Beyond Batik: The Tantalizing Textiles of Nusantara

Dee Ong collection

It has been really encouraging to see the revived interests in Javanese batik in recent years. And, certainly, the UNESCO Heritage award did us all rightfully proud.

Yet, it’s rather disheartening to see that many Indonesians got so caught up in batik that these days it has somewhat become the sole symbol of Indonesian textiles. The truth is, almost every native group in Indonesia has their own traditional textile.

From Sumatera alone we have ulos in Tapanuli, songket in Padang and Palembang, and the lesser-known, yet just as fabulous, tapis in Lampung. Going eastward, there are abundant woven cloths (tenun) in Kalimantan, Sumbawa, all the way to Papua. Tenun ikat is present in few different areas. Even Java has the less-exposed, much-less-explored lurik and jumputan (tie-dye).

If there’s anything we could learn from the gloomier decades of batik, is that it first takes wearing en masse, on a commercially-viable level, before a traditional textile can survive, let alone thrive. The logic is very clear; when less people buy, the artisans earn less income and incentive to innovate, which will make the textile even less desired. A vicious cycle that may just leave us with nothing much beyond the revived batik. Not exactly a pretty and promising picture, eh?

Tapping into a region’s native cloth, whatever that may be, is also much more organic and sustainable than pushing to create a ‘local batik’, something that I’ve seen becoming a worrisome trend lately. Suddenly every province and their cousin want to have their own batik. I mean, seriously, batik Aceh and Minahasa? Why, when these regions may actually have their own tenun, songket, ikat, or a traditional textile waiting to be discovered by the world? Sure, mass commerce may have something to do with that, but copycatting only generates a quick influx of revenue that will soon stop streaming when the unoriginal creative juice behind it dries up.

No need to look further than the Jakarta Fashion Week 2012 for inspirations. Gorgeous galore of traditional textiles have paraded down the catwalks, from tapis to tenun, designed into ready-to-wear ensembles and unique, couture-minded pieces. Dee Ong’s promising tapis designs have clean lines and eye-pleasing, yet unfussy details. Defrico Audy drew inspiration from antique Kutai royal look, turning Kalimantan tenun ulap doyo into glamorous silk chiffon ensembles. Ian Adrian showed that traditional cloths can travel back to ‘70s glam rock era. Seasoned Muslim wear designer Ida Royani whipped Sumba tenun into a bohemian chic collection, beyond the usual billowy Muslim dresses. And last but not least, Lulu Lutfi Labibi, who won Lomba Perancang Mode this year with modern twists on her native Yogyakarta’s traditional lurik.

Ida Royani and Ki Artik Batik

As for the batik itself, there have been innovations and fresh takes, I’m pleased to see. Ki Artik Batik’s strong collection drew inspirations from Balinese under-bust sash and rice grain pattern. The reigning queen of batik, Obin, showed raw silk materials so fine they’re almost see-through, yet retain enough a gossamer-like shine, in addition to funky ikat and high-street lurik.

World, you’re yet to make acquaintance of the tantalizing textiles of Nusantara.