Culture & Art

Aug 1, 2016

A STORY WOVEN BY WOMEN

Weaving has survived thousands of years, but the base of its making has remained the same: the warp and the weft, and the line counting to create the motifs. In East Timor, there's a variation of this tradition that is very instilled, and is a part of the culture, called "Tais".

"Tais" is a technique from East Timor that is related to a broader weaving technique called Ikat. From the Malay "Ikat", it means "to tie", or "to bind", and consists of a resist-dyeing technique, similar to tie-dyeing. The difference between these two techniques – Ikat and tie-dye - is that in the second, the resist-dyeing is only done after the woven fabric has been completed, whereas in Ikat, the dyeing is done prior to the weaving, making it so that the warp will have patterns imprinted, which means the pattern will be visible in both faces of the cloth.

In East Timor, "tais" is a tradition that connects generations through passing on the weaving know-how. Young girls are taught from a very early age how to weave "tais", as it is one of the roles women have in the culture and in the social life of a community. The girls are taught by the women in their family – mothers, grandmothers, aunts, sisters – and sometimes several generations are weaving together, strengthening the family ties. If they want to get married, the women must weave their own "tais", and for that, they must know how to do it very well. Each clan has their own pattern, and the women will weave it into the "tais", they must know it by heart, because it is the pattern that they will wear in cultural ceremonies.

"Tais" are an important part of Timorese rituals, to celebrate birth, honour the dead, but they have an especially fundamental presence in the traditional rite of marriage. In marriages, there has to be an "exchange" of gifts between the families of the engaged couple, and these gifts should be of the same value from both parts, agreed on between the families. From the groom's side, cows and horses and brought, and the bride weaves "tais". The higher value the men' presents have, the more and the better the "tais" have to be. It is also worth mentioning that there are also different types of "tais" for men and women: the "Tais Feto" is the women's, and "Tais Mane" is the men's.

The process of weaving traditional "tais" consists of tying bundles of threads in specific places, isolating them from the dye, making it so that the patterns be dyed in the actual warp instead of being composed by warp threads floating over weft threads, as is done in the most common weaving techniques. The colours can be identified through the ties, which can have more or less knots, that correspond to different colours, and thus serving as a guide for the following phase – dyeing.

The dyes, and the colours, are made with several organic materials, for example, roots, mango peel, cactus flowers and turmeric, requiring a great understanding and a close relationship with Nature. Of course, the ingredients depend on the local flora, meaning even the colours are characteristic of specific areas of the Island. Moreover, the weavers have their own secret recipes for the colours of their clan and their family, so there are many different and unique patterns and colours, from family to family, and from one community to another.

After being dyed, the threads are dried outside, afterwards, the knots are untied, resulting in threads with different colours throughout the length. In order to give different colours to the patterns on the yarn, this process can be repeated several times over with different colours in the same bundle, and the stronger colours are applied first, and the lighter afterwards. In certain parts of the country, the traditional "tais" is entirely done by hand, from the cultivation of cotton, through its spinning, to the dyeing, although the difficulty in growing cotton has led to limiting the use of organic cotton, which is saved for sacred and ritual tais.

After the dyeing phase, the warp is woven into cloth. The patterns in the "tais" feature a characteristic "blurriness" to them, as it is a very difficult and thorough work to line up the warp yarns, so that the designs are aligned.

Even though this technique requires incredibly specialized knowledge, there are no written records, and it is, and always has been, passed on from women to girls, mothers who learned it from their grandmothers, and that remember it, almost like muscle memory. It will give them what they need to become family women. It's their role in the community, to provide their future generations with cultural heritage, and to keep alive the centuries old tradition of this complex weaving technique, and the rituals of the Timorese culture.

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