Sandra Niessen wrote:
Dear Vernon Kedit Jolly,
I want to thank you for your fabulous contribution to this forum. "Only" being a grandson of a rich line of weavers....????? Who could have a more extraordinary view of indigenous cloth? You are in a unique position and I am so pleased that you have chosen to do something with your fascination with your textile heritage. The whole world will gain from it.
I am located in The Netherlands and I have just finished writing and publishing Legacy in Cloth: Batak Textiles of Indonesia, an in-depth account of Batak textiles. Your desire to document the full repertory of Iban cloths is admirable and certainly needed. I argue in my book that we now need very thorough accounts of individual traditions if the study of textiles is to take a step forward. There have been many general accounts written and these were absolutely necessary to get a good sense of the lay of the land, as it were. But now to move forward, even for comparative purposes, and especially to better understand the histories of these art forms, we need in-depth accounts.
I compared the naming of Batak and Iban patterns on pages 95 and 96 of my book, based on the work by Traude Gavin (Iban Ritual Textiles, KITLV Press, 2003). It is not light reading, and I do not wish to bog you down with it, but I attach it here in case you are inclined to have a look at it and perhaps comment on it. I would really value your insights.
Whether you have the opportunity to reflect on what I have written, or not, I wish you much success with your plans and I look forward immensely to reading your results.
Comparison with Iban pattern nomenclature
The Batak system of textile classification differs significantly
from what has recently come to light about the way the Iban of
Borneo name their textiles. Traude Gavin 2003:211 has explained
that the patterns of Iban pua kumbu textiles are in the first
instance individual creations. She describes what she calls a
chaotic situation: while some patterns are faithfully copied,
patterns are also 'turned around; parts are incorporated in other
patterns and given new names. Dissimilar patterns are ascribed
the same name and so on.´ Patterns have pedigrees. Because
weavers knew only the patterns that they had woven and that
had been handed down in their family Gavin 2003:21, research
into the patterns could only proceed by tracing the pedigrees.
Gavin referred to the names used to identify these patterns as
'labels'. This system of naming functioned as 'a kind of reference
system, as a kind of shorthand and mnemonic device in order to
distinguish one pattern from another' Gavin 2003:169. 'Titles', by
contrast, were assigned to patterns that had acquired meaning
or rank indicative of 'a certain level of ritual efficacy' 2003:79.
Titled patterns comprised units that, given time, could become
'conventional symbols' 2003:237; they achieved this wider
recognition through ritual use. The textile-naming system
appears to correspond with the Iban social organization, and to
have its parallel in the way people achieve status. The Iban do
not have a 'notion of cultural unity and uniformity, but identify
themselves by river, or even just by their particular longhouse
community.' The achievement of a higher status implies
becoming more widely known.
Gavin's description of the Iban system of textile naming
throws the Batak system into relief. Batak textile designs are not
individual inventions or more precisely, they are not socially
recognized as such. The goal of a Batak weaver is to make a
particular design in a way that conforms to the rules of
convention for that design type. The design-type categories
have the wide recognition that Iban 'titled' textiles or
'conventional symbols' appear to have, but among the Batak this
recognition appears to be a priori and ascribed, not achieved.
Achievement resides in the weaver having her textile conform
to the recognized template. Among the Batak, the patterns have
no traceable pedigrees, and the repertories of individuals are
not remembered. Gavin stresses that woven patterns among
the Iban are, in the first place, decorative, and only achieve
spiritual importance when given a title. This is unlike what is
found among the Batak. The name of a recognized Batak textile
corresponds to design conventions that are ritually recognized
nomenclature Design 4 95
and consequently have a sacred role. Consistent with the
process of modernization, decline in adherence to conventional
rules of design production correlates with secularization see Des
3. It appears to be the case, therefore, that Batak textile designtype
names fall midway between Iban labels and titles. They are
like Iban labels because (as demonstrated by the possible set of
answers available to a Batak weaver) they emphasize features of
the textiles. On the other hand, unlike Iban labels and like Iban
titles they are generally recognized and have sacred value -
although they are not submitted to the same kinds of ritual
requirements that Iban textiles must undergo to gain a title.
Conventionally applied Batak design-type labels are ritually
recognized and do appear to evolve from descriptive tags as a
consequence of widespread social recognition. When this
happens, the spiritual status of the textile type (but not specific
cloths) also increases. However, this process does not appear to
be socially recognized nor to figure among the ambitions of a
The comparative enterprise
When comparing Indonesian textile traditions, the researcher
would do well to take systems of nomenclature into account as
much as textile design. In essence, the comparison of
nomenclatures involves comparing systems of textile meaning.
