Barkcloth Production in Central Sulawesi

A Vanishing Textile Technology in Outer Island Indonesia

By: Lorraine V. Aragon

Originally Published in 1990

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Before the invention or adop­tion of woven textiles, bark-cloth was used to clothe the human body in many, if not all, tropical regions of the world. In spite of its replacement by loomed cloth nearly everywhere else, bark-cloth is still manufactured today by older women living in some remote highland communities of Central Sulawesi. Although these interior Central Sulawesi groups are no longer renowned for either artistry or technical skills, their 19th cen­tury barkcloth manufacture stands out as among the most refined barkcloth production systems ever developed (Fig. 1). The following account of the history and ideas surrounding barkcloth’s manufac­ture and use in Central Sulawesi emphasizes the religious role of this unusual fabric and documents its demise in the face of foreign Is­lamic and Christian contacts, as well as ongoing processes of modern­ization.

Not familiar with the technology of weaving, and having little con­tact with outside peoples, these interior migratory farming and hunting groups relied on locally produced barkeloth both for warmth and for decorative apparel. Men’s traditional daily garb con­sisted of simple brown loincloths (pewo), while adult women wore full multilayered, finely pleated skirts (topi’). Women also wore distinctively cut tunic blouses (ha-lili, Lima) that, like the skirt styles, varied slightly according to ethnic region. Rough-textured monochro­matic brown clothes were replaced with much finer apparel prior to all major rituals, including those held at puberty, marriage, death, and yearly harvests. The thinner and softer white barkcloth was pro­duced from paper mulberry trees specially cultivated for this pur­pose, and the resulting fine fabric was intricately painted with plant  dyes to create colorful designs for men’s headscarfs (siga), tube-shaped body cloths Cabe’, or sarong in Indonesian; Fig. 4), and women’s blouses. Central Sulawesi groups also manufactured barkcloth for ceremonial ponchos, shoulder bags (Figs. 5,6), burial shrouds, and special bell-shaped cubicles in which female shamans would sit while chanting to the spirits that caused illness. Although some groups did possess small numbers of imported woven cloths (mbesa’ or mesa’), which were traded from India, Europe, or regions of South Sulawesi (Kruyt 1938, vol.4), these were kept as sacred heirloom items, not worn on a daily basis as were the barkcloth materials.

In 1905 two scholarly Dutch missionaries who had spent almost a decade studying local cultures and languages in Indonesia con­cluded that barkcloth was un­doubtedly the original clothing material of the entire Indonesian archipelago (Adriani and Kruyt 1905). Moreover, of all the regions where barkeloth was known to be produced and used for either clothing or paper, the interior of Central Sulawesi was described as the source of the most elaborate creations of this unusual fabric technology (Adriani and Kruyt 1905; Raven 1932; Kooijman 1963). Nineteenth century Central Sula­wesi barkcloth was exported to other islands for use as clothing material and paper (Adriani and Kruyt 1905), and Covarrubias even describes its use as an imported “canvas for traditional Balinese painting (1986:192).

Such praise and attention to what is now an almost extinct process of clothing manufacture has rarely been uttered by either foreign scholars of Indonesian mate­rial culture, or by 20th century Indonesians themselves. Major Books concerning Indonesian textiles (e.g., Langewis and Wagner 1964, Gittinger 1979) usually focus on the splendid ikat (tied and died) weavings of the more recently invented batik (wax-resist dyed) fabrics of the archipelago. They thereby only briefly discuss or overlook entirely the humble existence of barkcloth (also called tapa), which is indeed a felted material rather than a woven textile.

The following description o barkcloth manufacture is based largely on ethnographic field work undertaken by the author between 1896 and 1989 in the Uma-speaking Tobaku region of Central Sulawesi, Although interior Central Sulawesi groups such as the Tobaku are often referred to as “Toraja” in both historical and recent Western writing, locals themselves see the term as applying instead to the culturally different people (even by present observers’ standards) living in the Sa’dan valley of South Sulawesi. The Highland Tobaku practice shifting cultivation of rice, corn, and tubers, raise livestock such as pigs and chickens, and hunt with traps and spears. They now usually supplement their subsistence economy with cash crops such as coffee or cloves

Barkcloth Manufacture: The Process

Barkcloth manufacture begins with the identification of suitable trees in the forest. Women who cultivate certain plots of land will notice tree of suitable types and ages of growing within reach of the forest paths. Some species, such as Antaris toxicaria (see box woth botanical information), can only be cut when young because toxic resins make bark from older trees too poisonious to handel (Adriani and Kruyt 1905:3). In the Tobaku region, Ficus trees, which are most preferred for current barkcloth manufacture, are considered to be owned corporately by the descen­dants of the first ancestor to clear the land. Thus, women who wish to make barkcloth from a tree growing on land owned by others will request permission to cut the tree. Permission generally will be granted if the owning family has no plans of its own to use the tree.

