I remember the first time I saw Batak weavers at work in North Sumatra. The year was 1978. I was mesmerized watching the weft being threaded between the warp. I was privy to an act of creation; it felt like magic to see a cloth slowly come into existence from the skillful manipulation of a few yarns and sticks.
It took me many years, decades even, to understand what I was seeing: the most efficient system of production that can be imagined. Batak weavers make ulos, ritual cloth of their culture. What they make may be understood as a kind of meeting point of so many facets of their lives. It all comes together in a satisfying, sophisticated, unique, visual and material way in their ulos.
- While weaving the weavers are also looking after their household chores. They are teaching their daughters how to weave, and how to fit weaving into their daily lives. Between throws of weft, they cooking, clean, and look after the children.
- They work in the dry season when they are free from duties in the fields. Weaving fits an annual schedule.
- Because they use local materials, they have to learn about trees and plants and their properties. They know which ones can serve as weaving equipment, yarns and dyes. Their bond with nature is profound and reciprocal.
- The physical environment inspires almost all of the patterning that Batak weavers have invented.
- The weavers weave together; they help each other through weaverly challenges by sharing ideas, skills, materials, insights, and successes, deepening their kinship and neighbourly bonds as they work. They share laughter and tears, stories and inspiration.
- They also share and grow the specific language related to their technical skills and their unique equipment.
- Their fruits of their looms were once indispensable for every aspect of their lives: for warmth and comfort, to announce social station and cultural identity, and social and ritual roles.
- Imbued with spiritual powers, the cloths, and the way they were made, involved the maker, and later the wearer, in the spiritual complex that permeates every part of their lives.
The world of pre-colonial Batak weavers exemplifies how commons work. ‘Commons’ are shared resources managed ‘in common’ by people. I learned to see the woven cloth as a kind of confluence of commons: overlapping and intersecting cultural commons. And I see reciprocity as a primary feature of cultural commons. Those who dip into it and take from it are the ones who also build, grow and store it. For example, the language used by Batak weavers is an knowledge commons; collectively they use it and at the same time build and maintain it through use. Weaving techniques and design are commons in which know-how, knowledge and memory are held and shared, used and added to. The physical environment that is used and maintained by the weavers is another and the ritual sphere yet another relative to which the weavings give and derive meaning. All of these commons are represented and inextricably woven together in a Batak ulos, a kind of total expression of Batak social, intellectual and spiritual life.
In 1978 I was also witnessing weaving commons being eroded by enclosures. Enclosures are external forces that appropriate what is held in common, taking it out of the hands of the rightful stewards. The history of Batak weaving, since the Industrial Revolution and colonialism, may be framed as a succession of enclosures by outside forces. It is a familiar story the world over.
For the Batak enclosures began with imported yarns and dyes in the 19th Century. Weavers took both happily because the mechanized imports reduced their workloads. Nevertheless, that ease came at a greater cost than the money they paid for it. The imports generated relations of dependence on the market and also reduced the weavers’ reciprocal ties with the physical world: the trees, plants, insects, earth and water involved in making the yarns and dyes. Within a few generations the knowledge of making yarn and dyes was lost because this kind of knowledge is stewarded during hands-on doing. The imported yarns and dyes were just the beginning of the take-over by external markets. Cheap Western-style clothing eventually supplanted the traditional handloomed Batak clothing. Inevitably, many weavers retired their looms. The inroads that the external markets were making were also expressed in faster transportation networks. Heeding the dictates of the new markets, the weavers had to develop regional specializations to compete. Divisions of labour emerged. Weavers had to specialize in their knowledge of design and technique. In short, the market was forcing them to de-skill. It was no longer their village communities and local markets that were shaping their craft. Rather, distant market forces began to dictate what weavers wove. Government and industry brought in semi-mechanical looms with the rationale that these so-called ‘modern’ looms would allow weavers to produce faster and ostensibly earn more. The market focus was shifting weaving away from cultural reproduction and towards speed of production and financial earnings. Working at the new looms was another part of the process of de-skilling and the loss of women’s space in their culture. Unused, the specialized vocabulary related to the ancient Batak technical heritage was not needed in the new looms. The entire conceptual system surrounding the making of a cloth shifted. The weavers no longer needed their special medium of communication that supported the unicity of their craft. The uniqueness of their craft was also giving way to standardized production. The new looms pulled them out of their homes and into hierarchical workshop settings where they occupied the lowest rungs as wage-earning labourers doing mindless, repetitive work according to the dictates of those higher up the ladder. Fashion ‘designers’ also had a role to play in this demotion of the social position of the weavers. Appropriating Batak designs to adapt them to fashion, the designers employed the weavers as mere labour. And as if that were not enough, do-gooders are now moving in with computer-generated designs. Once again, the rationale is that the new designs will ‘aid’ the weavers. At one time the unique Batak designs emerged from the village weaver commons. No one weaver was a designer, but the weavers collectively created unique designs by sharing and trying out ideas together. The unique Batak designs are expressions of a cultural commons. Today there is almost nothing left of that crucible. The weavers’ strongest ties are now with the market, and earning money has eclipsed the cultural facets of weaving almost entirely. All culturally unique facets of Batak weaving have slipped like sand through the fingers and been supplanted with the external market economy. The weavers themselves frequently complain that, while they know how to weave, they do not know how to weave their own traditions.
