Thursday, September 23, 2021

My career in a nutshell: an autobiographical piece


5-minute Presentation to

a Seminar on Justice and Design

University of Southern Denmark

23 September 2021


To review my career, I will focus on the theme of fashion’s myths

1.      The experience of ‘bumping into myths’ is something that I think we all share. Going to university we gain knowledge that changes our thinking. That is why we go to university. 

·      One of the most powerful moments during my undergrad in anthropology occurred when we were taught the definition of ‘ethnocentrism’ and learned that knowledge, and what seems self-evident and logical, may not be consistent with the facts. Culture is defined by what is passed down generation after generation. Myths are guardians of the status quo. Confrontation with the idea that the truths that I grew up with could, in fact, be myths was hard – but also exciting. Barriers in my thinking crumbled and I saw options for new directions.

·      I believe that we are living in a time when we must explode myths if we are to construct a sustainable future. We cannot continue with the status quo; there must be radical cultural change to bring us within the carrying capacity of our planet.

·      In retrospect, exploding myths has been a prime motivation for all of my publications on fashion. 

2.     As an anthropologist I do fieldwork among the Batak people of North Sumatra in Indonesia. Immersion in another culture has taught me to see my own culture through new eyes.

3.     I learned that colonialism split the world in two. From a substratum of diverse cultures, we collectively became:

·      Either the colonizer or the colonized; 

·      Either the Global North or the Global South; 

·      Either the developed or the primitive/uncivilized/un(der)developed/developing – all pejoratives used at different times

We are all either Us or Them. 

During fieldwork I, from the Global North, came in close contact with ‘them’, in the Global South and even started, to a certain extent, to identify with ‘them’. I learned that we had much in common but that history had forced us into positions of difference, even opposition.

·      I also learned, gradually, that the “Us – Them” dichotomy was operating powerfully in fashion studies. For example, it was once standard fare in fashion studies that style change through time was what distinguished fashion from other forms of clothing expression.  

·      In my N. Sumatran village, I had a EUREKA moment when I saw a creative weaver search for design inspiration from foreign textiles that she found on the markekt, and then invent new designs. Hey! Here was style change through time in an indigenous weaving tradition! Change was even a hallmark of that tradition! We had style change through time in common in our respective clothing traditions!

     In this way I learned that fashion studies have not always been objective; and the understanding of non-fashion has been based on biased preconceptions and not research. 

·      In 1993 I published Batak Cloth and Clothing, A Dynamic Indonesian Tradition, a history of dress of the Batak peoples. Through this book, I was saying that dress history is not exclusive to the West. Fashion History should be histories of dress: plural and diverse, one for each culture of the world.

·      In ‘Reorienting Fashion Theory’ my 2004 publication, I explored the pervasiveness of the us vs. them binary in fashion and fashion studies. Why would we want to perpetuate this myth of difference? Why is it so stubborn? I perceived that it has much to do with power and bolstering the sense of Western superiority.

                                           i.     Note how the designation ‘fashion’ implies that there is non-fashion, but at the same time conceptually ‘erases’ the relevance of the clothing systems of other peoples. This supports our sense of Western superiority – we ‘erase’ the evidence to the contrary. Think about that; it is a pernicious form of racism.

·      Racism in the fashion system goes much, much, much deeper than whether or not people with dark skin are represented in board rooms and on runways. It is bound up in the very definition of fashion. The essential divide between ‘us’ and ‘them’ is the fundamental myth on which all other myths are built. 

·      In my most recent publication: ‘Regenerative Fashion: There can be no Other’ I revisited the mythical dichotomy of West vs non-West in fashion because I perceived that this colonial-era dualism is even informing how we approach ‘sustainability’. We have been accepting the status quo, looking at material issues, and leaving out the matter of social justice, which, to my mind, should be absolutely central

·      I am so pleased that this seminar is highlighting this theme of social justice in design and offer my compliments to the instructors! 

·      It boils down to this:  

Where there is respect for other living beings, we will tread gently on the earth.

It is very simple, really: where we dehumanize and exploit, we will harm other beings and the planet. Hence I believe that respect is key. That means relinquishing dualistic thinking and learning to communicate across the reified divide.


My message to students today: It may be confusing and disorienting to bump up against societal and conceptual myths, but it is crucial to recognize them and to move forward on new understandings. 