To harvest the bark of a Ficus tree in the Tobaku region, either the entire trunk is felled, or else the work party simply climbs the tree and cuts off as many branches as are needed, using machetes. Straight branches that are four to six inches in diameter are cut into uniform lengths of about six feet each. The outer bark of these selected limbs is then scored length­wise with a knife point in evenly spaced parallel incisions about three inches apart. This facilitates the subsequent bark stripping to produce pieces of uniform width and length.

For some species such as Ficus annulata, Artacarpus, and Antfaris, the intact branches are vigorously beaten for several minutes before together, and left out to cool. usually overnight After the pulp is cooled, it is rinsed in river water (Fig. 8) and then wrapped in leaves to keep it moist while fermenting. The bark strips used for brown harkcloth in Tobaku and Pipikoro are allowed to ferment either three, five, or seven days depending on the species, while the paper mulberry for white harkcloth requires only three days of fermentation. Infor­mants insist that timing is crucial to obtain a satisfactory product. How­

ever. numerological considerations also appear to be relevant since all recipes specify an odd number of days, paralleling the duration periods of traditional ritual cere­monies. Barkeloth makers say that during the fermentation process the leaf-wrapped bundles of pulp should not be jiggled or disturbed in any way. It is particularly taboo for the barkcloth pulp to come into contact with human or animal urine. This is not so unlikely as it may sound since, unless guarded, dogs and infants may urinate on the veranda or inside the house.

By the end of the fermentation period, all tools are readied, in­cluding a six-foot-long beating board (ha’a) that has been carved out of a resonant hardwood (Lager-striiemia ovalifolia or wolasi in the Lake Poso area, pawaa in Uma). This polished board rests atop two segments of resilient banana trunks or trapezoidal wood blocks that increase the vibration of the board when beaten. Formerly every house­hold possessed at least one full set of barkeloth beaters (called ike in ally Central Sulawesi dialects, as well as many Polynesian languages; Fig. 9). However, now tools often must be borrowed from the few families who still possess an in­herited set, or who have the skill and enthusiasm to carve new ones. A complete set of beaters consists of two different carved wood beaters and a graded-size set of three or more carved stone beaters hafted to bent rattan, or rattan and wood, handles (Fig. 10). When the Ficus pulp is judged to be sufficiently fermented and sticky, one half of the strips are arranged in layers and laid out lengthwise along the board. The barkcloth maker sits on the floor, or stands facing the beating board, and holds the beater with both hands. With the first large grooved beater (polawo’, Tobaku; pomba­yowo, Pamona), carved from wood of the palm wine tree (Arenga saccharif era), the strips are beaten together to fuse the sticky layers. When the mash is sufficiently co­hesive, the product is turned at a right angle and beaten so that the length runs across the board. After the piece is beaten along its entire top surface, the fused layer is flipped over and beaten again. The above process is repeated with the other half of the strips while the first batch is stored back in the leaf that is fused into one by subse­quent beating. It continues to be beaten carefully both right-side and inside out with successively finer stone beaters (hare and pom­botu, Tobaku). The tube-shaped cloth can be carefully turned inside out, when necessary, while it is still loosely encircling the anvil board.

As a final step, the cloth is removed from around the board and placed at a right angle on the tip surface so that the nap is beaten in the perpendicular direction (Fig. 12). For this the smallest stone beater (pombo’ome, Lima) is used. During this process the cloth is continually rotated and, if neces­sary, dampened. so that the thin layer does not stick to the beating board.

Each kind of beater makes a distinctive resonating sound as it strikes the bark-covered board. From a far distance residents can easily identify the stage of produc­tion in which a barkcloth maker is engaged, since the later mallets are beaten with increasingly faster rhythms. When more than one woman beat together, they will always hit at alternating beats, never disturbing each other’s rhyth­mic pattern. This fluid rhythmic alternation is the same as that of two women pounding rice. With the final wooden mallets, a faster double rhythm is beaten, one that Tobaku women say matches the drum beat formerly played by hereditary drumming specialists for the traditional shamans’ ceremonies (motaro).