This is a familiar story. All of the time-saving and labour-saving strategies introduced have been a kind of net pulling the weavers into capitalist spheres of production. The art that once expressed the local environment now expresses dependence on fossil fuels (for yarns, dyes, loom parts, marketing and new technologies). The confluence and congregation of commons symbolized by ancient Batak cloths no longer exists in the modern cloths. They now exemplify how modernity can enclose indigenous commons. The work of weavers is no longer that dense and efficient reproduction of their culture. It has been flattened and simplified into running after money, an aim propelled by joblessness and the need for cash.
Every Batak region, large and small, once had its own weaver commons: unique designs, unique features of loom and technique, unique kinship and political characteristics, rituals, beliefs and language. The variety of features made the Batak region around Lake Toba dynamic and interesting. But they have been almost entirely eroded by the broad brushstrokes of modernity that reduce it to one indistinct whole dominated by the quest for money and standardized looms.
Remnants of the rich, ancient tradition are left. In Silalahi, a bay at the Northern end of Lake Toba, and a village culturally allied with the neighbouring villages of Paropo and Tongging, weaving is distinctive with unusual techniques and ulos designs that appear to be unique in the world. While the erosive process of enclosures has been at work in this region, some of the ancient technical features of ulos are still intact. This has largely to do with the fact that the traditional looms used in this region have not (yet) been replaced by upright, semi-mechanical looms. This is very special. The weavers of Silalahi need to be cherished, protected and encouraged. There are not many left, and most of them are elderly.
I visited Silalahi again earlier this year (2023), I wanted to take a closer look at how the weavers use three heddle sticks in a single set of heddles. It is terribly complex technique, and terribly difficult to do -- so much more difficult than the mindless weaving that occurs on the upright semi-mechanical looms. The technique has never been documented or recorded. I had the great honour to be able to sit beside the loom of one of the very best weavers, a woman devoted to the Silalahi tradition, Sinta br. Sagala, Ny. Sidabariba, Op. Dita. Her son, Marvin Sidabariba, is equally devoted to maintaining his cultural heritage. Without many means and resources besides his heart, dedication and knowledge, he does all that he can to encourage the weavers in his village.
Recently Marvin told me that there is a government plan to bring semi-mechanical looms into Silalahi. A plan to be mourned. It fills me with deep sadness. It will mean the end of the unusual weaving techniques and resultant ulos designs, which make the Silalahi tradition unique in the world. Once again the looms are being introduced with the best of intentions: 'to increase weaver income’. But they will erode and gradually eliminate the remainder of what is unique in the Silalahi weaving tradition, which is still found in technique and design. Is there nobody in the government who understands how special the ancient knowledge and traditions are, and who can encourage these traditional elements? Why are the Silalahi weavers being pushed to work within a foreign weaving tradition? (The looms are of Western origin.) The weavers themselves are naïve and have few concerns about the impact of these foreign looms. They know how difficult and complex their techniques are, and they are correct in thinking that these techniques cannot be performed on simple, semi-mechanical looms. What they do not know, however, is that the owners of those semi-mechanical looms have no intention of replicating the unique techniques of Silalahi. In fact, they have neither knowledge nor concern about what is unique and ancient. They only want to make the designs easily and cheaply for sale and use them in fashion. Their looms will churn out cheaper products. The buyers, who also know nothing about the unique Silalahi tradition, will make their purchases based on cloth appearance and price. This has already happened throughout the Batak region. All in the seductive name of modernity.
And so something unique and beautiful in the world will slip away, unnoticed except by the handful of elderly weavers who are left and knowledgeable idealists like Marvin Sidabariba. The message to these weavers will be that the world does not care about their skill and art.
I stand with Marvin.