4.     Hence my question inviting you to share the kinds of fashion myths or social myths that you have run up against. I believe that the uncomfortable discovery of these myths is an engine of both change and empowerment: 

·      The anthropologist, Ruth Benedict, once pointed out that “…no civilization has in it any element which in the last analysis is not the contribution of an individual.” Society – and the fashion industry -- run on the momentum of beliefs and norms. During the course of your study and life experience, have you ever been confronted with a conceptual ‘myth’ being perpetuated by the fashion industry? What is a good reaction to that discovery? In the end, we are not ‘trained employees’ and cogs in economic and social wheels; collectively we are the wheel, an insight that is empowering because it gives licence. 

 5.  That is why I am now a member of Fashion Act Now, and have chosen to become an activist at this stage in my career.





Monday, August 30, 2021

Indigenous Craft as Climate Adaptation and Mitigation

On Wednesday 25 August 2021, I presented a webinar for the PanSumatra Network for Heritage Conservation (PANSUMNET), an informal group coordinated by Hasti Tarekat within the Sumatra Heritage Trust / Beranda Warisan Sumatra (BWS). The event was moderated by arts and culture activist, Desmond W.S. Anabrang.

My goal was to bring the topic of global warming into focus relative to craft and heritage. On August 9 of this month, the 6th report of the IPCC report came out and was heralded as a 'Code Red for Humanity'. My talk was based on the comment made by Helen Clarkson, CEO of the Climate Group, that from now on,

Every decision, every investment, every target, needs to have the climate at its core.

So what does this climate 'code red' mean for heritage and craft? I proposed that this should become a focus of conversation and that it is incumbent on each aspect of heritage to work this out. UNESCO has already done significant work in this direction. It is all hands on deck. While the Northern Nations shoulder the burden of reducing greenhouse gas emissions (GHG), I pointed out that there was a leadership role that could be assumed within Indonesia because of the wealth of Indigenous Knowledge that is found in the country -- and that this wealth should be treasured and encouraged, that this incredible asset is undermined by so-called 'development' and 'capitalist growth'.

My example was traditional Batak textiles, which I likened to honey: a valuable product collectively produced from the local environment, healthy and dependent on a healthy local environment. 

I showed the modernization of Batak textiles in the light of CO2 emissions and fossil hydrocarbons. If the traditional textiles were carbon negative (they stored CO2 in their materials and the weaving equipment), the modern textiles have been entirely transformed by the availability and prevalence of fossil hydrocarbons, through the use of synthetic dyes, yarns, and fossil fuel-based transportation. In the end, this has meant that the only 'heritage' that has been preserved is the appearance (design) of the textiles, not the material and not the systems which infused them with meaning before they became a 'cultural commodity'.

I placed the blame squarely on the shoulders of social changes that have occurred since colonialism and pointed out that the reliance on fossil fuels will have to be relinquished. 

There will be no choice.

The Webinar was live streamed on Facebook but the link cannot be used in this environment. 

A copy of the presentation will be made available on the BWS website.

Thanks to the talented MJA Nashir for the poster image and to the dynamic BWS and PANSUMNET for organizing and hosting the event. Thanks also to the warm, enthusiastic and very engaged Indonesian audience. 

You may access the zoom recording here.

Sunday, August 08, 2021

I completed the Zuiderzee Route

 On Wednesday night I completed the Zuyderzee Route on my trusty bicycle. I spent 14 days at it and cycled 820 km. Starting and finishing in Nijkerk, traveling counter clockwise, I rode up around the East side of the lake, over the dike by bike-bus (alas, the dike is being renovated) and down the West side to Amsterdam, then skirted the South shore back to Nijkerk. 


I can’t complain about the weather. The skies were photogenically Dutch with scudding clouds topping the greenest of pastures studded with black and white cows and woolly sheep. The cool temperatures meant that I could keep covered up and safe from the sun. Only a few brief showers. Every day was more-or-less ideal cycling weather.


I think I experienced The Netherlands at her best. Physically, she is made for cyclists: compellingly flat with endless rivers, streams, tributaries, canals, (cantilever) bridges, dikes, ferries, lakes, and even open seas (on the day I cycled beyond the route to Harlingen). Church steeples in the panoramic distances, colourful fields, lots of ducks, geese and other water fowl,  history at every node. I could do the route ten times, no: fifty times, slowly, and still glean new insights. There were castles and museums, majestic VOC buildings, forts and moats, every kind of gable, local styles of water craft and marinas stuffed with yachts. There were patios where there was food and people made enthusiastic use of them. It was friendly, human-scale, carefree, and all were accepting of cyclists and understanding of our needs.


