Noken woven bag, Papua UNESCO World’s Heritage

Noken is a knotted net or woven bag handmade from wood fibre or leaves by communities in Papua and West Papua Provinces of Indonesia. Men and women use it for carrying plantation produce, catch from the sea or lake, firewood, babies or small animals as well as for shopping and for storing things in the home. Noken may also be worn, often for traditional festivities, or given as peace offerings. The method of making Noken varies between communities, but in general, branches, stems or bark of certain small trees or shrubs are cut, heated over a fire and soaked in water.

Colourful, tactile and incredibly practical, noken a long, draping bag woven from dried wood fibre, worn around the neck and over the shoulders – is a distinctly recognisable and common sight in the Papua and West Papua provinces of Indonesia. The handicraft was acknowledged as a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage item in 2012.

While the primary purpose of noken is to carry agricultural goods, and sometimes babies, it is also a staple accessory of traditional dress for the Papua people, used in ceremonies ranging from marriage proposals to appointments of community leaders and welcoming rituals. Considered to be a symbol of fertility, good life and peace, noken is also given as a sign of friendship and as a peace offering between disputing parties.

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The process of making noken starts with soaking tree branches in water for days until only wood fibre remains. Thereafter, the maker (typically a woman) dries the fibre and spins it to create a strong thread, which is sometimes coloured using natural dyes and then hand-knotted to create various patterns.

The remaining wood fibre is dried then spun to make a strong thread or string, which is sometimes coloured using natural dyes. This string is knotted by hand to make net bags of various patterns and sizes. The process requires great manual skill, care and artistic sense, and takes several months to master. The number of people making and using Noken is diminishing, however. Factors threatening its survival include lack of awareness, weakening of traditional transmission, decreasing numbers of craftspeople, competition from factory-made bags, problems in easily and quickly obtaining traditional raw materials, and shifts in the cultural values of Noken.

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Whereas the skill of noken-making is typically passed on from generation to generation, the craft has seen increased interest in recent years as an environmentally friendly alternative to plastic shopping bags. Added in 2012 to the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage Lists as a cultural heritage of Indonesia, noken is enjoying an additional boost in popularity due to the Indonesian government teaming up with local designers to reintroduce it as a contemporary fashion trend and preserve the unique craft.

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