Tais, the traditional cloth of East Timor, is the central thread that weaves the friendship between ETWA and East Timorese women. Through the medium of Tais, women have the chance to improve their quality of life and uphold the customs and traditions that shape East Timorese identity. By applying skills that are steeped in the old ways, women weave new opportunities and culture and commerce merge for development. Unlike in the west where generally little importance is placed on women’s work with textiles, in East Timorese culture, cloth plays a key role in social and ritual life and also in assigning women’s standing in communities.
Tais embody women’s contribution to cultural and social life in East Timor. They clothe communities and play a central role in rituals to celebrate birth; honour the dead and in particular, in the traditional rite of marriage. Purposefully and carefully woven matrimonial sets, consisting predominantly of a Tais Feto (women’s Tais) and Tais Mane (man’s Tais), are the weavers’ exclusive gifts; symbolic of the coming together of two communities or the broader social contracts that are bound up in the unity of marriage. Strong affiliations to clan and to place are influential notions in Timorese culture, and are demonstrated in the practical and symbolic functions, and aesthetic aspects of Tais.
Weaving brings families together. Young girl pictured here helping her aunty wind the warp. Like Scottish kilts, Tais signify clan and ancestral heritage. Motifs and colour combinations are identifiers of ethnic groups and as the weavers of the cloth; women are the carriers of a cultural language that reflects the birth place of whole communities. Through Tais, this cultural language is expressed and weavers’ play a collective role in maintaining place-based identity.
Weaving also provides spaces for individual and communal expression and creativity. The weaving process is a social process; undertaken communally with often four generations of women involved. Techniques are passed through generations and girls as young as four years old are taught to weave by their mothers, grandmothers, sisters and aunties. The whole process fosters and strengthens intergenerational relationships and processes of cooperation between genders. Although principally considered women’s work, men are often seen assisting women in both growing and dying cotton and assembling the looms.
The island of Timor comprises a rich blend of peoples and cultures, each with distinct customs and textile designs. The Portuguese influence is obvious in the remote eastern regions of Iliomar where Tais feature traditional motifs integrated with colourful stripes and bands of small flowers of European inspiration. In the central highlands, mono-coloured, black Tais with subtle geometric strips contrast the bold, Dutch inspired floral designs of the western region. Through the art of Tais, a woven narration of East Timor’s cosmology and history has been recorded. They weave a discourse that reflects spiritual beliefs, ethic fusion, diversity and colonial transformations.
The main fibre used for weaving is cotton, which is hand-spun and dyed using natural pigments obtained from local leaves, bark, ash and clay. Red is often the prevailing colour. For many Timorese communities, red is associated to new and lasting life, sacrifice and courage, as is seen by the symbolic colours of the Timorese Flag are which are red for the liberation struggle; black for triumph, yellow for colonial remnants and the white star is the light of peace.
The first step to making Tais starts with raw cotton on the vine known as ‘kabas’. Before cotton can be spun into yarn, the raw fibres are separated from the seeds in a process known as ginning. The cotton is then hand spun and wound into balls prior to dying or weaving. Today, commercial cotton is combined with traditional designs to create contemporary Tais that maintain their customary elements.
Dying the cotton is the next step. All weavers have their secret recipes to create desired tones and a good dyer is seen to be similar to a medieval alchemist. Colours are specific to local areas and the plant life. Bark, roots, soil, mango skin and leaf of potato, cactus flowers and turmeric are but a few of the organic materials used to create the vibrant colours of traditional Tais.
The meticulous process of creating a design using dyes (tying threads and dyeing patterns) is known as Futus. The prepared warp threads are immersed into boiling dye mixtures, cooled and immersed again depending on the number of colours to be combined.
Two sets of threads, the warp or vertical threads and the weft or horizontal threads are interlaced during the weaving process to create the cloth. The weaver needs help to wind the first lot of threads known as the warp (vertical threads). Balls of cotton are placed inside coconut shell dishes, passed back and forth and wound n precision around a simple warping frame. The warp threads are then transferred to the loom and the weaving process begins.
The warp is attached to a strap which hugs the weavers’ lower back, hence the name ‘back-strap loom’. With the warp stretched out in front of her, the weaver maintains the tension on the cloth by leaning back and keeping her legs straight and extended during the weaving process. The pressure on her legs and lower back creates intense pain if the weaver sits at the loom for too long. As the women we work with are poor in a monetary sense, the looms can be assembled using local timbers, often at no cost.
Warp float technique is commonly used to create intricate flowers and geometric motifs. Once the warp is wound and transferred to the loom, the weaver groups and lifts specific warp threads so the design ‘floats’ over the cloth. Thin sticks lift the warp threads to form the required pattern and move along the warp as sections of the cloth are woven. This ensures the pattern is even as sections of the cloth are complete.
The warp wrapping technique looks like embroidery and is an intricate and incredibly time consuming process. Contrasting weft threads are wrapped around individual warp threads to create patterns and motifs.
The skill needed to weave Tais is extraordinary, requiring patience and a deep understanding of tension, design and technique. Incredibly, most women have no written records to refer to in each step of the weaving process; they rely on their memories and support from one another.
As cultural guardians of this complex, difficult and fascinating art form, ensuring that new and emerging economic development processes make room for women’s traditions and respect their capacities as artisans is essential and fundamental to sustainability across all aspects of East Timor.
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