One of the things I liked most was plugging into the “Friends on Bikes” network. For a nominal fee, just to cover costs, kind bike-enthusiasts put up cyclists for the night. It makes bike travel simple and possible. Most of us are minimalist, independent types, with almost no baggage. Cycle, wash out the underwear, sleep, have breakfast and cycle on. The hosts know the routine from their own bicycle journeys. Six different hosts put me up in their homes. I spent more than one night in most so that I could dally and see the sights, and that made my trip delightfully sociable. Often there were animated discussions in the evening, and again over breakfast with other cyclists at the same address. Convivial and congenial. Many hosts were single women enjoying the company of cyclists just as much as I enjoyed the company of my hosts. I was struck by how gracious and kind they were. It wasn’t until I headed back in the train on that last night that I ran into mask-refusing grumblers and an obstreperous drunk. Maybe cyclists are just plain sane salt of the earth. This was community, trusting and kind. No bad apples on my journey.


During a rain shower, I discovered another network, that of ‘Rest Spots’  ( Run on the honour system, they are a commons, built on empathy. Places to have a drink, take a pee, charge up a battery, hide from a shower, or just be languid for a bit. Set up and cared for by volunteers and on their property. Absolutely endearing. This is what life everywhere should be like. Let’s expand the commons, share and trust each other! It generated such a good mood, such a sense of well-being, of belonging, of the world being our oyster. Who needs bitcoin? Give me this incomparable wealth, of ultimate value when the rubber hits the road. This is the Netherlands that one can’t help but love; I didn’t know that it was there all the time, ubiquitously between the lines!




Day 1: Oosterbeek to Zeewolde via Otterlo and Nijkerk 


Day 2: Zeewolde to Ketel Haven via Harderwijk, Nunspeet, and Kampen


Day 3: Ketel Haven to Ketel Haven via Kampen and the Ketelbrug


Day 4: Ketel Haven to Creil via the Ketelbrug, Urk and Lemmer over the dike


Day 5: Creil to Creil via Lemmer and Oosterzee – a day on the water 


Day 6: Creil to Makkum via all the little Fresian towns en route, including Stavoren and Hindeloopen


Day 7: Makkum to Makkum via Harlingen (seashore there, inland back)


Day 8: Makkum to Enkhuizen – via the Afsluitdijk, then Den Oever and Medemblik


Day 9: Enkhuizen to Enkhuizen – via Urk by sailboat


Day 10: Enkhuizen – a day at the ZuiderzeeMuseum


Day 11: Enkhuizen to Warder via Hoorn and Edam


Day 12: Warder to Warder via Purmerend, Monnickendam, Marken, Volendam and Edam


Day 13: Warder to Hoofddorp via Amsterdam (Vondelpark, Sloten and Schiphol)


Day 14: Hoofddorp to Nijkerk via Amsterdam, Muider, Naarden, Bussum and Bunschoten/Spakenburg





Monday, June 07, 2021

Decolonial Fashion Lament and the Call to Action

 As a Canadian, as a citizen of the world, as a person who went to school beside a Residential School, as an anthropologist, as a sentient person with a heart and social responsibility, I am feeling the pain of the indescribable discovery of so many unmarked indigenous children’s graves in Kamloops British Columbia. 

The remains of 215 children were found in unmarked graves outside one of Canada’s largest Residential Schools. The First Nations children were essentially abducted from their homes and subjected to abuse, hunger and neglect at the residential schools. An estimated 150,000 children attended these schools across the country and thousands died there. The precise number will never be known. The residential school system, a collaboration between Government and Churches, was set up to educate, convert, and assimilate the indigenous population.

I feel the pain of this discovery increasingly intensely. It was institutional murder: planned, condoned and  silenced. The schools were a form of genocide. If you think about this long enough, it is unbearable. And the indigenous peoples of Canada have had to bear this knowledge for so long. It has been denied, misunderstood and ignored. Many reactions to the news of the unmarked graves also constitute denial. Such violence is excruciating to think; denial is an escape route. But we are learning, with dread and regret, that these will not be the only covered-up graves that will come to light. It is only the beginning of the discoveries. People are talking about the tip of the iceberg. The symptom of a much larger, red pool.


