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Various bags created from Torajan woven fabrics.
Dinny Jusuf does not hail from South Sulawesi’s Toraja ethnic group but she is nevertheless driven to preserving the Toraja’s tenun woven cloth, encouraging women in the region to continue weaving and the younger generation to don the traditional clothing.
Danny Parura, a Toraja native, recalled the time when the people in his grandfather’s hamlet in Toraja wore sarongs made of tenun on a daily basis in the 1970s.
“The men wore sarongs and headbands, while the women dressed in sarongs and sepu [a small pouch for keeping betel vine]. They didn’t put on anything to cover their feet,” Danny says.
Tenun is also worn during traditional ceremonies like weddings and funerals. The cloth comes in various hues and motifs, which carry different meanings and philosophies. “The motifs and colors represent social status,” said the 49-year-old.
Black is usually for funerals, while brighter shades like yellow and white are used for events to express gratitude.
As time passed, the routine of sporting sarongs as daily attire changed as younger generations opted for western clothing merely for their practicalities.
Another reason is there are fewer and fewer weavers found in the area, which has lead to the shrinking of tenun production.
“I remember seeing many weavers when I was a little. Now, I don’t see as many as I used to,” Danny said.
“The weavers are getting old and their children or grandchildren prefer to go out of Toraja [Regency] to chase better futures. There has been no regeneration,” he continued.
Today, the weavers usually only weave during their spare time, in between cultivating rice fields and breeding swine.
“I heard that many motifs have gone and some are even extinct,” said Danny, who left Toraja after he graduated from elementary school to pursue higher education in Makassar, South Sulawesi.
Yosef Limbongan, head of Lembang village, shared similar sentiments, and said that tenun reached its highest reputation in the 1970s when the Toraja tourism was in its heyday.
“The production [of tenun] soared since there were many foreign tourists coming in, but the production declined following the global economic and financial crisis in mid 1990s, which pretty much effected the number of tourists,” said Yosef, 49.
The crisis drew the attention of Dinny Jusuf, Danny’s wife, who is committed to preserving the Torajan tenun.
Starting her career in the banking industry, Dinny left her job to get involved in various social programs in environmental and women’s rights issues.
She once was the secretary general for the National Commission on Anti-Violence Against Women and has been working together with colleagues since 1998 to establish a community based organization named Suara Ibu Peduli (The Voice of Concerned Mothers) to educate women about their rights.
Her marriage with a Torajan man led her to get in touch with Torajan culture and heritage, especially its traditional textiles.
“For Toraja people, tenun has been a part of their life and death. It also represents abundance and nobility,” says Dinny.
Talk less, do more. That’s what Dinny does. She established Toraja Melo, meaning “beautiful Toraja”, which focuses on selling handmade products from Tana Toraja In an effort to revitalize the textiles as well as help local women improve their lives and families.
She highlighted some obstacles faced by the weavers, which included the high price of thread.
“Years ago, the weavers used to make their own thread out of home grown cotton. Today, they buy the thread from Java and it costs them lots of money,” said Dinny, adding that it takes a dozen of thread spools to make three pieces of woven cloth with a size of 350 centimeters x 55 centimeters.
Dinny also mentioned the absence of natural dyes, saying that back then, people used natural fibers like woods and pineapple leaves.
There are four main basic patterns that have been passed down from parents and grandparents over the years, she said.
The patterns include paruki (a flowery pattern), made by weaving motifs on basic cloth; parramba (drawings), made up of narrow stripes in a series of up to six different colors; borong-borong (stripes), made of several stripes between larger plain areas, or several wider stripes; pamiring (the line of woven cloth), which uses one big stripe as the line of a plain colored cloth.
“Paruki is the most difficult motif among them. There are only two old women who can make this motif,” Dinny claimed.
“I cannot sleep soundly at night thinking about how to keep the motif alive even if the women are already gone,” she said, adding that 70 other weavers could produce other motifs.
The weavers create tenun with the loom made of Uru wood for the back strap, tied with a rope made of buffalo skin.
A piece of wood that is used to compact the thread is called the balida and is made of the wood of Buangin tree (a type of pine tree).
She sampled some master weavers that had been immersing themselves in weaving for years.
Take Nek (Grandma) Febi, who is an expert in making the parramba and pamiring patterns. The mother of nine and the grandma of four grandchildren finds time to weave when she is not working in the rice fields.
Another weaver, Nek Ama, also the paruki and parramba specialist, weaves to support her six children and nine grandchildren, while selling bamboo seedlings and bananas from her garden.
Most of the time, the weavers weave the bright colors inside their houses and produce the darker colors at the patio when the sun is up as there is no proper light.
Through Toraja Melo, Dinny aims to bringing back tenun to the daily lives of Torajans. Among the activities are providing weaving trainings for younger generation and start to go back to nature.
Another challenge is Torajans have to compete with imported yet cheaper products like silky textiles from Thailand and Laos.
In guiding the Torajan women, Dinny infuses some modernity into their products, such as shoes, sandals and handbags to cater to more consumers, especially the youngsters.
The handbags, for instance, are created from bright-colored tenun and are combined with leather, while the leftover of used tenun cloth can be turned into shoes or sandals.
The Toraja Melo products can be found in its boutique in Kemang, South Jakarta.
To promote the artsy textiles, Dinny has also collaborated with some Indonesian fashion designers like Dina Midiani, who beautifully translated the hard work of Toraja women and their handmade tenun fabrics into her ready-to-wear collection.
She also actively takes part in local and international exhibitions. In the future, Dinny is eyeing displaying the beauty of Torajan tenun at the Textile Museum in Central Jakarta’s Tanah Abang.
“We have to submit at least 50 pieces of cloth to display the collection. So far, we are still trying to collect the old cloths to meet the requirement.” Dinny and her partners certainly still have long way to go to achieve their goal.
— Photos by Triwik Kurniasari