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Our Global Neighbours: Cloth and its Meaning

By: Dr Stan Florek, Category: Science, Date: 13 Nov 2014

Textiles of Southeast Asia are amongst the richest in diversity and design in the world.

Ita with a Sumatran Jacket: E90220

Ita with a Sumatran Jacket: E90220
Photographer: Stan Florek © Australian Museum

Our Global Neighbours is a blog series containing stories from and about cultures around the world.

Fabric in Asian culture plays a role that has no good parallel in the West, where it fulfils mainly utilitarian and decorative functions. In Southeast Asia cloth encapsulates value and symbolism in their complex belief systems. As such it is a vital sacred and social currency that links people with their ancestors as well as future generations.

Textiles are literally a social fabric which holds communities together via exchange and related obligations. It affirms peoples’ mutual association and belonging, as well as kin relationships with their commitments and broader communal connections.

Hand-crafted fabric is usually the work of women. It expresses not only gender duality, but also the complementary roles of man and woman. Textile is essential in all life-cycle ceremonies. Its production and exchange affirms women’s role as an active agent in social life, transactions and transitions.

For many women, making textiles is the field of artistic expression and the attainment of weaving virtuosity. Patterns, motifs and materials reflect historical influences and customs that in various ways filtered into local practices and designs. Elements from distant India and China, and occasionally even from Europe, are often interwoven into ancient local traditions in the multitude of varieties and patterns across the region.

Networks of obligations mediated by exchange and circulation of cloth held community alliances, often independent of boundaries of kingdoms and empires, especially before the onset of nation states in this part of the world.

As an example, two out of many studies, referenced below, offer excellent insight into the political role of Batik in Javanese history and the social role of Tampan cloth rooted in the ancient tradition in Sumatra, respectively.

References:

Robyn J and John Maxwell, 1989. Political motives: The batiks of Mhamad Hadi of Solo. [in] M Gittinger (ed) To Speak with Cloth: Studies in Indonesian Textiles. Pages: 131-150. Museum of Cultural History – University of California, Los Angeles.

Mattiebelle Gittinger, 1989. A Reassessment of the Tampan of South Sumatra. [in] M Gittinger (ed) To Speak with Cloth: Studies in Indonesian Textiles. Pages:225-239. Museum of Cultural History – University of California, Los Angeles.