jackets with painted motifs. Rectangular cloths in Bali were painted with stories or calendars of the Balinese year. Decorative bark cloth was used to cover the deceased; square cloths to cover the head. In Palu, North Sulawesi women wore full-tiered skirts. Toraja women wore dark-colored cowl-like hoods to signify widowhood. The T'Boli of the Southern Philippines cut and sewed shirts and trousers of bark cloth, shapes that were repeated later on in woven fabric. Examples of bark cloth are preserved in some cultures because they are still a part of certain sacred ceremonies (Bali calendars). However, in most areas bark cloth has been replaced by woven cloth; skills necessary for production have been lost, and this type of fabric has become extinct.

Loom Weaving

While the origin of loom weaving is unknown, it is assumed to have been introduced in ancient times. Its antiquity can be inferred by the fact that some cultures possess legends about weaving. The Bagobo, Mandaya, and Bilaan have origin myths that mention the weaving and dyeing of bast fibers. (In many of these cultures, spirits are invoked to ensure skill and accuracy during the weaving process. Certain weaving implements are considered sacred.) For the Sundanese, in West Java, the introduction of weaving is attributed to the rice goddess, Sang Hyang Dewi Sri . There are Javanese stories of types of lurik (a plain-weave cloth) that enable a goddess to fly. Among the Batak, a distinctive cloth used in rituals, the ulos, was said to have been the first weaving given to humankind. Possibly early woven pieces were the reserve of the wealthy and worn only for ceremonial purposes or used in rituals. As looms and the technique of weaving became common, cloth quickly became the fiber of choice as a covering for the body and for use in rituals.

Wearing of Cloth

A common theme about cloth that links insular Southeast Asian cultures (as well as mainland Southeast Asia) is that woven cloth is rarely cut to the shape of the body but rather draped or folded. In the warm, humid climate draping allowed air to circulate around the body. More importantly, the respect for the design on the cloth may have led to this preferred method of dress. A typical rectangular piece about two and a half meters in length with open ends (kain) is wrapped around the waist and tucked in or cinched by a belt. Two identical pieces sewn in the middle allow the wearer to start the cloth above the breasts with enough width to cover the ankles (most Indonesian cultures). Among the mountain tribes of Luzon, the width covered the female body from the waist to the knees. The result of this draped fabric was that the intricate designs woven into the cloth were not compromised and were visible over the entire front of the body.

Another style for the lower half of the body is a rectangle sewn at the ends to form a tube (sarong), which becomes a skirt, worn by a man or a woman. Other uses for various sizes of cloth are as follows: a long, narrow strip of cloth serving as a loincloth with end flaps in front and back; a breast covering (Bali, Java royalty, Eastern Indonesia); and a decorative sash worn over the shoulders by a man or a woman (Eastern Indonesia, Sumatra, northern Philippines cultures, for example). A rectangle tied at the shoulders serves as a baby carrier or sling to carry goods. A square folded in many different ways becomes a hat or head scarf (for example, the Batak fashioned a two-pronged head covering that imitates the horns of the water buffalo). A plain two-meter length serves as a sheet or covering for the shoulders when it is cool. Clothing had no pockets, so woven knapsacks or bags served as containers. In some cultures, layers of cloth draped on the body, one on top of the other, symbolized wealth and position (Central Javanese royalty, Timor cultures). On the practical side, uncut cloth lengths were more easily folded for storage.

Cloth that was cut generally was not woven with the elaborate designs that uncut cloth possessed. This cloth followed the shape of the weave; thus, a sleeveless shirt was made by cutting an opening in the middle of the cloth for the head; the selvages were sewn together leaving only holes for the arms (Gayo of Sumatra, Toraja of Sulawesi, Bagobo, Bliaan and Mandaya of Mindanao). Jackets with sleeves also followed the form of the weave with the sleeves (end pieces of the fabric cut and sewn onto the selvages at the ends (Kauer of Sumatra, Iban of Borneo, Bagobo, Mandaya and Bilaan of Mindanao, and peoples of Northern Luzon). These were usually richly decorated with anthropomorphic or zoomorphic forms and geo-metric designs. Patterns were created in embroidery, and with beads, seeds, or shells at the neck and front slit and along the edges of the sleeve; more often the entire front and back was richly embroidered.