The discovery of the graves in Kamloops is a confrontation with “coloniality.”


The confrontation is hard. It is also necessary. This is what ‘decolonizing’ is about: confronting ourselves with the pain of coloniality. Exposing what has been erased. Airing the facts. Acknowledging the facts. Letting the silence turn into voices. Listening with compassion and empathy. Only this can open the door to repair, restitution, solidarity. This is the only true escape route, the only way to put the past behind us. Because otherwise it will live on, and the wrongs will continue to compound. Facilitating the silence is on-going complicity. 


What, you may ask, does this have to do with decolonizing fashion? 


I notice that many of the images used to depict the Kamloops discovery utilize the imagery of  dress: photos of those children before and after their attendance at the schools. The ‘befores’ are indigenous dress, the ‘afters’ are Western dress. 


Beaded gloves
It is no surprise, no secret, that Western dress was used as a primary image of ‘civilization’. This was done throughout the world; it is one of the hallmarks of colonialism. Dress is perhaps the most obvious symbol of cultural difference. Suppression of indigenous dress is not unlike the suppression of indigenous languages. At the Canadian residential schools both were forbidden. The children were alienated from their cultural roots by having these two things, both so intimate to a person’s identity, stigmatized and forbidden. ‘Fashion’ was deployed as a tool of suppression, a facet of denial, a way to silence; it was denigration of authenticity. It was a way to ‘civilize’ the ‘savages’ – and there was even the hubris that clothing them in Western garb was a favour to them.


Many of the current memorials and vigils to the children involve items of indigenous dress: moccasins for their little feet, and people wearing ceremonial garb. Indigenous dress is being used to extoll the cultural identity of those children, to restore them to their culture. Finally they are able to return home after having been torn away, often at gunpoint, so long ago. 


There are other responses on social media. One that hits home hardest for me, who has had a heartfelt need to abjectly apologize, is the reminder that these atrocities do not live in the past, but continue today in numerous forms. The struggle of Canada’s indigenous peoples is not over, not by a long shot. It continues in the form of trying to block oil pipelines from crossing their lands, of motivating the government to clean up their water poisoned by industry, of trying to obtain social and physical space to practice their culture, and airspace to speak their truths, break silences and recover their past. The list is long.  And it is also related to fashion. 

In a recent publication I pointed out that fashion not only feeds off intersecting sacrifice zones, but constructs its own specific sacrifice zone. 'Sacrifice Zones' are areas of the earth's surface deemed expendable for the sake of profits for the few. Fashion is implicated in oil pipelines, poisoned water, land confiscation and soil degradation, all of which are linked in one way or another to industrial fashion production. Fashion practices are implicated in the the silencing of indigenous culture and the erosion of indigenous pride. The social hierarchy that fashion displays also carries messages about racial discrimination. Indigenous dress is another sacrifice zone of fashion -- witness its almost complete erasure from 'fashion studies'.


There is a variant of ‘residential schools’ that has grown up in association with fashion production. They are called ‘Factory Schools’ (a petition against them is embedded in the link) where children are abused and their cultures obliterated. The misery that we all regret relative to Kamloops is on-going in the world. We, from the now dominant culture, are being told time and again by indigenous peoples that they don't need pity or apologies for what occurred in Kamloops (and by implication other sacrifice zones as well). They need solidarity to remove the policies and barriers that prevent them from flourishing. We need to stand with them to demand social justice.


Decolonial fashion praxis has extensive scope. It is not restricted to the work of designers and the recognition of their creations. It also pertains to the erasures and sacrifice zones implicated in fashion production and practice. Including the expendable little bodies dumped into the Kamloops graves. 


Saturday, May 22, 2021

The Batak Textile Heritage Saujana Conservation and Sustainable Development OR When Batak Textiles were Honey and How They can Change the World

I delivered the webinar 'The Batak Textile Heritage Saujana Conservation and Sustainable Development' on 21 May 2021 as part of the 4th International e-Public Forum on Intangible Cultural Heritage and Sustainable Development. This, in turn, was part of the 2021 INTERNATIONAL ONLINE SUMMER COURSE ON JOGJA WORLD BATIK CITY: Balancing Creative Economy and Heritage Saujana Conservation to Foster Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)

Why, you might wonder, is a seminar on Batak included in a webinar on batik?
Batak and batik differ by only one letter, but there is a world of difference between the two.
o Batik is a textile decoration technique practised mainly on Java, and
o Batak is an ethnic group in the province of North Sumatra that weaves and does not make batik.

