Ibanic Textile Weaving

Its Enchantment in Social and Religious Practices

By: Richard Allen Drake

Originally Published in 1988

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The weaving of attractive textiles is one of the freatures that distinguishes the Iabanic peoples of Borneo from neighboring Dayak groups. The peoples referred to here as Ibanic speak related languages and have similar cutures; they include the Iban proper (some-times called the Sea Dayak), as well as the Mualang, Kantu’, Sebuyau, and Seberuang. Traditionally, the women of Ibanic societies wove fabrics with distinctive designs from locally grown, homespun cotton thread on a simple backstrap loom. Nowadays, the thread is imported, as are the aniline dyes, although the designs are executed by the same ikat technique that has been used for generations.

As is generally true of the textile traditions of Indonesian societies, Ibanic weaving has been associated symbolically with social and religious practices, the cloth occupying an important place in social ceremonies and religious rituals. This article will be concerned primarily with the symbolic meaning of Ibanic textiles, and with the female activity in weaving, and male activity of taking trophy heads (Fig.1).

Ikat Weaving

The ikat technique involves tying off portions of the warp threads in such a way that they resist absorbing color when the entire warp is dyed, thereby producing a two color design. When still another color is desired, the parts of the warp that were initially dyed can be tied off, while some undyed portions can be untied, and the warp dyed a second time or more. The resulting cloth is of warp-rep weave in which only the warp is visible; hence the design is produced by the differentially dyed warp threads alone. Supplementary weft techniques are used on occasion, as is post loom embroidery. Weaving is done exclusively by women, and can absorb a great deal of their time. A single blanket (pua; Figs. 2,3), for example, may take two years to complete. Understandably, the product is no mere utilitarian object (see box).

Two phases of the textile weaving process are imbued with mystical enchantment. The first involves dyeing the threads. The dying process process is conducted by an expert who can perform the necessary rites (gawai), including the sacrifice of a fowl of pig. It is said that perhaps only one in fifty women can perform this ritual, and so several women may participate in the tying-off of patterns and submerging the threads to the dew for up to 15 days and nights. Derek Freeman, and expert on the Iban, has characterize the magical rites of dyeing the thread as the most crucial stage in the preparation of the cloth (1957:173). This is a highly fetishized procedure and has been called “women’s war” (kayau indu’), a point that is frequently cited in support of the parallelism of weaving and headhunting as explained in greater detail below.

The second phase of magical significance is the weaving of the cloth. During the weaving of the tie-dyed design emerges,and the weaver is considered to be in danger if the design has potential spiritual power. Potent patterns originate in dreams, and dreams are thought to be communications with the spirit world. There are risks involved in encounters with spirits. consequently, spirit-communicated designs must be executed precisely of the spirit may become enraged and, as one weaving expert describes it, may “attack the weaver, make her ill, or even kill her” (Vogelsanger 1980:118). Many women possess charms to protect themselves during the dangerous period of weaving. In addition, a pig is sacrificed to the spirit in order to secure its cooperation in the endeavor.

The weaving of potent patterns is a source of prestige for Ibanic women. Students of Ibanic societies have concluded that the achievement of women in weaving are a basis of a prestige system that parallels the male prestige system once associated with headhunting. This can be illustrated by describing how the system worked among the Mualang, one of the several Ibanic tribes that dwell along the northern tributaries of the middle Kapuas River in Kalimantan Barat, Indonesia (Fig. 7).

The Mualang Model

In former times Mualang women wove several  kinds of cotton cloth and decorated them by a variety of methods. Only one kind—the red colored, tie-dyed textiles called kain amat (“real, true cloth”)—is relevant here. Among these true cloths were kain kebang, which were decorated either with original designs dreamed by the weaver (Fig. 11). The latter, consisting of highly geometrical designs that were shared with the Iban, involved no danger to the weaver. An original dream inspired design, however, put the weaver at some risk, should she fail to get it exactly right. These designs involved “animals”—not animals of the real world, but dream envisioned creatures that were representations of the inspiring spirits. Not only was the form of the creature discovered in a dream, but also the food that is required to eat had to be precisely determined and included in the pattern. If unmollified, such a creature could change into an evil spirit and injure the weaver with blindness, madness, illness, miscarriage, and even death.

Among the most common spirit-representarions motifs used by the Mualang was the double nabau pattern, a pair of snakes stretched out head to tail and supplied liberally with fanciful creatures to eat (Figs. 8,9). This motif was the most potent and the most dangerous to attempt. To employ any motif involving animal figures was so dangerous that only women beyond the childbearing years would risk weaving it. A women must have made several textiles without animal designs before attempting one with animals.

