Ulos is the traditional cloth of the Batak people of North Sumatra. In Batak culture, textiles are not merely accessories but the essential elements of ceremonial life and are prominent in the exchange of gifts and life-cycle rituals. A small sample of Batak textiles in the Australian Museum collection illustrates some aspects of their use and meaning. Cloths were, and still are, presented as gifts on various important occasions, following strict rules that are fixed in the kinship structure.
In the Batak tradition, weaving is typically associated with the females and cloth is ritually presented from women to men in exchange for metal goods. However, Batak textiles may also be thought of as a totality in themselves, in which (female) warps conjoin with (male) wefts and a single cloth can contain motifs representing both genders. It is suggested that the complexity of weaving is not only to produce beautiful cloth but also to give it symbolic and ceremonial potency.
Different kinds of Ulos have different ceremonial significance. The ulos is normally worn draped over the shoulder or shoulders, or in weddings to ceremonially bind the bride and groom together. Ulos are traditional hand woven and in the case of higher-quality examples are significant family heirlooms, to be worn at important events, such as funerals and weddings.
In the past, before people knew about Batak made textiles, ulos was everyday clothes. When a man uses ulos, the top is called “Hande-hande”, the bottom is called singkot, and the head cover is called tali-tali or detar. When a woman uses it, the bottom up to the chest is called haen. The cloth to cover back is called hoba-hoba but when she uses it as a scarf, it is called ampe-ampe. The head cover is called a saong. If a woman holding a child, the back cover is called hohop hohop while the mean to carry the child is called parompa.
Today, around Lake Toba it is not easy to find women weaving in front of their houses. But, truly traditional ulos cloths are still made in the three villages of Tongging, Paropo and Silalahi – known as sitelu huta (three villages) – on the northwestern shore of Lake Toba. However, trading areas are at Pematang Siantar or at Balige. You can also easily find a large number of uloss old in souvenir shops or handicraft stalls in Tomok or Tuktuk.
Therefore, when buying an ulos do feel the texture of the material. If this is too supple and smooth, then it is likely machine made with synthetic dyes, whereas the original hand woven pieces feel rougher to the touch. Of course the original handwoven ulos pieces do not come cheap.
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