There is certainly difference between Batak textiles and batik textiles, but there is also similarity.
All of the hundreds of textile traditions in the island archipelago of Indonesia have similarities and differences; they relate to each other like variations on a theme.
To my mind, the entire Nusantara textile heritage deserves UNESCO recognition, because all these textile traditions are related to one another and reference each other like a single ‘set’ of material culture. They form a whole.
I applaud the wisdom of the organizers of this forum for including a comparative perspective on batik.

UN Sustainable Development Goals

This seminar focuses on the Sustainable Development Goals of the United Nations. The Sustainable Development Goals represent a remarkable step in the history of global relations. In 2015 the United Nations agreed to a global partnership to improve human lives and at the same time to protect the environment, through sustainable development. The date for achieving the goals was set at 2030. I understand that today’s seminar is one initiative of a member country to explore how to achieve these goals. I applaud this intention.

Detail of a Batak pinunsaan textile

The textile crafts of Indonesia represent an extremely valuable resource in the global attempt to live within planetary ecological boundaries. 
My position is that craft traditions present alternatives to the dominant global systems of production and capitalism, which have brought our planet into a precarious ecological position, with global warming, and over-exploitation of planetary resources and people.

Map of Indonesia

2017 Paris Climate Accord – a UN agreement

After the 2015 SDG agreement came the legally binding 2017 Paris Agreement to stay within 1.5 degrees of global warming, by peaking greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible to achieve a climate neutral world by 2050. This agreement implies and demands rapid and revolutionary economic and social transformation in the Global North, where most of the emission are caused.

Failure to meet the terms of this agreement are predicted to have dire climate consequences that will cost governments, including Indonesia, a great deal of money and will hurt most those who are least responsible for the CO2 emissions. Think of the cyclone earlier this year in Eastern Indonesia which threatened the lives of many weavers and the viability of their textile crafts. Think, too, of the corona pandemic which is believed to be a result of compromised ecosystems.

Degrowth Movement

The Degrowth movement has been building since the 1970s when scientists recognized the ecological limits to growth and it is becoming increasingly recognized and established.

It centres on a complex problem:
1. Capitalism requires growth to function
2. The Exponential growth of capitalism means that the terms of the Paris Agreement will not and cannot be met
3. Sustainable development, when it is based on capitalist growth, might be growth but it is not sustainable. 

Simply put, there is a problem when the SDGs encourage capitalist growth because this, precisely, is what leads to environmental degradation and social inequality.

Hence specialists are proposing degrowth as a way for the world to become more equitable whereby production and consumption remain within the ecological carrying capacity of the earth.

In other words, it is time to see the world turned on its head.

The word ‘development’, once a central, almost universal goal, has become problematic due to social consequences and the limited capacities of the planet.

Since the colonial era, craft has been seen as a vehicle to enable the poor to climb out of poverty. Revising craft for income generation is currently a predominant economic model for so-called ‘craft development’. Also in Indonesia.

However, recent research shows that capitalist growth creates poverty; it does not relieve poverty. Poverty in the world has never been as great as it is today. Growth of GDP does not imply improved well-being. (see Jason Hickel)
This means that the global economic system requires rehabilitation; the dominance of its economic and productions systems is currently a most pressing global problem.

Batak backstrap loom being manipulated by Ompu Elza, br. Sinaga. (2019)

Because capitalist growth creates poverty, environmental destruction and is exploitative there is a serious problem when craft is transformed into a vehicle for economic growth: I am speaking of faster looms, greater production, hierarchical workshop settings with a boss, and independent craft makers being transformed into labourers.

ATBM (semi-mechanized) loom being manipulated by a Batak weaver in Pematang Siantar. (ca. 2010)
Indigenous craft production systems are alternative models for business and industry. Indigenous production systems may offer strategies of sustainable production and social equality. Rather than conceptualizing craft as lagging in terms of global economic development, craft may be treasured for the kinds of models that it provides for alternative and sustainable economic and production systems. Then the challenge for craft activists becomes how to ensure that indigenous craft systems survive and thrive and are honoured rather than transformed into yet another capitalist activity. 
To explain this, I would like to speak briefly (given the short time available), about the position of Batak textiles, in the physical and social environments of the Batak people.

