I got a rare chance to observe the ancient art of weaving tais (pronounced ‘ties’) when 10 women from Oecussi – a small Timor Leste enclave surrounded by Indonesia – brought their skills to Dili recently.
Grupa Feto Fitun Fronteira (The Women’s Star Frontier Group) spent two weeks at the Xanana Reading Room showing visitors how they spin, dye and weave home-grown cotton into beautiful cloths, using techniques and designs handed down by word of mouth from their mothers and grandmothers for up to 2000 years. It’s part of a bigger project supported by two local NGOs, Timor Aid and the Alola Foundation, to preserve and promote textile development throughout East and West Timor.
This 15-year-old Oecussi girl has learnt traditional tais weaving from her grand-mother. Scroll down for a full photo gallery.
I went back to the uma mahon (shady house) at the Reading Room several times, drawn by the women’s skill, patience and teamwork, not to mention their fortitude in sitting straight-backed on thin mats for long spells, legs stretched out under their looms.
The art of tais is performed only by women, often as a social activity that provides income, binds communities and underpins many cultural practices. The fine cloths are used for ceremonial occasions, everyday wear, decoration and as objects of exchange. These days, as weavers cater to modern demands, you can buy tais handbags and scarves, shoes, book marks, place mats, cushion covers – in fact, almost anything you can think of – in a bewildering array of designs, patterns and colours unique to each of TImor’s 13 districts.
Many modern tais use synthetic dyes and cottons. However, the Oecussi group’s goal is to preserve the old ways, time-consuming and labour-intensive as they are. As with many indigenous communities – including Maori in New Zealand – traditional weaving is in danger of dying out, a process hastened in Timor by the wholesale destruction of people, materials and cultural knowledge during the 24 years of Indonesian occupation.
The Oecussi enclave has the most diverse range of tais production techniques still left in the country. The women of Grupa Feto Fitun Fronteira, the guardians of this sacred heritage, are fighting for its survival. To see their craft for yourself, click on the first photo below and scroll through the photo gallery.
To’o tempu oin/Till next time
Oecussi weavers from Grupa Feto Fitun Fronteira (Women’s Star Frontier Group) demonstrate the art of tais at the Xanana Reading Room in Dili.
A woman feeds a cotton boll through two rollers in a wooden mangle to soften the fibres. This process also separates the cotton seeds which can then be replanted in communal gardens.
The clean cotton boll is fluffed up with a bow-like implement to make it easier to spin.
After gently rolling it into a cocoon shape, the woman spins the cotton by hand, pivoting a wooden spindle on a saucer.
Bark, roots and leaves combine to make a natural red dye. Vinegar helps protect the thread from rodents.
A woman pounds turmeric bulbs and water to make a natural yellow dye. Behind her hang skeins of naturally-died cotton.
The more times the cotton is soaked in the natural dye, the more vibrant the colour becomes.
Crouching on the stony ground, a woman rubs black dye made from mud and buffalo dung into a skein of cotton.
After dyeing, the cotton is wound into a ball for weaving.
Using a half-coconut shell, a weaver threads cotton onto a loom in the colour combinations required for a particular tais pattern.
This 15-year-old girl has learnt the mapa’uf weaving technique from her grandmother, and memorised this pattern. The transfer of knowledge also requires sacred prayers and rituals. The back-strap on her loom maintains the cloth’s tension but can cause painful pressure.
Unless the younger generation become involved in weaving tais, the art will be lost.
Tying a set of threads (known as the futus resist dye technique) is the most intricate and time-consuming aspect of weaving tais. The thread is first wound onto a bamboo frame. Sections forming the motif are tied off with palm leaf strips and the cloth is then submerged in dye. The ties block the dye so the tied threads retain their original colour. After the ties are carefully cut away, the threads are woven into the tais to reveal the motif.
Tais motifs often combine human and animal features. Popular motifs include the gecko, horse, Timorese stilt house and crocodile, the basis of Timor’s creation myth.
According to local accounts, religious cross-stitch patterns were introduced in the mid-20th century by Portuguese nuns who taught Timorese girls embroidery.
This tais, woven using the mapa’uf technique, was traditionally worn only by rulers and people of high status.
Tais woven using the sotis technique have traditionally been worn by the common people in Oecussi.
The leader of Grupa Feto Fitun Fronteira (left) displays a full-sized tais that takes a month to weave and sells for US$150.