Sunday, February 01, 2015

Revitalized by the spinning wheel

The male members of the team worked very hard during the first half of the day preparing the spinning wheel for the upcoming workshop. After lunch it was time to bring it up to the village to try it out with Ompu Erwin. The village appeared empty but Ompu Erwin was there after all, sitting beside her house working on the harvest of some grass-like plant. She was not her usual jovial self and said she didn’t feel well. She did not seem happy to see us.

Then I saw Ompu Sabar, the amazing weaver, and I rushed over to say hello. She was also distant. Do you remember me, I asked? The answer was no and her eyes were blank. Another neighbour called out to say that Ompu Sabar was unwell. Did she mean that Ompu Sabar was becoming senile?

The neighbour was friendlier and invited us to have a cup of tea/coffee, reminding us that this is the norm when visiting a Batak village: first a cup of tea and then talk about business. Ompu Erwin joined the party but remained distant. She said she didn’t want to have the workshop on Sunday because there would be a visitor at church and she would be involved in that for the entire day. Perhaps she felt discomfort at having to renege on her commitment with us, or perhaps she was using church as an excuse. Tea went on endlessly without any kind of real answer. 

Tea dragged on and on without a lot of warmth

Finally Nashir cut the ice by ordering the spinning equipment to be taken out of the vehicle.

When the equipment appeared both women were immediately drawn to it

Suddenly the atmosphere changed. Ompu Sabar became animated. She couldn’t keep still. She came over to inspect everything. Jesral had prepared some pieces of bamboo to serve as the core of the rolags (luli pinale). (The women called them pamale.) The bent old Ompu Sabar bent still further to inspect them, picking them up one at a time from the ground. In her judgement, they weren’t bad, but a little too small in diameter. They had to be very smooth, the women pointed out. The closeness of the women to nature, to the plants in their environment, was striking. And their advice was precisely what we had come to receive. It was indispensable for ensuring a good workshop.

Ompu Sabar's bobbin case (turak) (a bit of it is visible in her right hand
in the photograph) had a very small diameter
At one point Ompu Sabar hobbled over to her house to fetch her turak (bamboo case for the weft bobbin). Jesral had explained that the bamboo that he had brought was to make turak and she claimed that its diameter was too large. Her own turned out to be the smallest that I have ever seen, probably a regional variation. However, I find it remarkable that the weaver of the largest ulos (sibolang) would have the smallest turak. Because the yarn for the textile is so fine? Because they wind so little on a bobbin? Because the weight of the warp is so great that the shed opening is small? I don’t know the answer.

I was sorry that I couldn’t understand everything she said. I could tell that she was talking about the sorha or spinning wheel. At one point, however, I caught the hint of a melody and realized that she was singing a song that included the names of the parts of the loom. She happily sang it for the camera a few times and then went on to sing some mourning songs (andung). She was in her element and clearly her long-term memory was still good. Since Ompu Sihol’s song related to winding yarn on the iraniran, this is the first time I have been able to record a Batak weaving song.

Ompu Erwin warmed up when she saw the eqipment
Seeing the equipment, Ompu Erwin warmed up. The smile that we knew as her trademark came back to her face and her joking manner also returned. She couldn’t resist inspecting the equipment and began to talk about how it should be used. Perhaps she had been concerned about ‘leading a workshop’ when she had no access to equipment. Seeing what we had seemed to open a window for her; it was as though she was relishing the thought of working with it. She also seemed to enjoy being the authority.

Ompu Sabar and Ompu Erwin gave their advice freely and naturally
to Jesral, Paul and Nashir who were perfecting the equipment.
By the time we left, Jesral had received some pointers on how to proceed and I had been able to procure a date from Ompu Erwin: she would be willing to move the workshop forward by a day and have it on Saturday rather than Sunday. This was vastly relieving. It would have been difficult to hold the workshop without a guru.

Ompu Erwin said that she was 74. Ompu Sabar was 87 (later she said 89). Born in 1928 (or 1926), this meant that she had consciously lived through the war years. I asked if she knew hori and she explained, immediately, that this was from a tree and entailed soaking the bark and then removing the outside layer – precisely what we had learned in the Karo area some years ago from Febrina’s uncle. She said that she had used hori as the string on the spinning wheel that connects the wheel to the spindle. She had also spun hori, if I understood her correctly (perhaps this meant giving it a twist on the spinning wheel). She went on to point out that during the war there was no cotton and no clothing. They had been forced to wear body coverings made of woven grass (pandan) from which they normally weave mats.

Ompu Erwin explained that she had learned to spin when she was about 15 years old. She had only done it for a few years and then purchased yarn that had become available on the market. Doing quick calculations, this would have been in the mid-1950s. How quickly things have changed for the Batak people.

The reaction to the spinning equipment is food for thought. When I am old and bordering on senility, what kind of object will enliven me? I doubt there will be one. This equipment has power over these former spinners, even after such a long time. Why? Making yarn for a textile would have occupied a great deal of their time. Not just the spinning. There would have been the growing and picking of the cotton. The drying and cleaning. The fluffing and then the spinning and reeling. The work has many facets and phases and would have occupied both the hands and the mind. More than anything else, it is a step in the long process of making of a textile, a work of artistic creativity, a challenge, an object with spiritual content, socially valued and, if well done, admired. These cloths would have occupied a central role in the lives of Batak women.

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