Do the names refer to facets of cloth appearance, or elements
external to the cloth? What is the social and ritual status of the
names? How does textile nomenclature correlate with social
organization and social change? How and why do names
change? What is the role of individual initiative in the
development of names, and of social forces beyond the power of
I am familiar with Miss Gavin's work and her impressive publication, Iban Ritual Textiles
. Though she has done much in contributing to the growing interest in Iban material culture and added to the current literature on the subject of pua kumbu
, I must confess I have found some of her points to be incorrect and the ensuing arguments to be flawed. Perhaps her grasp of the Iban language is limited, or she was led on a wild goose chase by her many field informants during her research. Or perhaps her informants were not exactly qualified to comment on the pua kumbu
tradition which is highly stylised and esoteric and fraught with pitfalls even for the casual Iban observer or student of weaving.
Her discussion of terminology and nomenclature has several general sweeping statements which I find incomplete, sometimes incorrect. For instance, you write "she stresses that woven patterns among the Iban are, in the first place, decorative, and only achieve spiritual importance when given a title."
I beg to differ with Miss Gavin. If woven patterns are merely decorative and only achieve spiritual importance when given a title, then pray tell, why is the process of tying the knots of certain patterns deemed spiritually dangerous since time immemorial? Innocuous decorative patterns are the pengalit
(embellishments) found on the main pattern, mostly made up of tendrils and coils and curls. These are 'harmless' in themselves. But the igi buah
(main motifs) are where the 'spirits' of the cloth are 'created', at the tying of the knots stage (kebat)
. That is when the weaver is exposed to much risk and danger. Her spirit begins a duel with that of the spirit of the pattern. Whether or not the weaver names or titles these patterns at the knotting stage is irrelevant. They begin to exist the moment she begins to tie the knots that create them. The point is not whether they are named or titled which makes them potent or spiritually important, but that the weaver has created them. And by that act of creation alone, she is summoning up the spirit of the pattern. Even if they are nameless or without title. A rose by any other name...
All Iban pua kumbu
undergo ritual requirements, regardless whether they are titled or not once complete. It is de rigeur
. However, only a few pua kumb
u are titled (with a personal praisename), and that is not a decision made by the weaver. That is a spiritual decision decided by the gods who will inform the weaver through dream encounters. To title a cloth is an honour bestowed by the gods, and not because certain rites had to be executed.
Having said that, an untitled cloth is no less potent or insignificant nor is it merely decorative. It is still a ritually imbued cloth and its rank corresponding with the status accorded the pattern since time immemorial. It simply just has no personal name. A title does not make a cloth any better than the others. It merely gives the pua kumbu
a personal name.
Another misgiving I have is Miss Gavin's sweeping statement that the Bali Belumpong
is the highest ranked type of pattern in the Saribas, equalled only by the Bali Kelikut
and the Honeybear pattern or the pua jugam
(as she rightly identifies it). How she arrives at that conclusion she does not mention but I can say for certain she is much mistaken. For starters, no bear pattern exists in the vast repertoire of pua kumbu
patterns, honey or otherwise. Her entire premise on the pua jugam
is therefore consequently flawed. And all because of the misinterpretation of the term jugam
which figuratively means 'black', and not the honeybear. Iban weavers are cruelly cunning when it comes to puns, always intended. As for the Kelikut
, Miss Gavin has obviously been led astray by some mischievous informant. I have written a short entry in my personal blog on the Bali Kelikut
to redress the apparent oversight: http://vernonkeditjolly.blogspot.com/2009/07/bali-kelikut.html
. Any Saribas Iban with a superficial or brief knowledge of Iban adat
ritual law, cosmology and oral history would know that the ceremonial pole or tree pattern is the unrivalled and incontrovertibly highest ranked pattern in our tradition. Our oral traditions abound with references to the Great Tree of the Afterlife, our pantheons crowded with swaying sacred palm fronds and majestic burgeoning erectile trees reminiscent of phallic invincibility. How does any bear outrank that? In my great grandmother's day, to suggest that the Trees of the Afterlife pattern was anything less than omnipotent was tantamount to lèse majesté
Returning to your discussion on nomenclature and terminology, allow me to suggest that as far as Iban textiles are concerned, how patterns and motifs are named is a very complex subject because of regional variants, dialectic semantics and of course, the whole point that an oral based tradition is constantly evolving and in transitional change. Whole books may be written on it. In a nutshell, all patterns have a GENERAL term and sometimes a PERSONAL name. General terms are universal while personal names (ensumbar
or praisenames) are very subjective and often only the weaver would know it as she would have been the one coining it in the first place. Once this simple principle is grasped, everything else falls into place. More or less. But like in all tribal textiles traditions, exceptions always exist to throw us off completely! Weavers are only human, and sometimes we forget that.
I hope this has been helpful.