After two to four days of ener­getic beating with the stone mallets, the finished Ficus backcloth tube is hung on a pole to dry in the wind.Then it is beaten again with a smooth wooden beater (pompao’, Tobaku) to flatten the nap before a preservative fluid is applied. Adriani and Kruyt describe how the Poso region groups applied the sap of a bitter fruit called ula’ (Dios­pyros javinica or peregrina) with a brush to strengthen the outer sur­face of a garment (1905). Besides knowing the use of the same fruit, Pipikoro and Tobaku peoples make ula’ infusions from the bark of different trees as well. Pipikoro people use the finely chopped and soaked bark of a tree called wilin­tunga (probably Weinmannia des­combesiana) to make a preservative.

She traditionally was pre­sented with a white barkcloth blouse (halili bnra) during a special ceremony. This blouse was worn in another ceremony at the seventh month, and not removed until after the baby was born (Soelarto and Alhiladiyah 1976). The identifica­tion of women with barkeloth also is illustrated by another traditional ICulawi ceremony (mampopanau) formerly carried out after every new baby’s birth. At that time a set of symbolic obnects were placed in front of the house to announce the baby’s gender to the villagers (Soelarto and Albiladiyah 1976). For boys a sword, a shield, and a bronze bell were displayed, empha­sizing men’s roles as warriors, reli­gious leaders, and traders. For girls a basket of agricultural tools and a set of barkcloth beaters were dis­played, emphasizing women’s roles as horticulturists and producers of clothing.

Parallel to the many ceremonial uses of woven textiles documented for weaving regions of Indonesia (Gittinger 1979), barkcloth was employed as a symbolic vehicle in ritual circumstances as well as being the daily all-purpose fabric and wrapping material. In regions of Central Sulawesi such as Bada’ and Kulawi, widowed spouses were re­quired to wear white barkeloth outfits until the end of mourning ceremonies. Scharer (1963) writes of the special uses of barkcloth garments among the Ngaju Dayak people of Borneo both by widowed women and by persons undergoing tattoo operations, examples also showing the importance of bark-cloth in marking life cycle transi­tions. According to Adriani and Kruyt (1905), the designs on barkcloth headscarfs worn by men of the Paso area were carefully regulated to represent the total number of heads the owner had captured on head­hunting raids. Only men who had taken more than six heads could wear a headscarf of many colors, and seven to ten heads were re­quired to wear scarfs depictinghumans or ceremonial weapons. Headhunting raids traditionally terminated mourning periods fol­lowing a noble’s death; the capture of enemy heads cancelled food and behavioral taboos brought into effect by the grievous event. The use of painted barkcloth head­dresses to mark men’s increasingly elevated warrior rank again illus­trates the cloth’s role in status transitions.

Prior to Christian missionized, barkcloth had many uses as amedium capable of containing and transmitting spiritual power. In some regions the noble descendants of community founders ( ma radika), who had a semi-sacred status, would bless their community’s agri­cultural fields by giving each house­hold a strip of barkcloth. This barkcloth was to be hung on poles in the fields as a protective flag warding off evil spirits and pests. As a counter obligation, every villager was responsible for working at least one day in the rice fields of the noble (Kruyt 1938).

When a group of travelers set out on a long journey through the forest to seek good fortune, they would carry with them a piece of white barkcloth blessed by the leading noble of their village. At each stopping paint on the journey a small piece of the cloth was cut off and offered to the local spirits of the place. Upon their successful return, the group would make a feast of thanks to their ancestral spirits. A portion of any booty acquired on the journey would be given to the noble who had blessed the bark-cloth talisman, ensuring safe and profitable travel through his em­powerment of the sacred fabric (Kruyt 1938).

In many ritual contexts the color­ing of barkcloth expressed a sym­bolic code for Uma-speaking peoples. White barkeloth (tobula) would be presented with weapons to request aid from allies and deities in war, red barkcloth (dinalo) would be used in spirit offerings before hunting, reddish-white bark-cloth (ninia) would be used in offerings to clear new land for crops, and yellow barkeloth painted with tumerie (kunyil’) would be worn in ceremonies petitioning for the successful ripening of corn and rice. Frequently small bits of the household’s backcloth were pre­sented as sacrificial offerings to the spirits, or even occasionally as a substitute for the body of the person making the offering.

