Isle of Flores is well known by its beautiful tenun ikat. This piece of hand woven clothe with unusual ornaments on it has broad meaning than just a dress. It is a symbol that reflects the way of the people life, their belief and philosophy since ancient period.
It is an old tradition for women in Flores weaving their family’s clothes and sarongs. They got their skill from their ancestor for generations, even since 1500 BC. In the beginning, weaving was a sacred activity with full of religious values on it. The weavers drew ornaments and designs on a cloth or sarong in the hope to give power to the person who would wear it, so it could against demon and evil spirits.
Every single ornament and design on tenun ikat has a certain meaning. Human design symbolizes fertility, breeding or longer age. Animal designs such as snake symbolize underwater worlds, meanwhile buffalo as a fertile soil and frock as a rain. The weavers also use geometrical ornaments like circle, triangle, quadrangle, and so on. These ornaments usually symbolize good powers to heal ill body and to drive away many diseases.
By learning the ornaments we know that people in Flores want to live in harmony. They practice balancing principles in a daily life and activities, even when they are weaving and wearing tenun ikat or sarong. They distinguish male from female design by using bright and dark colors, or small and big ornaments.
There are many kinds of tenun ikat based on their function. They are lawok or sarong for woman, ragi or sarong for man, lesung or shawl for covering head, and songke or black sarong for special ceremonies.
Most of districts in Flores have their own design. There are hundreds, but we can divide them into three major: Ende-Lio design, Krowe-Sikka’s, and Manggarai’s. The first has small ornaments, most of them are mixed of human, animal, plant, and geometrical patterns that fill almost all the cloth. It gives beautiful and delicate impression, even soft and calm, because there are no contrast colors. So, if we want to identify the patterns, we must observe it carefully.
On the contrary, Krowe-Sikka’s use big ornaments with empty space on it. So, the contrast is strong and makes us easy to distinguish male from female designs, even if it has geometrical patterns.
Manggarai does not really have tenun ikat. However it has songke, a black sarong with geometrical pattern on it. This place is the only district in Flores that use geometrical pattern exclusively. Songke has bright colors like bright green, bright yellow, red, and bright purple just like grass flower colors. The ornament is drawn into two parts: one is fulfilled a half of sarong as a men design, the other is drawn in a certain distance with rare patterns and called women’s.
In the past, magical and religion values on a piece of tenun ikat were more important than its beauty. But it spent much times and energy to make a sarong, songke, or shawl. For example, it needed three until six months to finish a sarong or songke; meanwhile just took a month to make a short shawl. The weavers had to work six until eight hours a day, and seven days a week. While working, they couldn’t do another job like caring the children or cultivating rice fields. That’s why they worked after harvest season.
The longest process came from coloring the yarns. To get unique and unusual colors like dark blue, dark brown, and dark red, they used natural materials from plants that lived in the forest. Usually they used root of kembo, taru, and daru trees. At first they spun cotton into yarns, then dyed yarns into boiling water that be mixed with the roots. This process could take weeks until months. Then, they could start weaving.
When tourists who visited Flores, especially Mount Kelimutu increased, they were interested in tenun ikat and bought it. Villages around Kelimutu like Jopu, Wolojita and Nggela, and cities like Maumere and Ende were well known as centers of tenun ikat. Soon the weavers earned much money. But they wanted more and more, and started to forget ritual values on tenun ikat. They made it as mass products, cut the long process by replacing natural dye with chemicals, so could shorten time until a quarter.
Unfortunately their products had less quality. Tourists did not appreciate it anymore and offered it in a low price. Soon the weavers suffered a loss. But they could not do anything. They have already depended on chemical dye deeply. Nowadays, only Nggela Village that keep using natural dye. And, if you bought sarong and tenun ikat from this isle, don’t hope to find magical power.