Uli shared a story about her grandmother’s sarung that will be of interest to consumers in the West who are trying to curtail their clothing consumption. Aside from the complicating theme of coloniality, the story is parallel to ones you would hear in the West, and that should come as no surprise. In Uli’s small North Sumatran village the people are also having to contend with planned obsolescence and an expanding garbage heap. However, the colonial theme makes the Asian tale more poignant.
“Everything I wear has a history and has undergone a long journey,” Uli wrote in her Facebook posting of 25 January 2022, and she went on to discuss how her grandmother's activities as a weaver inspired her:
“35 or 37 years ago, before I started school, I watched my grandmother weave this sarung. I watched her starch the yarn for this sarung. Watched her wind the warp and design it herself. I watched her count the yarns during weaving and calculate the gold yarn she would use, which some 30 years ago was difficult to acquire and expensive too.I accompanied her when she purchased ready-made fabric to append to the top of this sarung. I watched her baste this sarung with the sewing machine. I watched her iron this sarung with a charcoal iron on a rice box in the village named ‘Parhombanan I’.
At that time, a sarung woven by hand was not considered to be 'acceptable clothing'. And I don’t remember seeing my grandmother wear this sarung. It is just that she once said to me [in the Batak language], ‘When you are grown up, you will inherit all of my weavings.’
I liked to watch my grandmother tidy the house, make the bed and fold cloth. I remember the knob on my grandmother’s linen cupboard was like a jade-green flat button. I liked the way she ironed cloth with both hands before she put it away in the cupboard.
I didn’t envision that I would one day become a weaver. I got a good education and a good career outside the village. Returning to the village was impossible to my thinking and [foreign] to anything I felt. It was impossible. But who knows life?
The fact is I became a weaver at a time when most of my grandmother’s weaving equipment had been looted by her husband’s in-law. She ordered me to take the equipment back again. She also told me to fetch several ulos which had been taken from the closet in secret. But I didn’t do it, because, you may believe it or not, all things will return to me in a way which is not expected. It was my inheritance which was promised to me when I was little. I was to own it when I became an adult.
And I certainly own it because all this time, there is not a single cloth or piece of weaving equipment from my grandmother, which ‘fits’ anyone other than myself.
Then I got enlightened.
I and my grandmother were already clothing visionaries. Long before anyone had thought of using weavings as daily wear, she had already thought of this, although she wasn’t confident wearing it. At a time when people were drowning in the flow of consumer fashion, I thought of making my own clothes and making clothes to fit my body, rather than making me fit the clothes.
One thing that I am aware of is that clothing made from the best fibres lasts longer than cheap clothing. Take my blouse for example. I wore this blouse when I graduated 20 years ago. The material was expensive and the cloth was lovely. This year I purchased cloth that was cheaper than the selling price 20 years ago, and I hadn’t even worn it three times, only twice, and the cloth was already pilling and tearing, and had to be tossed because indeed the cloth was meant to be worn only a few times and couldn’t be let out or taken in; the idea was that the blouse was only to be worn once.
This is the way textile factories increase production and people keep changing their clothing to conform to the demands of fashions and trends.“
After reading her story, I asked Uli what she meant by ‘acceptable clothing' and she explained: In the past, and still today, people didn’t consider that (hand)woven cloth would be worn on a daily basis, let alone to church. Because handwoven cloth was perceived as old-fashioned. Or they didn’t feel confident wearing it.”
I found this rather interesting, given that Batak traditional dress was their own handwoven textiles and these were worn everywhere and all the time prior to the colonial era. Of course Uli was aware of this. She pinpointed the change in thinking, not surprisingly, to colonialism and conversion to Christianity. Since then, “people look at what is worn in the West as what must also be worn in the Batak area. Most elderly Batak are even of the opinion that the name ‘Batak’ is old-fashioned and the name ‘West’ is advanced.”
It seems that the 'advanced West' has undermined culture.