The ritual significance of bark-cloth in Central Sulawesi extended also into the domain of traditional medicine. In Tobaku curing prac­tices, the lost soul element (kaoi’) of a sick person would be called and captured inside a white barkcloth bag by the village shaman, who petitioned powerful ancestral spirits for assistance. The lost soul element then would be returned to the patient’s body by the shaman, and afterwards the ill person was ex­pected to recover quickly.

This perceived ability of bark-cloth to serve as an intermediary in contacting ancestors and deities was a significant aspect of traditional belief in Central Sulawesi, which also has been documented in Poly­nesia (Kooijman 1972). Clearly, the pan-Indonesian facination with, and ritual reverence toward, ceremonial textiles did not begin with the intro­duction of weaving or the impor­tation of foreign fabrics, but rather has a strong basis within the earlier barkclath tradition.

An Uncertain Future

From 1908 to 1940, the Dutch government in conjunction with Protestant missions began to assume a more active presence in the high­land Central Sulawesi region. Con­tact with outsiders increased, espe­cially with Indonesian ethnic groups that know how to weave. The intro­duction of woven cotton cloth to the interior quickly led to a marked preference for clothing of the new fabric. In the past seventy years, barkcloth clothing has become in­creasingly associated in local eyes with poverty, pagan traditions, and general backwardness.

Much historical knowledge and many samples of Central Sulawesi barkcloth derive from Adriani and Kruyt’s early 20th century mission­ary work in the Lake Poso area. Extensive collections of intricately painted men’s headscarves, sarongs, women’s blouses and layered skirts were acquired by Westerners for museums, and classified with re­gard to prominent design motifs (Adriani and Kruyt 1912; Kaudern 1944; Kooijman 1963). Unfortu­nately, however, little early field research was done on the local meanings of the designs employed, and the first missionized regions were also the first interior areas to abandon the barkcloth-making and ritual painting process.

Only during two periods of textile scarcity was indigenous barkcloth production vigorously revived through necessity. During both the Kahar Muzakkar Islamic rebellion (disturbing various regions of Sula-wesi between 1950 and 1965) and World War II, Central Sulawesi women returned to their ancestral technology in order to clothe their families. From 1941 to 1945 almost no woven cloth could be obtained due to the Japanese occupation. Many people were reduced to wearing meager loincloths of bark-cloth or coconut fiber sacking, a situation that elders still recall vividly.

By my first visit to Central Sula­wesi in 1984, Western-style cotton/ polyester clothing was in general use even in the interior, and only a few elders in isolated areas still knew the techniques of barkcloth preparation. The beautifully painted white barkcloth of the Peso region was virtually unknown to the grandchildren of its makers. Even the isolated Wana group, who call barkcloth Pronto kojo , meaning “real or true cloth,” readily abandoned it by the 1970s in favor of cotton/ synthetic materials traded in from the coast (Jane Atkinson, pers. coma., 1988). In 1988 when I traveled to the Wana area, many adults who still knew how to make barkcloth no longer bothered to do so. No one was painting barkcloth any longer, or could elaborate on the meanings of ancestral designs. Western-style clothes, readily available through missionaries and coastal markets, were considered more beautiful, practical, and less “embarrassing” than traditional barkcloth garments.

Most Central Sulawesi people today readily mention the heavy work involved in barkcloth produc­tion, and other practical limitations of the fabric given the considera­tions of the modern world. For instance, barkcloth cannot be washed, only aired in the sun, so presumedly traditional clothing be­came increasingly soiled and malo­dorous. There was also the problem of durability. Coarse brown clothes were said to have lasted only seven to eight months before tearing or disintegrating in a heavy rainstorm. The fine white ceremonial clothes were even more fragile, and were expected to last for just a single feast period. Reportedly, they re­ceived only about a week’s use before their untimely disposal (Adriani and ICruyt 1905). In point of fact, used barkcloth of the coarse red varieties can he renewed with an additional soaking in preserva­tive fluid (Dula’), but this requires considerably more effort than the washing of modern fabrics. Thus, once substitute fabrics were avail­able, the production of barkcloth throughout Central Sulawesi was increasingly neglected in part for practical reasons.

Today, barkcloth is regularly manufactured and used for prac­tical reasons only in remote interior regions of the Lore highlands, such as Bada’ and Besoa, and in the areas south of Kulawi Valley such as Pipikoro and Tobaku. In these places, the manufacture of tube-shaped barkcloth blankets still has some currency. They are warmer than store-bought blankets and their production involves no expenditure of money, still a precious com­modity in such communities. Bark-cloth blankets also double as mos­quito nets, room dividers, and insulating walls in tiny mountain field houses that may hold up to fifteen or twenty extended family members a night during the rice harvest season.