Division of Labor

Women were the weavers for home use and in the small cottage industry. Girls from an early age participated in steps of the process, starting with processing the fiber and spinning. Young girls first learned basic weaves; in their late teens they were taught the complex process of weaving patterns using supplementary weft or warp threads and working with fine fibers such as silk. Dyeing was generally a task left for the older women. Some women, usually an older woman, were specialists in certain types of dyes, such as indigo; these women were considered to have special powers over these dyes. In their late teens young women were entrusted with the treasured patterns. In some areas girls wove their own wedding cloths, some of which were given during the nuptial celebration by the bride's family to the groom's family. In Java, lurik, a relatively plain cloth worn by participants in ceremonies, is given by the groom's family to the bride's.

Patterns were the reserve of women of the family in some areas (Eastern Sumba), handed down from generation to generation. The patterns were preserved as examples so that each generation could copy them. If there were no more female weavers in the family, the patterns were buried with the last known weaver rather than risk having these revealed to someone outside the line of descent.

Some patterns were the preserve of descent groups, and the patterns worn by the members (women and men) identified them with a particular descent group (Savu Island people). In Rote, patterns identified a person with a particular kingdom. In some areas, such as East Sumba, bright colors and certain patterns were reserved for royalty; the commoners were relegated to one or two colors and little patterning. Generally subdued patterns or plain cloth was worn for daily use; the intricate, highly patterned, and colorful textiles were reserved for ceremonies. In Java, even in the early 2000s, lurik was said to ward off bad luck. Participants wore lurik in ceremonies after a marriage proposal, for the bathing ritual of a pregnant woman in her seventh month, and for the first haircutting of a child. The fact that this fabric has been used by people of all social classes for specific ritual is a good indicator that lurik was well established in ritual life of the Javanese long before batik was introduced. For status among the Javanese some batik patterns were reserved for royalty, other patterns for wedding cloth, others associated with the retainers at court, and still others used by commoners.

Types of Looms

The back-strap loom, a conveniently portable weaving mechanism, was the earliest form of loom. To this day, some cultures in areas away from major population centers continue to produce textiles by this means. The most ancient form of weaving involved a continuous warp with patterns created on the warp threads. Through trade new fibers (silk) and techniques were adopted. Weft patterning replaced warp patterning in coastal areas that were directly in contact with trade from India. The adoption of the frame loom in lowland areas enabled wider and longer fabrics to be woven. Complexity of pattern, however, does not go hand in hand with the larger stationary loom. The simple backstrap loom has produced some of the most complex types of weaves in Southeast Asia— for instance, supplementary weft or warp patterns and long tapestry woven fringes that are part of the men's warrior apron in East Timor.

Types of Fibers

The leaf fibers such as abaca (a variety of banana plant), and ramie and hemp, bast or stem fibers, were probably used very early on in twining as well as in the first weaving. The Philippines is noted for its use of these fibers in combination with cotton or silk as warp or weft threads. Abaca and hemp are the main fibers for clothing of Mindanao cultural groups. A leaf fiber that developed quite late in the Philippines is piña or pineapple fiber. It is unusual in that it is knotted rather than twisted to make thread. Probably more widespread throughout the Philippines and Indonesia, it is now produced solely in Aklan province.

Cotton, however, is the main material used in the production of textiles throughout insular Southeast Asia. It is used in combination with leaf or bast fibers as well as with silk. Cotton plants are easily processed for home consumption, thus making this fiber the egalitarian material. Most village people can produce enough cotton to serve their own cloth-making needs. Thus, the skill in weaving technique rather than the high cost of the materials determines the status of the weaver and wearer. Most mountain groups still produce most cloth from cotton, although now they generally purchase the thread rather than produce it themselves.

Silk, a late arrival, probably from China, became a popular cloth for the wealthy. The ability of silk thread to absorb dyes, producing vibrant colors, was one of its main attractions. As silk production developed in insular Southeast Asia, its use became more widespread. To cut costs and for ease in weaving, silk is mixed with cotton or other plant fibers. The Philippines in particular create a fabric, sinamay, that combines piña or a hemp warp with a silk or fine abaca weft for a type of men's shirt, the barong Tagolog.

