This is folk art,
made in village houses,
not in factories …

These days home-grown hand-spun cotton is becoming rare, and it is often replaced by thread bought in the shops. But local vegetable dyes are still used everywhere. Red kombu and blue indigo are the the basic colours of Sumbanese cloth.

Even the loom has been made by hand, often within the household. The wood for the key items in the loom is carefully chosen and may have needed a special trip to a distant forest.

This is a modern cloth, produced to the taste of foreigners, and it thus mixes the tie-dye ikat of men’s cloth with the pahikung of a women’s cloth.

These scenes are from the accessible village of Prai Liu on the edge of the town of Waingapu, so the tourist influence is strong… and, as this couple explained, these days they need the money to pay for their daughter’s schooling.

Producing these cloths requires patience and industry, creativity and ingenuity, and entrepreneurial marketing.

Wonderful human stories of how these cloths get made are told in Jill Forshee’s book “Between the Folds”.

The technique is very old however. This photograph was taken in 1935 and shows the cleaning of the raw cotton and spinning to make thread.

No-one can know when such cloths were first made in Sumba, but the Sumbanese word kaba for cotton is derived from Sanskrit karpasa and the de-seeding machine on the left is an old Indian design. This suggests an origin over a thousand years ago when trade links between India and the southeastern islands of Indonesia were already in existence.

These days the ancient pahikung technique can be put to many uses.

Normally a weaver produces repeating pattern in a 3-metre length of cloth which is then divided in the middle to produce two lengths for two garments. If the intrepid home-decorator approaches the weaver directly and buys the cloth before it is divided the whole 3-length can be stretched out on a frame to make a magnificent show.

It is also possible for an art-shop owner to commission a narrower piece especially for a wall-hanging, and have a Balinese craftsman carve an elegant frame to display it.

This is not cultural purity – but what a great hybrid effect!