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Batak Textiles

[under construction. Text below are excerpts from various references]

general introductory statement

TIT-JG P10 'Between the eighth and second century BC, because of military pressure from China, there was a large-scale migration from the Annam region of northern Vietnam, bringing to Indonesia a culture known to historians as the Dong-Son, which was to have a tremendous impact on the archipelago. It is widely believed that the backstrap continuously warped loom arrived with the Dong-Son, as did the art of warp-ikat. The Dong-Son were masters of bronzework and used bronze kettle drums in their rituals. On these drums were designs of the soul ship, the tree of life and the geometric patterns of the rhomb and key, spirals, sunbursts and human and animal forms that were to be diffused widely through the islands and to reappear as textile designs. Many of these are still in use in places as geographically separate as Sumatra and Timor. A fresh wave of migration from south China brought to Indonesia a culture known as the Late Chou, which introduced certain asymmetric designs and had particular influence in Borneo. The Bataks of north Sumatra, the Toraja of central Sulawesi, the Dyaks of Borneo and the islanders of east Nusa Tenggara and the southern Moluccas were to be largely unaffected by later foreign cultural influences, however, but continued to weave warp ikat textiles out of rough homegrown cotton with Dong-Son-inspired designs, dyed with locally gathered dyestuffs.'

TIT-JG P Pages 15, 16 “The use of these ritual cloths is particularly prevalent amongst what textile scholars Warnming and Gaworski call the ‘ancient peoples of the archipelago’ encompassing amongst others, the Bataks, the Toraja, the Iban Dyaks, the Sumbans, the Timorese, the Nias islanders and the people of the Kroe-Lampung region in Sumatra. Some of the most striking textiles of the archipelago were created by the ‘ancient peoples’ for ceremonial use, often to define a ritual area and motifs symbolizing death can appear in these cloths.”


SS-MG p 95. 'The textiles are somber blue or deep maroon cottons relieved in their severity by occasional warp ikat patterning, warp stripes, or twined borders. In some textiles supplementary weft yarns are used to delineate simple geometric forms. Among the Batak there is a hierarchical structuring that determines the appropriateness of a certain type of gift textile relative to the age and social status of the receiver, and the occasion. '

SS-MG p95 'Over two dozen types of Batak textiles have been identified. They are still made today, but few modern weavers are able to complete all the stages of production. This is especially true of the ikat textiles whose yarns are now ikatted by one woman and woven by another. More and more, the white panels interlocked in the end zones of the ragidup are woven separately and sewn onto the other segments of the cloth instead of being interlocked during the weaving process. Nevertheless, the textile craft is still alive in the mountains of the northern interior, and the centuries-old system of gift exchange is still being practiced.'


TSEA-RM P119 '(171,174) Among the various Batak peoples of north Sumatra, there are a (175) number of important ceremonial textiles that have male and female ends where each set of gender-related elements is concentrated. These include Toba Batak cloths (such as the ulos ragidup and the ulos pinunsaan), the Simalungun Batak headcloth, and some nineteenth-century Mandailing and Angkola Batak textiles. The most northerly weaving districts of the neighbouring Minangkabau people also appear to have integrated comparable pairs of schematic shapes into a striking band at each end of certain cloths. Further south in the Bengkulu and Pasemah region of Sumatra, the arrangement of different designs and the structure of the pattern at each end of the shouldercloth suggest an interesting comparison with the overt and intentional sexual imagery of Batak textiles.

While Batak elders readily identify the male and female ends and the sexual images on their textiles, such explicit identification of sexual symbolism is no longer apparent in neighbouring Sumatran areas. Minangkabau weavers understand the lozenge motifs on their supplementary silk textiles to be ceremonial cakes or heaps of sirih (an ingredient for betel-nut chewing), and triangular shapes are believed to represent bamboo shoots or 'the tree of life' (Sanday and Kartiwa, 1984: 18-25). While these motifs are now reduced to geometric patterning, and are identified with familiar everyday objects from the world around them, the weavers' ancestors may have intended motifs such as these to represent human figures.

Certain textiles are specifically designed to communicate with spirits. When physical danger threatens, such as an unexplained illness or pregnancy, a shaman or seer may prescribe the weaving of a special cloth to protect the owner and dispel the evil. A Batak village priest might suggest the weaving of an ulos ragidup as a cure for personal difficulties. This striking cloth, woven by a complex series of procedures, was also used in the past as an aid to divination. Textiles are also used by shamans among the peoples of northern Luzon, where they appear in a variety of ceremonies designed to placate the spirits. But instead of being read to predict the future, in this part of Southeast Asia they appear to hold the key to past events, such as the performance of great ceremonies (Ellis, 1981: 224-30). '






TSEA-RM p70, fig 96'...by red-brown borders woven in threads dyed with Morinda citrifolia roots, known to the Toba Batak as bangkudu. (Another popular cloth made elsewhere in the Toba region, the ulos sibolang, has a similar structure and design although it is woven entirely in shades of indigo from Marsdenia tinctoria, known locally as salaon.)'.....The fringe and the twined borders, traditionally the work of men, show precise and detailed patterns that contrast with the soft blurring of the central ikat, and are suggestive of the carving on architectural structures and other objects also executed by men and painted in the same red, black and white colours.'