As Mualang women moved through various stages of life, certain customarily specified expectations were appropriate with respect to weaving. The potency of woven designs, levels of skill, and the prestige attained by weavers varied directly with age. A maiden with an eye  to marriage began to acquire fundamental skills from an expert by joining in on preparatory processes (Figs. 12, 13). This indicated that the young woman would be a worthy wife. The patterns she first wove were traditional, geometric, and decorative; hopefully, they are pleasing to the gods and spirits; beneficent in their capacity to charm.

Through married life products of a woman’s loom should become more sophisticated, as she masters more creative combinations and elaborations of traditional motifs. The power of the weaving to please the gods is enhanced by greater artistry, and , correspondingly, the charm capacity of the fabrics is strengthed. By the time this stage of accomplishment is reached, certain women have begun to distinguish themselves by being both extraordinarily adept and more highly motivated than others. However, because at this stage of accomplishment  a woman is still in her childbearing years, the risks of originating new patterns are prohibitive. Robert Mckinley, an Iban scholar, suggests that this avoids bringing a pregnancy to the attention of the spirits (pers. com.). The Iban attribute miscarriages and infant death to competitive evil spirits fighting over a baby’s soul (Freeman 1967; Sather 1978).

As with the Iban, the Mualang attach high value to the creation of an original design, and a weaver’s prestige depends on her accomplishments in this regard. When a woman who has enjoyed particular success in weaving is past her childbearing years she can seek out guidance from the spirit world, through dreams, for the creation of new designs. Thus, it is in the postmenopausal stage of her life that a woman achieves prestige for originating dream inspired, potent fabrics that occupy such such a prominent place in many Ibanic rituals. This highest level of weaving achievement appears to have some features form another form of spirit encounter called nampok, in which a person seeks supernatural assistance for courage, strength, invincibility, and recovery from illness.

The Ideology of Gender Roles

The division of labor among the Ibanic peoples, whereby men went on headhunting raids (Fig.14) while women stayed home and wove beautiful tie-dyed textiles, has been developed into an ideology of gender role distinction. Both weaving and headhunting appear to be highly valued activities in which women and men compete with members of their own sex for prestige, which is validated by commensurate material prosperity.

Headhunting has been characterized by Freeman as a male fertility cult. In this vein, weaving can be characterized as a female charm cult. The double meaning of “charm” is applicable here; a charming textile skirt worn by and Ibanic maiden at an important ceremony symbolizes beauty and prosperity; hopefully, it will be irresistible to the young man of her attentions. Similarly, a charming textile blanket will be irresistible to the gods who can assist humans in beneficent and protective ways (see box, p. 30).

Beauty is a high ideal for Ibanic women, just as courage in head-hunting is a male ideal. These two gender-defining ideals are joined in the Ibanic understanding of rice production. Reaping rice (the taking of the heads of the rice plants) is symbolically expressed in their cosmology as the taking of the heads of the enemy tribesmen. This is what the cultural heros taught them to do in order to maintain the good life. The head of a slain enemy symbolically contains the sacred rice seed upon which fertility of all Iban depend: “the trophy head, phallic and procreative, becomes a veritable font of fertility” (Freeman 1979:243). On the other hand, the ideal, beautiful Ibanic female weaves charmed cloth that protects and renders prosperity from threads incorporating dew, a vital substance that requires further explanation.

Trophy Heads, Cloth, and the Theory of Prosperity

Within Ibanic cosmology, dew is a substance that forms an essential link between rice and human souls. After death the souls of people (segmangat) continue cyclical course of existence. As described by Eric Jensen, an expert on Iban religion, “the semangat remains an antu spirit in Sebayan (the land of the dead) for an indefinite period enentually dissolving into dew. The dew is taken up into ears of rice which are eaten by living men who in their turn die” (1974:108). The invocation recited at a ritual conducted to promote the ripening of the rice for an abundant harvest as it follows: “And may the dew of those who harvest rice; who have success, fame and wealth—enter into my rice” (p. 189).

Dew, the germinating rice seed, and spirits of both ancestors and living constitute phases in cycle of regeneration. Men invigorate the cycle by taking the heads of the enemies, and women enhanced it by weaving charmed textiles that captures dew—the celestial essence. No better illustration of the conjunction of male and female contributions to this cycle of regeneration can be found than in that part of the ritual in which a newly taken trophy head was received at a long-house. Standing at the top of long house steps, the woman recieved the head from the successful warrior, wrapping it in her charm blanket. By so doing, she symbolically unified the phallic symbolism of headhunting with the feminine quality of nuturing, and, by the same action, welcomed the newly acquired power to promote prosperity and fertility to the long house community. Thus, the creative and procreative character of the female, as represented by weaving, is a necessary element in a ritual and ideological system embracing both life and death in a coherent theory of regeneration in humans and in nature.


Cite This Article

Drake, Richard Allen. "Ibanic Textile Weaving." Expedition Magazine 30, no. 1 (March, 1988): -. Accessed February 21, 2024. https://www.penn.museum/sites/expedition/ibanic-textile-weaving/

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