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Weaving in Bali

It’s a little known fact that weaving has a strong heritage in Bali but, unlike wood carving or painting, it is rapidly losing its footing as a household skill. This spells the potential loss of part of the fabric of Bali’s heritage but thanks to one foundation in Nusa Dua, there is hope for the women who have lost touch with this timeless skill.

We set out for the ROLE (Rivers Oceans Land Ecology) Foundation’s headquarters, perched high on the eastern rocky faces of Bali. An arid region not far from Uluwatu, ROLE have created an oasis of self-sustaining vegetation that also empowers Balinese to look to the land and their past, to develop jobs that provide a life-long opportunity for income.

Liza Dawn met us, ROLE’s unassuming Chief Operations Officer, at the front ‘gate’ – a little hut where the resident cat smooches at your feet and it seems is a meeting point for chats. Liza has lived full-time in Bali for two years, spending much of that time on Nusa Penida where she honed her colloquial Bahasa Indonesia skills learned in high school and university. Fluent, Liza also has watched and learned the nuances of the language, such as dropping her voice if asking a personal or sensitive question.

I met Liza when she presented the story of the weaving program to Rotary Club of Canggu, and was not sure what I wanted to capture first…that story, that of Made the weaving guru (teacher), or that of Liza. So decided to do all three!

Bali Weaving

Liza and Ibu Made with dyed threads ready for weaving

This is the first story (cerita), the story of weaving in Bali and why it is such a crucial skill to nurture and retain. Not just for its artisan worth, but for the soul of Bali.

Weaving, Women and Wood

Creating sustainable industry is a phrase that we hear regularly in the modern day, but in actual fact, our ancestors already had the low-down on how to use gifts from nature to create all they needed for a happy life. As we learned from JJ in Bali, Bankruptcy and Buttons, a happy person nourishes two things…the body, and the spirit.

Using wood, leaves and natural fibres, Balinese women were adept at creating sarongs, however that skill has been traded for tourism in recent years.

We meet Ibu Made, who is tall for a Balinese. In her mid-30′s, she has a natural gift for teaching the young women in her care, many of whom look to her as a maternal figure. She speaks little English (although I suspect she understands and is perhaps shy to try and converse) so we try a mixture of my emerging Indonesian, English and thankfully, the talents of Liza who is fluent.

Made first shows us the dyeing process. The cotton and silk blend threads are purchased raw. Using a variety of different raw materials, the material is slowly dyed into colours ranging from Indigo to pale yellow.

The Bahun-bahun (ingredients) range from the skin of Noni root, to Tumeric, Jackfruit wood, thinly chopped Sappan wood, and the dried bark of the Kitatalia Aroborea tree, just to name a few. Mango leaves and other varieties are also used, which begs the question…who and why did someone learn the process of dyeing?!

Made chops some wood from the base of a tree and shows us how when it’s scraped and wet lime is rubbed on the raw flesh, it changes from yellow to a vibrant red. Liza jokes that perhaps on a wet day someone was scraping the root and accidentally dropped it in a pile of lime lying in the yard. However this method has been learned, the process is one that is time consuming and methodical.

Weaving in Bali

Precise quantities are measured for each recipe to create the different colours, although when I asked Made how many litres of leaf she used, she smiled and shrugged. “That much”, she said, pointing to a plastic tub. It makes perfect sense, as Balinese did not use scales of measurement until Western influences and even now, recipes are a combination of memory and relativity to the size of pots, spoons or knuckle lengths.

As Made shows us the process, Liza gives some background into weaving in Bali and the nearby islands, particularly Nusa Penida. Many years ago, a woman was unable to marry until she learned the art of weaving. These days, young Balinese women don’t have such a requirement for if they did, many would be unable to work in the burgeoning tourist industry that has developed since the 1970′s.

There are many tasks required to weave a piece of fabric and it seems that each one is learned by a different woman, no-one learns the entire process. The men appear to have learned the dyeing skills. (Next week we will visit Nusa Penida to meet one of the finest in Bali.)  Therefore it’s not difficult to see how an entire industry could rapidly come to a halt with each skill needing to be passed onto a team who combine to create one process.

Added to the distraction of tourism and the logistics of keeping the craft alive, is the availability of cheap imported fabrics. Indonesia is interestingly moving to being a self-sustaining country, which will cut imports dramatically and emphasises the importance of internal production. However the weaving process is long and due to the high skill level required, it is impossible to produce en mass unless hundreds of employees were engaged.

It was this challenge that also stopped women and men from weaving and dyeing fabrics to sell. They simply could not compete with cheap imports. The hours spent weaving are so many, and as the need for money does not go away, weaving was put aside for more financial activities.

This means several things for the people of Bali. From an historical or cultural point of view, it is potentially devastating to see heritage almost completely disappear so quickly. The fabrics woven in the past carry significance for each village and region, as a particular pattern would be made, similar to the tartans of Scotland. Today, many of these have been lost forever as the sarong was buried or cremated with the deceased. In just a few years, in several villages, none of the original works are left.

