Sunday, April 24, 2016

Ma Tika: Portrait of a Weaver

Ma Tika at work in her loom
During my last journey to Indonesia, I met Lasma's weaving teacher, Ma Tika, Nesli br. Saragih, a Simalungun woman. I invited her to travel with us as we were at the beginning of a journey that would take us to various weavers in different Batak regions. She had other plans, but she cancelled them and seized this new opportunity with both hands. She was quiet and modest in the extreme (a bit intimidated), but as the days went by, I got to know her a little bit. I loved watching her single-mindedly take every single opportunity that presented itself to expand her weaving knowledge and skill. For her the journey must have been a once-in-a-lifetime chance.  For me it was an affirmation of how important it is for weavers to have a network that inspires and teaches them. If that network was once available in a weaver's village, now a weaver has to travel far and wide to construct it. Such is the consequence of the decline and disappearance of the weaving tradition.

Ma Tika (the mother of Tika; in the Batak area you reference people by the names of their children or grandchildren if they have them) started to weave at the turn of this 21st century. She is now 48 years old, so she must have been around 30 years old when she began. She had watched her mother weave the bulang as a child and did the things that children do, like winding the weft. Her weaving spirit expressed itself very early; she longed to work in the loom rather than in the fields and so at one point she insisted on learning to weave. For various reasons her mother refused to teach her; undaunted, she taught herself. This is remarkable. She had watched her mother weave, and she had an example of the bulang in her possession. She simply went to work by trial and error learning how to replicate the textile in her possession. She explained that this important textile  -- afterall, it is worn on the head !!! -- cannot have flaws. As she struggled to learn she unravelled her work every time she made an error. Wove and un-wove, wove and un-wove. This is the most difficult textile in the Siimalungun repertory! When I met her, she showed me her work and asked me to critique it. I didn't understand the significance of her request at first as I thought: you are a weaver, you know better than I how to weave!

Weaving supplementary weft is all about counting the warp yarns to
make the correct shed
Gradually, however,  I came to understand what she wanted from me. She needs colleagues and also technical insights into how to produce a high quality textile. She learned to weave when the marketplace was already enforcing shortcuts on the weavers, demanding that they weave more loosely to use less yarn and more quickly in order to have another cloth ready for the next market. She never learned in the 'traditional way' that emphasized quality. When she was learning, meeting the parameters of the market meant being able to eat, so she learned how to make a textile fast, using shortcuts. Since those days, the bottom has fallen out of even that very poor market  because mechanized producers have started to make a version of the bulang -- certainly a version of lower quality, but also a cheaper version that the market has welcomed. Almost every backstrap weaver was forced by these new circumstances to stop weaving the bulang. Ma Tika has been able to continue because she obtains orders from the Church where there are some people willing to pay the higher price. Ma Tika does not know how much one of her textiles fetches; she only knows how much she is paid for her labour. One cannot claim that it is a living wage, far from it; the amount she earns is painfully, heart-stoppingly low. But Ma Tika continues to weave. She is a weaver at heart, not a gardener. She loves the bulang.

She knew from Lasma that I had an old bulang textile in my possession and she begged me to bring it to show to her. I did this and her reaction was remarkable. She pulled out a needle-like instrument and immediately started counting the yarns in the supplementary weft section.  Her own textiles are loosely woven; she wanted to know how to make a more densely woven cloth and the impact that would have on the patterning. By examining the old cloth, she obtained her answer.

Ma Tika, Lasma and I examining the old bulang.
In my hand is a blown-up, laminated image of a pattern in one of
Pamela's bulang textiles
(Photo by MJA Nashir)
From my friend, Pamela Cross, a bulang aficionado, I had received detailed photographs of several bulang end fields (where the supplementary weft is located). I printed them larger than life, laminated them, and gave them to Ma Tika to refer to. She latched onto them with the same alacrity and started to count yarns. Her findings yielded all kind of insights about different time periods, availability of various kinds of yarn, the ways of working of weavers in the past and variety in patterning.

