Indigenous woven cloth is a gloriously rich component of Indonesia’s cultural heritage. The island archipelago is vast, encompassing more than three hundred ethnic groups, each of which has a distinct textile heritage. Few areas on the earth’s surface can boast such a splendid diversity of textile design, technique and color.

In previous century, before Western clothing became the norm in Indonesia, magnificent diversity in cloth impressed Western visitors to the archipelago’s biggest ports. Situated at the crossroads between South and East Asia, harbors were busy places where nationalities, languages and textile types mingled. The colonial era had its roots in the Western discovery that to obtain East Indian spices, they would have to have cloth available for sale. Local people hankered after cloth – but not just any cloth! Western merchants learned quickly by trial and error that local tastes were precise and uncompromising. Thus the West joined in, latecomers, to an international trade in textiles that had been going on for hundreds of years.

That such local tastes were discerning and specific cannot come as a surprise when one takes into account that the inhabitants of these Southeast Asian islands had been exposed to diversity in fibre, color, design, technique and dress styles for centuries. Waves culture influence from India, the Arab world, East Asia and from within the archipelago itself, can still be seen in textiles that are made today. The textiles heritage of Indonesia is the fabulous total sum of an ancient foundation of techniques, design and know-how interwoven with gradual additions, many inspired by outside sources. Reviewing the archipelago’s cloth is an unrivalled experience. The panoply is a feast for the eyes – but also for the intellect because it constitutes an array of human ingenuity and resourcefulness. It is a demonstration of human capacity that is precious and deserves to be treasured.

It is possible to write about “an” Indonesian tradition because each ethnic components had access to many of the same local resources and foreign influences. Despite local genius and distinctive taste preferences, the ethnic traditions are to some extent like variations on shared themes. They are physical manifestations of the Indonesian motto, unity within diversity (Bhinneka Tunggal Ika).

Resources : Sandra Niessen, Woven Indonesian Textiles For The Home, by Cita Tenun Indonesia.