ROLE are playing an important part in reestablishing this skill in the community. Ibu Made has learned the entire process and is teaching young women the craft who take part in the ROLE Bali Wise program (Women and Girls International Skills Program). I ask her how her family feels about what she is doing and what she has done over the past five years with ROLE.

Weaving Culture in Bali

Ibu Made gently smiles, and tells me that her sister is very proud of her, that she could learn these skills, and thinks she is “pandai”, clever. She is almost bemused that anyone would think she is good at something and clearly is humble in her natural ability to teach, inspire and nurture the young women on the program.

Ibu Made makes you want to hug her, do a high five and tell her how amazing she is all at the same time. Her Indonesian is precise and easy to understand as she gazes warmly at you, smiling frequently as she gives careful yet short answers to explain the process.

When we asked Liza and Ibu Made to pose for a photograph, she stared seriously into the lens. When I said something she thought was funny, she laughed and held her hand to her face. After a quick discussion we learned that she was shy of the gap between her teeth! It was then a real ‘girls’ chat’ as Trish explained that Western models were paying thousands of dollars to add the gap to their smile. Getting a smiling photograph suddenly became easy and Ibu Made beamed into the camera for Trish.

Setting up the loom takes two full days. Thread is first of all wound onto spools, a bit like the way thread is put onto a bobbin, however it is all by hand. Once they have spooled thread, this is wound to a set number around a loom frame. After watching Ibu Made for 15 minutes, I still could not work out the pattern as she deftly wrapped it up, down and around in figures of eight and circular loops.

The Textiles

The most simple sarong is a striped sarong. The most complex is with diamonds. There are three sarongs that are of great importance to the Balinese people – the Rangrang, the Saudan and the Cepuk. The sarongs can take from three weeks to three months to create, depending on the complexity of the pattern.

The rangrang is a shawl-like cloth (also known as cerik langah, loosely woven cloth) that has a number of wefts and warps that create square holes in the fabric. Another style has a zigzag pattern known as tirtanadi, or waves.

The saudan uniquely belongs to the Bebali (a sacred group of textiles). It is used at the Otonan ceremony which takes place 210 days after birth. The child wears the sarong to protect it from evil forces. The child’s hair is cut at five points, each representing different facets of evil. They are then either returned to Mother Earth or thrown into the sea and the child is transformed from a devine creature, to a human being.

The cepuk (“to meet with”) is also a sacred textile. Its story like many things in Bali harkens to spirituality, associated with the Rangda, symbolising evil’s struggle with good, depicted as the lion-like Barong. Intricate tiny white triangles symbolise the Barong’s teeth, framed by plain and striped borders in red or brick-red colours. Cepuk’s are made from silk or cotton and are used in rituals, creating barriars to keep out dangerous forces, protect with purity and to make objects invulnerable. The Melaspas ceremony would likely have seen the use of cepuk’s as its purpose is to create purity and goodness.

The colours are also symbolic, representing the gods – Iswara (red = east), Brahma (white = south), Vishnu (blue – north) and Mahadewa (yellow = west).

Culture of Bali

The dyeing process itself imbues each sarong with sacred strength and perhaps it is this reason that the men are the custodians of the skill of dyeing.

As Bali progressively entrenches itself in tourism, something unlikely to abate or change in the near future, the preservation of artisan skills is paramount for the people of Bali. It is enough that they lose their rice fields and that western ways creep into their villages and the perceptions of their children. This alone causes grief for many of the people.

As conscious travellers, we must recognise that hosts of islands such as Bali need help in retaining what is locally distinctive, “the idiosyncrasies and the detail (and) the things that make a place unique and special.”[i]

As we tramp our way throughout Asia, South Africa and even outback Australia, we must do so with open eyes and gentle feet. For if we don’t, we risk not only aiding in the destruction of cultural elements that are replaced by mass-produced replicas, trumped up for the joy of tourists, we also risk destroying the very attractions that drew us to the place initially.

And that, as they would say in the classics, would be a tragedy beyond measure.

Artisan Craft Bali


 If you would like to assist ROLE in their Weaving Futures program, please visit their website Weaving Futures where there are a variety of ways you can assist financially or through donations of materials or tools.  To grow into a cooperative they need to establish an office and small-business skills learning centre, where new members can learn basic computer, book-keeping and office skills as well as the technical skills of dyeing and weaving.  The budget includes three weaving looms, desks, computers and office equipment including a printer/scanner, internet connection and projector/screen for training sessions.


Text: Clare McAlaney

For more fasinating insights into Bali please visit Clare’s site: http://balisouljournals.com/
And for travel tips: www.thingsyouneed2know.com.au



Photography: Trish McNeill

Copyright 2013. No image may be reproduced without express permission of Bali Soul Journals. Please click the link above to contact us if you would like to use this article for commercial purposes. The full article will be available later in 2013 with interview transcripts and the photography of Trish McNeill.

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