The fact that barkcloth has sur­vived in these Christian regions only in non-ceremonial contexts points to another manor force contributing to barkcloth’s decline. In assessing reasons for the demise of barkcloth manufacture in Polynesia, Kooij­man (1972) mentions that not only the introduction of woven textiles, but also the introduction of foreign religion propelled the collapse in production. Similarly, in Central Sulawesi not only are imported textiles more practical, but most ritual occasions associated with specific painted barkcloth apparel and sacred objects have been eliminated with the increasingly strict Islamization of the coasts and Christianization of the interior.

In the 1970s, the only barkcloth observed by Atkinson (1979), an anthropologist working in the isolated Wana area, were ceremonial items: shamans’ cloths (papolonsu) used to extract aggravating agents from sick persons’ bodies. How­ever, the Wana area too has since been actively missionized, and traditional curing ceremonies are strongly discouraged by church and government authorities. The demise of barkcloth, then, has been pro­pelled primarily by these twoforces: the introduction and marketing of more practical fabrics for secular purposes, and the progressive elimination of traditional ceremonial contexts in which painted barkcloth holds a sacred meaning.

In addition, the historical processes of Dutch colonialism and Indonesian modernization have cast barkcloth clothing in a “backward” light. When inquiring about barkcloth, I sometimes was called to the urban home of descendants of the aristocracy to view their pakaian adat or “traditional dress.” Almost invariably I was shown a puzzling concoction of imported sateen, sequins, velvet and Buginese woven cloth that was heralded as ancestral costume. Some of these clothes were produced in pre-Independence era and were designed to incorporate elements of colonial Dutch or Javanese uniforms (Fig. 20). The aim was to dress Central Sulawesi nobility in attire that would be similar to that of their foreign counterparts. Such costumes are now regarded as authentic examples of idiginous clothing, testifying to the past glory of local kingdoms.

Most unusual or ornamented barkcloth items have vanished from present-day manufacture, although there is occasionally some attempt to revive production efforts for governmental sponsored dane competitions or other local festivals in urban regions. In January 1989, for example, elders of Bora village in Sigi-Birumaru area wore shamans’ dancing costumes, including barkcloth tunics, for a public performance of traditional adat rites (Fig. 21). While the government-sponsored event catered to modern political aspirations of the regional nobility’s descendants, barkcloth still had a role in authenticating the historical  authority of the regions ritual leaders. Only is a few Islamic villages of the same region are unpainted white barkcloths sometimes produced and used for traditional ritual purposes such as burial shrouds and garments for traditional curing ceremonies called mobalia.

The complex situation of barkclothe’s decline and occasional revival should be understood with respect to recent Indonesian government efforts to conserve, and if necessary create, exemplary local art, history, and traditional culture (Fig. 14). Since the mid-1970’s, the government has established regional offices of the Department of Education and Culture that are requested to cultivate examples of local art, song, and dance and traditional clothing styles. These cultural activities are to be carried out in a homogenous fashion in accordance with national development goals, including the promotion of tourism (Acciaioli 1985). In Kulawi, for example, recent attempts have been made to produce barkcloth clothes, some colored hastily with magic markers, to satisfy the occasional Western traveler. The Cultural efforts supported by the government are designed not to offend the prevailing images of modernization or the sensibilities of local religious leaders. Thus sometimes authentic elements of traditional arts or dress are given new meanings (or are eliminated altogether) by the time they reach the urban o national level for public display.

While the majority of urban Indonesians today are more interested in modern fashion trends, world religions, and national economic progress, for the scholar the traditions of barkcloth production include a great deal of historical information concerning the region’s traditional cosmology as well as it’s clothing. Moreover, if government actions to revive local arts and expand tourism, Central Sulawesi barkcloth production may evade extinction through regional efforts that will recall, in one or another, barkcloth’s symbolic ties to traditional ritual authority. Barkcloth clothing, or even designs adapted for woven cloth, easily serve as a distinct badge of local ethnic identity for all indigenous Central Sulawesi peoples as they face increased integration into the national Indonesian culture.

Cite This Article

Aragon, Lorraine V.. "Barkcloth Production in Central Sulawesi." Expedition Magazine 32, no. 1 (March, 1990): -. Accessed February 29, 2024.

This digitized article is presented here as a historical reference and may not reflect the current views of the Penn Museum.

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