Indonesian Ceremonial Textiles

Kain Lelok

Now halfway through its run, the exhibition Marking Transitions: Ceremonial Art in Indonesia has our visitors enjoying the varied ceremonial objects produced in Indonesia. Previously, we’ve Buddhism’s history in Indonesia and explored the bronzes in the exhibition. Today, we’re exploring another category: textiles.

Click to enlarge. Image credit: Wikipedia

The exhibition features three ceremonial textiles for women from Sumatra (Lampung Province), Kalimantan (Indonesian Borneo), and the Lesser Sunda Islands (the island of Flores in East Nusa Tenggara). While you can see from the map the distance between their origins, these textiles all similarily hold great ceremonial importance. Textiles similar to these are still worn in various parts of Indonesia today.

In many parts of Indonesia, handmade textiles have been an integral part of rituals and ceremonies. Both men and women would dress in specific textiles for rituals like weddings and funerals, and textiles were often given as gifts or passed through families as heirlooms. In Kalimantan weaving ceremonial textiles was regarded as being as important as going into battle since some textiles were believed to provide protective power. The skirt shown at top, or kain lekok, is understood to “screen” the woman from danger during rituals.


Ceremonial skirts made in the Lampung Province of Sumatra, or tapis, are worn by elite women at special events and ceremonies such as marriages or coming-of-age rites. Along with a matching jacket, tapis were the ceremonial attire of unmarried women who were required to make them before marriage. Preparing tapis is an elaborate process, taking up to a year with the final garment weighing more than ten pounds. As lavish ceremonial textiles, tapis are a symbol of the social status of the wearer and her family. More elaborate skirts, with their extensive use of gold threads, sequins, and cermuk (small mirror pieces), indicate more wealth and higher social status.

Tapis begin as a large rectangle made of two woven cotton panels, as seen here. It is then sewn together to form a tubular skirt, like the útang mérang below. Stripes, geometric forms and star/flower patterns are standard for this type of tapis.

‘Utang Mérang

Across Indonesia, textiles are one of the most important gifts in ceremonial exchanges, especially those around marriage and death. ‘Utang mérang, or women’s red cloths, are reserved for such exchanges among the Sikkanese (from the Sikka Regency of Flores), whose marriage traditions involve a complex gift exchange system. Given by the bride’s family, textiles are considered an indicator of wealth and the social status of her family. Since dyeing and weaving require years of experience, girls start training at an early age, and unmarried young women spend much of their time producing textiles.

This ‘utang mérang is an example of the ikat dyeing technique. Before weaving, the warp threads (the longitudinal threads that remain stationary as the weft threads are woven back and forth) are resist-dyed to create the motif. The main ikat bands of ‘utang mérang are dyed with indigo before they are dyed with morinda (a flowering plant in the madder family) for a deep russet background. Each band in these textiles holds specific meanings that reveal the identity of the weaver and ceremony. In Sikkanese society, the warp threads are considered masculine whereas the weft threads are seen as feminine, suggesting a woman’s role in marriage as the one who binds the household together.

These beautiful textiles are best appreciated in person, alongside the other ceremonial objects in this exhibition. Don’t miss the chance to see them before the exhibition closes in March! ~CM

‘Utang Mérang (Women’s Ceremonial Cloth), Flores, Sikka Regency, mid-20th century, Cotton with warp ikat with natural dyes, Gift of anonymous donor, 1997.43.2

Kain Lekok (Woman’s Ceremonial Skirt), Kalimantan, 20th century, Cotton, flannel, beads, cowrie shells, trade cotton, Gift of the ARCO Corporation Art Collection, 1995.54.13

Tapis (Ceremonial Skirt), Sumatra; Lampung Province, c.1875-1900, Cotton, silk, gold thread, sequins, cermuk (mirror pieces), Gift of the ARCO Corporation Art Collection, 1995.54.9


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