Thursday, July 26, 2018

July 2018

At the end of July, we will receive a tour at the Simalungun Weaving Centre. Lasma and her family are taking it on with great anticipation. I have been doing what I can from Europe, including this letter to the tour participants that I would like to share more widely. I have not blogged for a long time. I lived in the village for 4 months at the beginning of 2018 and wanted to keep a low profile while I worked quietly. Now I am ready to 'come out', at least a little bit. This letter provides a bit of an overview of what has transpired.

Dear Textile Tour Members

Welcome to the Simalungun Weaving Centre!

I cannot be with you today, alas, but I would like to share some background information about the Centre by way of this letter. 

I started my anthropological career when I did my first 'fieldwork' in the area of Lake Toba in 1979. Since that first visit, I have seen the Batak weaving tradition decline drastically. In 2010 I handed out copies of my book, Legacy in cloth, Batak textiles of Indonesia to the weavers depicted on its pages so that they would have access to documentation of their own tradition. The transformative journey turned me into a textile activist. I realized that the weaving tradition would die out unless the weavers are encouraged and filled with pride for their work -- a tall order when they do not receive a living wage.

In 2012 I met Lasma Sitanggang, 18 years old at the time. She and I were both anxious to do something for her ailing culture and to reduce poverty, so we joined forces and developed a relationship of mutualism. We are both more effective when we work together!  Eventually I purchased the land where the Weaving Centre is located and built the house. Lasma and her husband look after it and develop its role in the village. The world is in deep crisis. Lasma and I both want to be part of the solution and not the problem. I invest the little that I have directly in the village, rather than in big business, and try to pass on my knowledge of the Batak weaving arts while I am still able. Lasma and her family are my guides and connection to the village.

I chose Lasma's village because it needs a boost, and also because it was once the centre of production of the headcloth called 'bulang'. I knew that if the bulang tradition was not revitalized quickly, it would be lost forever. Older women who know how to make it all stopped weaving when the bottom fell out of their market 15 years ago. They are now traumatized and distrustful. It is hard to get them to weave again. Lasma's mother was the first to dare to take up the loom again and she is enjoying it! Her daughters are learning from her. We hope that others will follow suit. Your tour may help convince them that weaving is appreciated and can be viable. 

We are still at an early experimental stage. I bring photographs of old museum bulang to the village, and import natural-dyed yarn from Java, Bali and Savu (we don't yet produce it ourselves). Finding the right yarn is an enormous challenge. We discuss everything at length and try to decipher the best way to proceed. Luckily our senior weaver, Lasma's mother, Ompu Elza, is patient and helpful. Each textile she makes is slightly different. Our goal is to develop beautiful artworks of the highest quality for a market that will truly sustain the weavers. Achieving that kind of quality and market will take time. In the meantime, I pay the weavers a living wage for every bulang they make and we document the specifics of each textile carefully. We are building a study collection, a record of our experiments.

Ompu Elza at her loom
Our logo is 'weaving for wellbeing'. Our dream is to create a place where weavers have the latitude to express their creativity and feel respected and happy. Lasma and her husband, Ober, have taken a course on organic farming and will hold an organic garden workshop here at the centre in September for fellow villagers. Eventually our dyes will be organically grown.

When I come back at the end of the 2018, we plan to hold a workshop together with weavers from other regions so that we can share and explore supplementary warp techniques. This is an important step for producing a bulang of the very highest quality. 

I hope you enjoy our House of Simalungun Weaving Culture. We are small and at the very beginning of what we hope will be a long and fruitful journey that benefits the whole village. Your visit is filling everyone with energy and opening their eyes to new possibilities. I believe in the importance of "holding hands" between North and South for the betterment of us all. 

Thank you for joining us!

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