The social role of hand-woven Batak textiles is an example of what industrial, post-colonial society is looking for -- and longing for -- when it aspires to become sustainable.

Indonesian people I think would all agree that the textiles of their ethnic communities are flags of identity. Each community has unique and characteristic textile designs.

detail of Batak Bintang Maratur textile
In the Batak area the weaving arts are in severe decline and much textile knowledge has been lost. As a consequence, many Batak people are not aware that the identity-function of the cloth relates to much more than just how it looks. It also relates to how the cloth was made and used. Because time is short, I will restrict myself to brief aspects of how it used to be made.
Ompu ni Sihol, surrounded by her grandchildren, is making indigo dye. (1980)
Batak textiles are like honey. A bee collects pollen from the flowers in the near vicinity and makes honey. A weaver, in this case Ompu ni Sihol, is like a bee. She assembles materials from the near environment and her honey is an ancient clothing tradition.
Batak textiles originally represented the near environment including:
1. Various woods to make the weaving equipment
2. Grasses used in weaving, dyeing and starching
3. Plants for dyes
4. Local fibres for the yarn, including banana and a kind of nettle as well as cotton
5. Water next to the village serving in all of the processes
The indigenous textiles were made using local materials and local knowledge, and stayed within local ecological capacities.

Here Op ni Sihol is using local, wild indigo, dye pots made from local clay, and the water flowing beside her village. She has transported the indigo in handwoven mats made from local grasses.

Her grandchildren are helping and learning. Call it capacity building, cultural survival, community building, valuing of the elderly, transmission of cultural heritage, or the indigenous education system.

Currently, Batak textiles are no longer like honey.
1. Fibres and yarns are imported from elsewhere; dyes are imported from elsewhere; equipment is imported from elsewhere. All of these Imports imply CO2 emissions for transportation and they put the Batak people out of work. They therefore also imply loss of skills.
2. The imported synthetic dyes and yarns are made of hydrocarbons, and these hydrocarbons are obtained from sacrifice zones, areas that are destroyed for the sake of economic growth.
Once ecologically sound, Batak weavings today represent the opposite of what they once were.
They no longer represent the homelands/local environment.
They represent pollution because they do not biodegrade.
They no longer support the community, and no longer use local equipment and heritage know-how.

Furthermore, the semi-mechanical loom is utilized in a different system of production. Weaving on a backstrap loom in the village helped to create an integrated social life. Local know-how is activated and shared when weaving was done. Precisely this kind of community integration is being lost due to industrial style production. There is loss of skill, knowledge of local environment falls into decline, local wisdom is lost, and the position of the elderly in society declines and there is the attendant gap between generations.
3. a production hierarchy occurs whereby the weavers become labourers in an owner’s or a designer’s set-up, instead of continuing as the independent artisans they once were. The new loom constructs inequality instead of community. When weaving produced integrated community life, cultural and historical identity were also produced.

The kind of cultural integration that I am describing runs very, very deep. If we look at what the Batak weaver makes, she is also demonstrating, through her cloth, her view of the universe.
I have depicted here the basic structure of Batak textiles. Western education teaches us to emphasize the patterning of a textile when searching for its meaning, but this emphasis on motifs and the visual is a colonial legacy. For the Batak people, basic composition was important for the whole cloth and all of its component parts. Not just motifs, but their  arrangement in the cloth. That basic structure had everything to do with how Bataks understood their universe was structured.

Traditional Batak textiles were always divided into three parts if they had a role to play in adat, or ritual. A cloth had two similar sides and a centre. That same 2:1 relationship was found in all the parts of a cloth. Note how the supplementary warp and weft patterns have two similar sides and a centre that is different. The structure is expressed in colour, technique and patterning.

The Batak loved textiles that elaborated a single theme in a complex way, so that the smallest design feature was homologous with the largest design feature. That was the Batak aesthetic.

