Textile Society of America


Date of this Version



Published in Sacred and Ceremonial Textiles: Proceedings of the Fifth Biennial Symposium of the Textile Society of America, Chicago, Illinois, 1996. (Minneapolis, 1997).


Copyright 1996 by the author.


Recent anthropological studies of Indonesian textiles have reported in detail on the important ritual role of locally-made heirloom cloths among a range of ethnic groups throughout the archipelago. Moreover, the few extant studies with a local comparative bias have shown how the function of one particular textile may vary between people living in different villages or belonging to different social groups. Geirnaert has pointed out that, obviously, this indicates that textiles may form part of a wider geographical or symbolical system (Geirnaert 1992:xxviii). It has also been shown that this type of comparative effort can be taken beyond the archipelago (see Gittinger 1992; Maxwell 1990). As yet, a concerted attempt at comparison of the meanings of ritual cloth among different ethnic groups within Indonesia has not been undertaken. Therefore, our panel will compare the manner in which one type of highly valued, locally-made ceremonial cloth functions among three ethnic groups in Indonesia: the Lio of central Flores, the Minangkabau of west Sumatra and villagers from Kerek, near Tuban on the northeast coast of Java.

The comparison concerns the most highly-valued type of textile and its ritual role among the highest-ranking social group in each of the three cultures: the lawo butu, the beaded sarong of the Lio, the kain sandang gobo, a heavily gold-decorated shoulder cloth of the Minangkabau and the kain kembangan, the flowered cloth of the villagers of Kerek. Certain differences in the symbolic meaning and function of the three cloth types will appear to be linked to the different forms of social organization and religious adherence of each of the three groups. Changes over time have influenced the cloths' function.

Weiner's distinction between alienable property -which may be owned by individuals or sections of the community, and is marketable or exchangeable - and inalienable property -which is collectively and eternally owned by the whole group -in Oceania (Weiner 1992), has served as an additional analytical tool for the case of the Indonesian textiles.