Textile Society of America


Date of this Version



Published in Textiles and Politics: Textile Society of America 13th Biennial Symposium Proceedings, Washington, DC, September 18- September 22, 2012.


Copyright 2012 by the author(s).


Since antiquity, the peoples of the modern state of Indonesia have used textiles to communicate identity. Lines of male and female descent, clan and caste, allegiance to kingdoms both old and new, religion and spiritual accomplishment, and many other identifying characteristics are encoded into the hundreds of discrete textile traditions that continue to thrive across the archipelago. For the last fifteen years, the Indonesian state has actively engaged with traditional textile culture in ways that co-opt and alter these systems of meaning. The evolving relationship between traditional weavers and the state offers a window onto a nation struggling to reconcile its past with its future. In 1997, the government of the southeastern province of Nusa Tenggara Timur ordered government employees to purchase uniforms made from local traditional cloth. In a concurrent move, the Ministry of Industry formed weaving cooperatives in villages around the region, and encouraged them to mass-produce versions of local textiles using simplified motifs and time-saving chemical dyes. The new policies set in motion a slow, grinding battle over the meaning of textiles, and the identities of the people who weave and wear them. This paper will address the social, economic, and spiritual issues surrounding this unique intersection of textiles and politics: are traditional textiles commodities, or sacred heirlooms? Are the women who weave them skilled artisans, or priestesses? What is the proper relationship between the state and the older social systems expressed in textile culture? What is the meaning of "traditional" textiles produced in factories in Java, or made into Western-style garments?