Piña, like silk, is time consuming to process and was used in special garments for the wealthy. Piña fiber clothing imitated the Spanish-style dress. Wealthy Spanish, mestizos, and Philippine women wore blouses (camisa) and kerchiefs (pañuelos) over Spanish-style collars with long voluminous silk skirts; the men wore long-sleeved shirts over trousers. Piña fiber clothing and cloths were heavily embroidered with patterns borrowed from Spanish motifs—flowers, vine, or religious symbols—along with some native plants. Its popularity went beyond the Philippines. Finely embroidered handkerchiefs and collars were imported to Spain and the United States in the late nineteenth century. Many fine examples of pieces of clothing exist in collections but only a few sacred cloths used as vestments or altar cloths exist.

Production Techniques

A division can be made between those cultures that continued to produce warp-patterned weaving (a more ancient tradition) and those that switched to weft-patterned weaving. Silk is generally associated with weft-patterned weaving and is a fabric most often found in lowland cultures (Bali, Java, Sunda, Mindanao) that were associating with traders from India and China. Sumptuous supplementary weft patterns in gold thread were added to the silk cloth and were worn by high-status persons at weddings or other ritual occasions. In the Lampung area metallic thread and mirrors were embroidered on plain cottons to produce a luxurious cloth. Wealth was woven into cloth as it was received in trade. In Java and Bali gold leaf or paint was applied to plain fabric or batik designs to create a sumptuous-looking cloth, which was especially effective in a performance context. Theater was a means of attracting and ensuring the support of the masses, and the glitter of metallic threads and mirrors on cloth was a visible means of marking the status of the elite and creating a sense of pageantry for these emerging polities.

In inland cultures, which were less affected by trade, cloth was more closely linked to cohesion of the group. Designs and colors were the reserve of the high-status person in the village, but to some extent the distinctions between commoner and high status was less than it was in the large-scale societies of Java, Bali, and lowland Philippines. Status was linked to skills, such as prowess for the warrior class. Skills in head-hunting were acknowledged by special sashes, designs in weaves, or other articles of clothing worn by the successful hunter (Iban, Mindanao cultural groups, Nusatenggara region). Skull trees figure on Sumba cloths that once were associated with this practice. In Mindanao cloth that was predominantly red in color was symbolic of the success of a headhunter, and the Iban, too, used red for cloth in rituals for head-hunting.


The textile traditions of insular Southeast Asia identify a cultural group by their design, colors, and style. Their beauty has attracted much devotion of research at a time when their function in these cultures is waning. Change is not uniform. Some cultures quickly adopt change (the Achenese now wear a Persian-style tunic and favor gold couched embroidery in plant patterns or Arabic writing for their clothing and religious articles). As in the past when woven cotton cloth replaced bark cloth, so, too, new materials and styles are replacing the traditional pieces that are so admired. Status that was marked by the use of textiles has been replaced by other objects that are highly valued—a car, a TV, radio, name-brand jeans, and so forth. Instead of a pile of textiles as a gift of exchange in marriage, a Western bed and microwave might be given. One can lament the loss of the former rich tradition of textile weaving, yet its value was woven into its role in the society. As symbols of status and wealth change, its role is reduced. However, for critical communal ceremonies, change occurs more slowly. The ritual cloths of old will emerge from storage chests to ensure that the spirits are remembered and appeased to guarantee good health, a long life, and happiness in birth or marriage, or a peaceful existence in death.

See alsoAsia, Southeastern Islands and the Pacific: History of Dress .


Fraser-Lu, Sylvia. Handwoven Textiles of South-East Asia. Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1988.

Gittinger, Mattiebelle. Splendid Symbols: Textiles and Tradition in Indonesia. Washington, D.C.: The Textile Museum, 1979.

Haddon, A. C., and L. E. Start. Iban or Sea Dayak Fabrics and their Patterns. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1936.

Hamilton, Roy W., ed. From the Rainbow's Varied Hue: Textiles of the Southern Philippines. Los Angeles: UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History, 1998.

Maxwell, Robyn. Textiles of Southeast Asia: Tradition, Trade, and Transformation. Rev. Ed. Hong Kong: Periplus Editions Ltd., 2003.

Roces, Marian Pastor. Sinaunang Habi: Philippine Ancestral Weave. Manila, the Philippines: The Nikki Coseteng Filipiniana Series, 1991.

Ann Wright-Parsons