THE UNITED COLORS OF INDONESIA © Duncan Graham 2007
The range is vast. The designs are intriguing and enigmatic, deceptively plain and cunningly complex, mysterious and multicolored; some are smoldering, earthy and raw, others are jolly, bright and glossy, enhanced by threads of gold and silver.
Just like Indonesia.
The symbols of other countries tend to be landmarks; the Eiffel Tower, the Statue of Liberty, the Sydney Opera House. Not all are human constructions. Canada has the maple leaf and Lebanon the green cedar, but only Indonesia has ikat.
This is the textile made from pre-dyed threads woven to ancient patterns remembered and passed down through the generations. Like Scottish tartans each one belongs to a specific community.
That exclusivity is waning for the Koreans, Japanese and Chinese are already producing cloth using precious Indonesian motifs that no one in the Republic has bothered to register.
So consumer beware; you may think you're buying hand-made craftwork from a hillside hamlet in the hinterlands of Java where gnarled fingers lovingly teased thread into loom. But the chances are growing that your purchase came from a computer-controlled production line mill in smog-filled Shanghai.
Along with the characters of the wayang kulit puppets there are probably no other symbols or patterns that so clearly belong to the archipelago as the designs of Indonesian textiles.
Weaving is believed to have originated in Egypt. The technique moved to India and China through trade. It probably arrived here from Vietnam about 3,000 years ago, along with the secrets of wet-rice cultivation.
At first the products were crude. Necessarily so because the materials used were bark and fronds. When cotton became commonplace the techniques could be refined.
Then ikat – and to a lesser extent batik - spread. There are now at least 6,000 distinctively different designs across the 17,000 islands, ranging from the abstract to the realistic, and no one person would know all.
However art and design lecturer Arma Subijanto from Jakarta's Trisakti University proved herself adept at identifying most when challenged by The Jakarta Post.
Confronted with a sea of sarongs, shawls and accessories draped on tables and sideboards for an exhibition at Malang's Tugu Hotel, she was able to accurately pick the provenance of almost all without peeping at the labels.
"I feel passionately about ikat and the designs that we've developed over the centuries," she said. "In the pre-Islamic era when animism was common women used to pray to the gods as they made the cloth. So they saw the inspiration for the designs as sacred.
"This is our heritage, our culture, our contact with our ancestors. Ikat unifies the nation. But sadly it's seen by many as old fashioned.
"The history of many textiles and designs are related to royalty so could only be worn at special events or by particular people, like pregnant women. Even today batik tends to be reserved for formal occasions, though former president Soeharto made it mandatory for public servants to wear batik on Fridays.
"That may have helped the clothing industry but it was just a gesture. It did nothing to help understand the culture. The challenge is to make it relevant to the present."
How anyone could think traditional Javanese wear frumpy is beyond this furtive fashion observer. Because sarongs haven't been cut to fit they tend to emphasize the bottom, an effect enhanced by high heels.
They also hobble, making steps shorter and movements more pronounced and provocative, as every woman knows well. No need to look at slinky Western gear where brevity rules – Javanese costumes hide almost everything, but they reveal much more to the imagination.
Even if you're not prepared to wear Indonesian textiles they make brilliant wall-hangings, bed and cushion covers, tablecloths and curtains.
By Western standards the cost of hand-made products is low. Even in up-market shops outside Jakarta a splendid sarong can still be bought for less than Rp 180,000 (US $20) meaning the lady at the loom would probably get only a quarter of that amount. Machine-made textiles can be bought for even less.
As she opened and folded the lovely linens Arma identified flawed labels. A textile from Lombok may have been bought there but the design was from much further east on the island of Timor.
She can also tell in a flash whether the dyes used are natural and made from plants and earths, or chemicals. (Hint: Natural dyes tend to have a matt finish.)
Arma said factories in industrial towns like Gresik (East Java) are making textiles using motifs from Sumbawa then being sent to West Java for sale.
Patterns that appear to be abstract and minimalist are often symbols of people and natural objects that – like Chinese calligraphy – have been reduced to an outline. Other designs from East Nusa Tenggara are more naturalistic, showing deer and horses.
A few have lettering, a style introduced during the Dutch era. Chinese and Indian influences can also be found in ikat from Sumatra. Designs from the Toraja in Sulawesi show their distinctive high-roof houses. Only in Flores is the designer also the weaver; in other regions the tasks are separate.
One way to preserve the designs and textiles is to use them in modern clothes, and not confine them to sarongs and kebaya (tight-fitting blouses) only to be used at weddings. That's already being done by Malang's Rien Bambang Guritno, a textile collector who promotes Indonesian designs through displays like the one at the Tugu Hotel.
She's using ancient patterns on casual wear together with semi-formal outfits that any smart woman would be happy to wear in public.
"So many people are trying to forget the past," Rien said. "We have a culturally rich country. Our crafts unite us. We should be teaching these to our children during their school holidays, not just let them do nothing.
"There's a view that Indonesian textiles are heavy, hot and difficult to maintain. That's not correct. Many are lightweight.
"Malang is known as an educational town. (It has more than 30 universities). I also want it to be internationally recognized as a city of culture.
"I've found in my travels abroad that there's more interest in Indonesian textiles overseas than in this country."
Her friend, Jakarta-based interior designer Sri Sapti who has spent many years in Europe agreed. "There are books about ikat, but they're not easy to find," she said. One of the sources she carries is an out-of-print text in English, more than 20 years old.
"The message we want to put overseas is that Indonesia is much more than Bali."
WEAVING THROUGH THE ARCHIPELAGO
Ikat has many meanings including influence, association and bonding. Here it's the term for textiles where the threads have been dyed before being woven.
Double ikat has the threads dyed on both the warp (the long threads on the loom) and the weft (the shorter threads that cross the warp).
Batik is created by applying lines of molten wax to cloth. The wax cools and then resists the dyes. When the cloth dries the wax is boiled off but the dyes remain in the unprotected areas.
Songket refers to the inclusion of silver and gold threads. Originally reserved for royalty, these textiles are now popular in Bali.
The National Gallery of Australia claims to have one of the 'richest public collections of Indonesian textiles in the world' with more than 1,200 items. Many examples are on the Internet. Check www.nga.gov.au
First published in The Jakarta Post 8 May 07)