Beauty of Ikat : Sumba’s traditional woven textile

A Floresian Boy

Sumba is an island untouched by modern tourism. Sumba has a lot to offer. Beautiful ikat weaving, which is famous throughout Asia and a very interesting megalithic culture with unique funeral rituals. All this is encompassed in an island with rugged nature and ringed by beautiful and secluded white sandy beaches. In Sumba you will experience a feeling that comes close to being alone in the world.

The most popular art and craft of Sumba is woven cloth named Ikat. The word “ikat” itself means to tie orto bind. Each region in Sumba island has its own variety of ikat motifs and patterns; in Wanokaka, Lamboya as well as Tana Righu there are kain (cloth) panggiling, pahikung and pawora while in Loli region there is a cloth called kain lambaleko. Ikat weaving throughout Sumba has social, religious and traditions of significance. The different types of ikat cloth are related to the pattern making and coloring techniques.

East Sumba has a different climate, it is more dry and mountainous, and the people here belong to one single ethnical group with one common language. Waingapu, the capital, is located here and is a hub for transport to and from the island. There are some facilities here, but the main attractions are located west and southeast on the island. Some traditional villages are located southeast of Waingapu and can be visited on a daytrip from there.

 Bamboo Pole Dance at Dokar Village

This region is better known for its “ikat” weaving. Traditionally only members of the highest clans and their personal attendants used it only for special ceremonies. During important funerals the corpse was dressed in the finest textiles to make a good appearance in the afterlife, and piles of extra textiles was often sent with the dead as well. Later the Dutch started to export ikat to Europe and Java, where it quickly became very popular. Other products from here are horses and cattle. Horses are still used for transport on Sumba and are a symbol of high status; the large grass fields in the interior of the island are well suited for horse rising.

Woven motifs in the region of West Sumba are generally quite small and slightly abstract unlike the ones in East Sumba. Fabric motifs for male usually consist of lines, dots and mamoli (Sumba’s typical ear jewelry) around the edges. While the motifs for female consist of rhombus (as a symbol of buffalo eyes) and triangle (as a symbol of ponytail). According to the experts, motifs are adopted from the objects that are given by men to propose their fiancée which is later called dowry.

The spectacular and very famous ikat of Sumba is made of cotton hand spun, traditionally dyed with local plants (Kombu Indigo) and minerals. The pattern that is required on the cloth is knotted and bound into the warp yarn and the thread is dyed before weaving. Thread is spun from July to October, then bound for patterns until December. After the rainy season, they collect indigo plants and kombu tree leaves for dying. In summer, after harvest, women began to weave and it can take one year for one piece of textile.

 waingapu 2

On some kind of ikat, cowrie shells and colourful beads are intricately applied in keeping with old artistic tradition. Ikat textiles are used for exchange at important ceremonies and show one’s social status. At funerals, the most exquisite textiles are placed in the grave for use in the afterlife.

Like craft or art form, ikat varies widely from country to country and region to region. Designs may have symbolic of ritual meaning or have been developed for export trade. Ikat is often symbol of status, wealth, power and prestige. Perhaps because of the difficulty and time consumed to make ikat, some people believe the cloth is imbued with magical powers.

How is Ikat made?

Ikat created by dyeing the warp is the easiest way to make. Before the warp strings are attached to the loom they are arranged into bundles. Each bundle is tied and dyed separately, so that a pattern will emerge when the loom is set up. This requires a good skill. The tightly bound bundles are sometimes covered with wax or some other material that will keep the dyes from penetrating. The process is repeated several times for additional colors.


After the threads are dyed the loom is set up. The pattern in visible to the weaver when the dyed threads are used as warp. Threads can be adjusted so that they line up correctly with each other. Dyeing the weft makes it much more difficult to make ikat with precise patterns. The weft is one continuous strand that is woven back and forth, so any errors in how the string is tied and dyed are cumulative

Genuine ikat is still made with natural dyes. The blue colour comes from indigo, the red colour from a mixture of bark and roots of the Mengkudu tree. The combination of red and blue makes depending on the intensity of the two colours, brown, purple or black. Some ikat have additional yellow colour from the bark of the Kayu Kuning tree.

 ikat 2

With the development of modernization, cotton-spinning machinery, a machine that efficiently spun cotton thread can now be bought to speed up the weaving process. However, the machines are generally used in manufacturing which can produce ikat cloth in large quantities per day.

Textiles of good quality nowadays were acquired directly from various villages in Sumba and brought too many local and international exhibitions. Ikat of Sumba is even shown in museums of the world as an example of the highest quality of textile design. And this Ikat woven cloth has been proposed to UNESCO to be a formless world’s heritage. By this proposal, it could prevent the extinction of Sumba ikat textile as well as to save, protect, develop and give some benefit in the matter of income of local people.

 ikat 3

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