The High Cost of Culture - my serious weekend getaway in Bali November 21 2016 1 Comment

Traditional textiles. Sustainable business. Cultural conservation. It all sounds just too sexy for me, but in reality, it is much more about saddening truths and challanges. 

I once asked my sociologist father, why is it so hard for a country to preserve its cultural heritages? As long as the products still have economical value, isn't the culture of craftsmanship and its philosophies worth keeping? I’ve been too naive. So after long discussions I was finally sinking into understanding that culture is simply NOT to be preserved. It evolves and moves forward, and all we have left of the past are artifacts sitting in museums. 

But wait… Lets look around us. Indonesia has so much cultural heritage in the form of traditional textiles. Thousands of different handweaving or batik techniques and motifs with each of their own philosophies. Collectors and fashionistas chasing after every tradeshows and galleries, at high prices. So why are the artisans still struggling to even survive through their next meal?

Everyday, a master weaver dies without giving her knowledge to the next generation. Everyday, a girl decides she would rather go to school or work in the city rather than practice her ancestors’ way of life crafting a piece of fabric for weeks. Everyday, this culture is dying.

Culture is about ways of life, based on life values. Culture is full of purpose and reason, or as many say “local wisdom”. So remember that our ancestors made textiles for rituals and everyday use with all the unique beliefs of every island. You have different textiles for wedding ceremonies, funerals, farming, and so on. But today, this culture may not be so relevant anymore, and that is why the only reason the skills are still alive are for economical purposes. And once economy steps in, what happens then? The high cost of culture cannot be sustained anymore.

Meet Threads of Life. Founded over 15 years ago by I Made Maduarta, Jean Howe, and William Ingram, Threads of Life is a fair trade business that works along the mindset for conservation of the Indonesian textile culture. The heirloom-quality textiles and baskets are commissioned using local materials and real traditional natural dyes to the highest standards, mostly for overseas collectors’ market. They work directly with over 1,000 women on 11 islands across Indonesia, helping weavers to form independent cooperatives, to recover the skills of their ancestors, to manage their resources sustainably, and to express their culture identity while building their financial security.

“Threads of Life encourages weaving communities to revive techniques of weaving and natural dyeing that are in danger of disappearing. We provide economic and technical support while cooperatives research and rediscover local practices, a process that can take years to complete. The result is a sustainable, natural, traditional method of textile production, with complete cultural integrity. The process and the results move the weavers to great pride of ownership, and inspire the extraordinary quality of their work.”

Click here to see this video of William Ingram speaking for TedEx Ubud. 

Last week I was very fortunate to have the opportunity to meet the founders on a 2-day Bali excursion with Wastra Indonesia (an informal group of passionate Indonesian Textile enthusiasts). On the first day, Jean Howe presented how the business started out. An inspiring story of passion and professionalism. She showed us samples of the products in their gallery which were to die for!!! I never really looked at weavings this upclose, with such a different level of quality compared to the ones I regularly see in tradeshows.

On the second day, we visited Bebali Foundation, their Indonesian non-profit organization that helps weavers who live in remote, under-developed villages. Sustainable businesses require sustainable resources. With botanical research and field workshops, the Bebali Foundation helps communities fully understand the resources they use and develop management plans that preserve their forests and raise their incomes. This also includes growing a beautiful garden of plant species used for the natural dyes.

Here we learned how they research and apply traditional ways of natural dyeing for all the textiles made for Threads of Life. They have been digging for dye recipes from so many islands which are each differently determined by the region’s weather, earth acidity, which plant species grow there, etc. A quick overview and demo of the materials and techniques they use here, was a real eye opener for me. What I just realised is that there are 2 main ways to naturally dye textiles : with natural dyes + the traditional natural processes (such as fermentation, natural oils, etc), and the other is with natural dyes + chemical process (which is faster and more economical) but cannot be said 100% safe for the environment. At Threads of Life, they use the 100% natural processes, to preserve the complete ancient weaving culture of Indonesia.

They have been doing this for over 15 years, and the research of the world’s hundreds of plant species used for natural dyes is far from finished. The techniques and machinery for handweaving, the philosophies of motifs and colors are still being documented one by one in a huge database. So, back to the main issue… why spend all the effort to try preserving a dying culture? My subjective answer would be : it’s personal, and it’s a personal choice. We can choose to do something that has meaning for ourselves beyond economy, which is for a sense of identity, and perhaps pride or ego. But after the discussions we had in these short 2 days, I finally got another answer, and a good objective one. William Ingram explains that if you look at the market as a pyramid, where the top is the small high end market and the bottom is the wide mass market, Threads of Life positions itself at that highest point. The goods they produce are still made with the same methods as textiles to be worn for traditional ceremonies. So the local wisdom is still intact. Whereas other textiles made for the mass market and souvenirs are thriving, but they won’t have ANY value whatsoever if the stories of the original culture disappears. So Threads of Life is trying to elevate the top end of the pyramid to an even higher position, reach as close as possible to rediscovering the disappearing original traditions in weaving, to create a new market of collectors that are willing to buy newly made textiles with the exact same processes, rituals and philosophies as the antiques. Reaching this niche market will make more room for everyone else to produce textiles at many levels : ranging from high quality reproductions, to mass produced souvenirs, and also contemporary ethnic designs which are inspired by the local wisdom. But as William says, he will only have work to do as long as the culture itself still exists. Once those ceremonies are never done anymore, then his work is also done. 

My conclusion on this, is we can choose what we want to sell, based on our capacity of how deep we want to carry the stories of culture, and can claim to have a “local content” or "inspired by local wisdom", as long as we have a full understanding of where we stand. Don’t just copy a traditional motif without knowing the original meaning. Don’t claim it is handwoven in a certain region when in reality you are buying the fabric from a reseller which doesn’t actually tell you where it was made. Don’t say it’s 100% eco friendly when In reality it was only naturally dyed but chemically processed. Because what happens at the top of the pyramid is what we have to hold on to in order to make our product’s stories valid. This is a continuing process for myself, as I still have so much to learn. 

In the mean time, research and documentation of every aspect of Eastern Indonesia's weaving culture (this is Threads of Life's area of expertise) is still a huge pile of homework. Threads of Life's contribution is large, but ironically, after 15 years, our little group's visit was the first one ever made by local Indonesians. In fact, even our government has never put interest in what they are doing. In my point of view, of course they are just a business. But the kind of business they represent is very inspiring and should be more appreciated by us Indonesians. It is a sad truth that the traditional ways of producing textiles is disappearing, but as long as somebody is willing to spend the rest of their lives guarding it, we can still enjoy the heritage and help create jobs for our own people by promoting it for as long as we can.