Supplementary warp pattern

Supplementary weft and ikat patterns

The understanding of the structure of the universe spilled over into daily life: 
  • In the kinship system, there are three groups: Wife-Giver, Wife-taker, Ego Clan
  • The universe consisted of three layers: Upper World, Under World, the Middle World
  • The three Gods in the upper world were represented by the three Batak colours: red, white, black/blue.
  • Ritual, music, seating arrangements, village layout, house layout, house carving and colouring, all have that 3-part unity that is repeated and repeated. 
Not only the recapitulation of basic structures was satisfying for the Batak, but also increasingly complex elaborations of that arrangement.
The origins of this 3-part design unity can be found the culture history of the Batak, and appear to be rooted in early Austronesian influence, early connections with other parts of the archipelago (Timorese textiles are particularly striking for their similarity in general layout with Batak textiles), and early Hindu-Buddhist influence (still evident in sari layout). Their textile design, in other words, also reveals or reflects Batak culture history.

Design is community in yet another sense. The textiles were designed for the community, by the community. The Batak did not have ‘specialized designers’. That is a colonial invention. They did have talented weavers, some more talented than others. Designs emerged, developed and changed through the collective activities of weavers within their community. Designs grew incrementally, which explains why each ethnic group has strongly characteristic designs. The whole community approved or rejected the innovations informally, so that when new designs were accepted, this was a community decision. Furthermore, the adat community decided when and how a design could be deployed ritually. And on top of that, the full range of textiles design types represented the full range of social categories within the community. So social organization was reflected in the full range of designs. Clearly, textile design represented the whole society and was the work of the whole society.

So, what is this weaver weaving? She is weaving life. She is weaving together her physical environment, reproducing her intellectual universe, constructing community, enacting and depicting her kinship system, displaying her culture history, learning and expanding and passing on ancient skills.... Her identity has many, many layers, variously and deeply significant. The complexity of her work is spectacular, far greater than the sum of its parts.

It was therefore unthinkable that her work would become obsolete or ‘disposable’ like the commodities of industrial production. That would be throwing away her entire life, all that was precious and meaningful to her. There was no waste in her clothing system.

These multiple layers of meaning disappear when a piece of craft becomes a commodity representing only a single value: money. Then, the only value it has for the maker is at the moment of exchange, or when she gets paid as a labourer. This represents a considerable loss of social integration, cohesion, pride, know-how, uniqueness and on and on.

I would like to lay the goal of sustainable development beside the traditional Batak textile craft, when it was still like honey.  I have intimated that traditional Batak textile production already meets the goal of sustainability. The definition of 'development' is problematic, however.  Upon being used for capitalist development, that same tradition becomes unsustainable. And this is what we are currently facing. The word ‘development’ is problematic when it involves industrialization, and commoditization and all the consequences thereof for people, culture, communities and planet.

Attempts to use the Batak weaving arts as a source of income generation have led to an expansion of CO2 emissions and waste, as well as poverty for weavers, loss of know-how and community, de-skilling – all the things that I have mentioned above.

I propose that it would be prudent to safeguard the possibility of indigenous expressions of local genius. I propose that indigenous craft (clothing production) systems be recognized -- and also treasured – as models of sustainable production. The whole world, and certainly the Global North, needs these models. Craft can lead the world.

Indigenous Batak textiles show: 
o how goods can be valued socially (when they are not commoditized)
o how they can produce social harmony and justice (without the egregious exploitation that has resulted in the world from the capitalist system)
o how cultural pluriversality functions 
o How local textile traditions embody alternative values whereby community well being rather than money occupies the central position.

Some Resources

Degrowth Movement


Hickel, Jason. 2021. ‘Extreme poverty isn’t natural, it’s created’ (Blog March 21)


Hickel, Jason. Growth is Killing Us.


Hickel, Jason. 2018. The Divide: A Brief Guide to Global Inequality and it Solution. Windmill Books.


Hickell, Jason. 2020. The Great Unravelling: Inequality. Webinar: The Postcarbon Institute


If continued growth is not sustainable, would its opposite – degrowth – be the right alternative? EOI (Escuela de organizaciĆ³n industsrial) blog.


Robra, Ben and Heikkurinen, Pasi. 2019. ‘Degrowth and the Sustainable Development Goals’ In Decent Work and Economic Growth. Encyclopedia of the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Springer, Cham


SDG Index Finds No European Country on Track, Green Deal Brings Potential


Sustainable Development, Poverty Eradication and Reducing Inequalities


United Nations Climate Change website


UN Sustainable Development Agenda 2030. – do the SDGs fit??

Transforming our world: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development

UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs of Form