Individual textiles

Ragidup - ulos pinunsaan

p 95. 'The most sacred and prestigious of all textiles is the Ragidup, a dark cloth with white patterned end panels. This is the most important gift the bride's father bestows upon the groom's mother during the wedding ceremony. It is a statement of the bride-giver's superior status and protective and fructifying role. SS-MG'

SS-MG p95 'In pregnancy and at the death of an elder the ragidup is once more the adat-sanctioned gift textile.'

SS-MG p99 Fig 62. 'The ragidup, whose name literally means "pattern of life," is the most sacred of all Batak textiles, and is used for important gift exchange ceremonies. One of these occurs when a woman is seven months pregnant with her first child. On this occasion, her parents present her with one of these cloths, which becomes her ulos ni tondi, or soul cloth. The designs of the textile, which are thought to spell out her future, are "read" by a knowledgeable elder.

This textile is composed of three bands sewn together in the warp direction. The lateral bands are warp-faced plain weave, with narrow stripes of supplementary warp patterning. The central band contains white end panels woven by interlocking a new set of white warp yarns with the center warps. This is done by weaving the central area, then overlaying the remaining dark warp yarns with the white ones, and weaving a few wefts to lock the new warps into place. The dark warps are then cut away, and weaving continues on the white yarns. These panels have supplementary weft patterns on a warp-faced, plain weave foundation. The ends are finished with twining.'

TSEA-RM p119 F171 'Two Toba Batak elders discuss the meaning of the motifs on the man's ulos ni tondi (soul-cloth), a finely worked ulos ragidup ('design of life') from the Taratung district south of Lake Toba. The ulos ragidup and ulos pinunsaan can be read by experts as an oracle to predict the future and particular cloths or designs might be prescribed by a Batak shaman as a cure for misfortune (Gittinger, 1975: 13-15).'

TSEA-RM p121 F174 and 175 'On certain Toba Batak ritual textiles (ulos), such as the ulos ragidup and the seemingly identical ulos pinunsaan, (also known as pinussaan and nipussaan after the term sometimes used for the white inset panels, pussa), the widest band of supplementary weft patterns (pina halak) at each end are distinctly though schematically male and female. The male pin a halak band is composed of elongated triangular shapes (baoa) while the dominant female motif in the other pina halak band is the rhomb (boru-boru). (The terms tulang baoa and boru are also used to refer to key elements in the Toba Batak kinship system.) When using the cloths to cover the dead or to envelop the living, Toba Bataks are careful to extend the end appropriate to the gender of the recipient.

A complicated and ordered sequence of weaving the intricate, supplementary weft ends containing these male and female motifs, in the sacred tricolour of black, white and red, is strictly observed - even by younger weavers who are uncertain or ignorant of the sexual references of these ancient motifs. In the Porsea district on the eastern shores of Lake Toba, the three central sections of the ulos pinunsaan are woven separately, cut and then sewn together with the side panels to form a completed cloth. The ulos ragidup that are woven by the Toba Batak peoples south of the lake and the brick-red woman's headcloth (bulang) from the Simalungun Batak (sometimes also referred to as the Eastern Batak or Batak Timur) have an elaborately woven central section. The two end panels are not woven separately but are worked on a second, white warp which is inserted during the weaving process (Gittinger, 1975: 13-15). This difficult and lengthy procedure can only be understood through an awareness of the supernatural powers that these traditional cloths are thought to possess and the notion of an unbroken, circulating warp as a metaphor linking male and female realms. Both cloths probably date from the early twentieth century.'


Ragi Hotang

SS-MG p95 'Paralleling these two (ragidup and sibolang) in relative prestige, but imbued with a slightly different character, is the ragi hotang, which is the highest-ranked textile to be given to the bride and groom. If no child is born after a suitable time has elapsed, the young husband may return to his wife's family with a pig and demand the blessing of the bride-givers in the form of the ragidup.'


SS-MG p95 ...The sibolang, a textile that goes to the father of the groom, has a similar significance (to that of Ragidup).

SS-MG p95 'The sibolang, a somber blue cloth with five bands of blue ikat patterns, also has a major role at funerals. It is the major gift of the fathers of the son's wives and others who stand in the position of bride-givers to the dead person. It also serves as the chief mourning cloth a widow receives from her mother; in this case it is worn over the head, but in normal circumstances it is wrapped about the hips or folded over the shoulder.'




TSEA-RM P 365, 366 'With the increase in Western education in Southeast Asia from the end of the nineteenth century, messages and personal signatures in Romanized lettering began to appear on many textiles. In particu¬lar, the practice of signing garments became popular among weavers in the Christian areas of Indonesia where initials or even full names appear in warp ikat. Where textiles are intended to convey a message or greeting, this is sometimes spelt out on the cloth. The most popular message in the Malay peninsula and the Indonesian archipelago conveys good wishes for the use or wearing of the cloth (selamat pakai), while many Batak ceremonial ulos gifts are now emblazoned with the greeting Horas Mahita or a detailed embroidered account of the occasion and the names of the leading participants.

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this page last updated 24 March, 2006