I was able to contribute from my knowledge of museum collections and Batak textile history. I pointed out that machine-like perfection is not a characteristic of the textiles made long ago, that there is in fact charm in the hand of the weaver and in the imperfections. I told her that each region once had its own specialty expressed through technique, design and colour, that different yarns have come onto the market at different times, that the tradition is dynamic and has never been stable, that there is also room for her to experiment and build on the past. All of these were new insights to her. She works in a time when a single template is replicated and the standard of weaving has become extremely narrow. Initially Ma Tika was inclined to judge the textile that was closest to what is made today as the "correct" textile. Exploring the images and discussing them gave birth to a new goal for her. Now she wants to replicate the one that is most 'foreign' to her and thus represents the greatest challenge. In fact, she is up for replicating them all. I reminded her that she also has a creative spirit that could express itself in the cloth.
Comparing the old with the new in Ma Tika's home
(Photo by MJA Nashir)
As our journey proceeded, we met Batak women who plant cotton. Ma Tika collected cotton seeds. We met a natural dyer. There, Ma Tika collected the seeds for the indigo plant and the bark of the roots of the morinda citrifolia that yields red dye. She also collected the recipes for the dyes. In addition, we ordered enough yarn to be dyed with these colours that she will be able to make many bulang with natural dyes even while she is learning the dye technique herself.

We met twiners, the specialists who make the patterned edgings in Batak textiles. Ma Tika watched their work and learned the technique but decided that she would rather stay with her own regional specialty for her bulang textile.

She saw weft holders used in the Toba Batak region and brought one home to Simalungun, only to discover that it did not function properly for her because her weft is wound differently. She learned that her region was not 'lacking' in a weft holder, but that even the way weft is wound is a regional specialty in its own right.

Ma Tika has been using a loom passed down from her mother. She claims that it is too small for her. During the journey she met a weaver who was willing to pass on parts of the loom that she needed to be able to make a wider textile.

And our sponsor, Bank Indonesia, agreed to purchase a new pair of glasses for her so that she can see better as she weaves.

All in all, our journey may well have supplied Ma Tika with all of her basic needs to be able to revive a bulang textile of former glory: sumptuous, beautiful, densely woven.

I love to work with self-motivated, enthusiastic weavers. In fact, I say over and over again that there is no point trying to work with a weaver who does not have these characteristics. Ma Tika's road to the future will not be an easy one. She will only be able to conduct her experiments in her 'free time' and she has little of that because she weaves for a living and earns so desperately little. She is a widow and still has dependent children. Moreover, she only has one loom and can't have two textiles on the go at one time. But she has will and determination. She learned to weave by herself, she loves the bulang tradition, and she loves a challenge. She is clever, strong and determined. She will give it her best shot -- and she will share her work with Lasma every step of the way. If a bulang revival happens in Simalungun, it will be due to her. May she remain healthy and spared from disasters!

Towards the end of our journey we visited the T.B. Silalahi museum in Balige. Ma Tika was disappointed with the Simalungun textiles she saw there on display. Now she has an additional goal: to make a textile that will one day be displayed in the museum and become a source of pride for all Simalungun visitors.

Go Ma Tika, go!


  1. Fantastic!!! What a truly interesting woman and I applaud her constantly questioning mind and drive for 'perfection'! May her quest for what IS perfection lead her to weave many different textiles! Sandra, you made super blow-ups of the bulang photos - I am so pleased that the images could be of some help and it is great to see the images here of them being used.

  2. Thanks, Pamela. I am thrilled with the images that you sent me and they certainly did the trick. Due to the decline in weaving and the standardization through the division of labour and market, most Batak have no idea of how much latitude weavers once had for creativity and innovation. By examining the photographs in detail we were all in awe of the fineness and amount of variation in the bulang through time and space. Thanks again, Pamela!