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A Batak Photograph I took in Silalahi in 1986

Updated: Jun 14, 2023

Sandra Niessen explains the importance of the photograph chosen for the FAN homepage and what it means to her.

This Batak photograph graces the hompage of the Fashion Act Now website. It is from my book, Legacy in cloth, Batak textiles of Indonesia (p. 138).


The textile tradition of the Batak people is in sharp decline. Like most varieties of Batak textiles, this textile has become extinct.

It was taken in North Sumatra, Indonesia in 1986, and specifically in a village on the North shore of Lake Toba called Silalahi. I snapped it quickly because I was so excited to see the regional version of the textile called ‘bintang maratur’ (ordered stars) typical of that region. I had seen the ikat patterning and textile layout in century-old museum collections but nobody was making it anymore. The textile tradition of the Batak people is in sharp decline.

Like most varieties of Batak textiles, this textile has become extinct. The Batak people living around the edge of Lake Toba have (perhaps I should write ‘had’) an ancient weaving tradition. Based on weaving vocabulary and the technical repertory, it is believed to be one of the oldest in the Indonesian archipelago. At one time a tremendous number of ikat patterns, expressed in manifold variations in the different villages around the huge crater lake, characterized their tradition, but since colonial times that variety has shrunk as has the quality of the textile work.

This is not the fault of the weavers. Despite often being on the receiving end of blame for the decline in their tradition, in fact they are the heroes of their story. It is by dint of their ingenuity, technical prowess and allegiance to their craft that they have continually been able to adapt the fruits of their looms to the vicissitudes of the market and changing social circumstances. They have learned to deal with altered materials including yarns, dyes and loom parts, and have also altered their patterns to be able to weave faster. This has inevitably meant larger and less complex patterns and letting go of some of the exacting rules taught by their ancestors to ensure high quality. They have developed divisions of labour and the speed of their work is spectacular, but after a while even their amazing creativity and perseverance has not been able to win against the forces of the market. I have witnessed weavers in tears because the cost of yarn had become higher than their earnings from weaving it. They had no choice but to put down their looms. This is traumatic for them because they lose their expertise and social position and are no longer able to supplement the family income. It is not their choice to stop weaving; they are forced. Many of them burn their looms in hopelessness and discourage their daughters from taking up the craft. Poverty is a major reason why their tradition is dying. The failure on the part of government to protect them from competition from (semi-)mechanical looms that take over their designs and then sell their ersatz products at a lower price is partly to blame for their destitution. None of this is the fault of the weavers. They are being sacrificed by the system. Their skill and aesthetic system is being obliterated by modernization: industrialization, colonialism, capitalism, and the incessant exhortation to wear Western garments and fit into urban culture.


Their skill and aesthetic system is being obliterated by modernization: industrialization, colonialism, capitalism, and the incessant exhortation to wear Western garments and fit into urban culture.


There are amazing stories of weaver resistance here and there around the world. This article about Guatemalan weavers explicitly points the finger at the fashion industry to explain their resistance. An Indonesian story reveals how Mama Aleta in West Timor used her Molo loom and her weaving community to protect her natural environment from planned mining operations. Her story fits the familiar theme of indigenous people standing up for clean water, ancestral lands and access to the forests for natural dye and other materials. These are people unwilling to be erased and to live in sacrifice zones. So far no leaders in Batak weaving communities have stood up to organize resistance. And their tradition continues to decline.


Many initiatives are afoot to further commercialize, professionalize, speed up and commodify the Batak weaving tradition.

Many initiatives are afoot to further commercialize, professionalize, speed up and commodify the Batak weaving tradition. The computer has been brought into the mix to ‘invent new Batak motifs’ and extensive efforts are trying to fashionalize the indigenous aesthetic. This has led to the introduction of yet more (semi-)mechanical looms in the region. Designers (many of them male) and university students have blithely assumed the weaver community’s prerogative to design their own tradition. Collectors have scouted for the last remaining heritage pieces of cloth and sold most of them to other buyers from outside the country and in urban settings. Ironically, these collectors are often celebrated as ‘aficionados of indigenous craft’. The youth have lost touch with the wealth that their tradition used to embody. Modern versions of their heritage tradition have become, like fashion, items to parade, wear, use decoratively and then discard where they have permanence as waste because they are made with synthetic fibres.


It is as though amnesia has struck and all have forgotten that it was the weavers themselves who invented and grew their brilliant tradition. Now they have been relegated to labour positions and become alienated from their own tradition.

It is, in short, a tale of enclosures, to use a word from the commons. The first wave of industrial and economic enclosures took place a century and a half ago with the introduction of synthetic dyes and commercial yarns and knowledge of natural dyes and fibres went into sharp decline. The second powerful wave of enclosures occurred with the introduction of (semi-) mechanical looms against which the weavers were unable to compete. We are now in the third wave of enclosures in which computers and professional designers are assuming the weavers' role as designers. It is as though amnesia has struck and all have forgotten that it was the weavers themselves who invented and grew their brilliant tradition. Now they have been relegated to labour positions and become alienated from their own tradition. They have been squeezed out of the social position from which they constructed that tradition. This is also a story of the loss of women's space. Yet they are the authors of weaving techniques and designs that are unique in the world. The textile tradition that is taking over from them in the name of ‘preserving their tradition,’ especially for tourism, is anything but unique. It represents decline and impoverishment and the kind of transformation that is taking place everywhere. Ho hum.

This why I wanted to capture the image in Silalahi of a woman wearing a beloved textile from times gone by. I am sorry that I was not able to obtain the name of the wearer and she is probably no longer with us today. If anybody can identify her, please let me know. I would like to publish her name for posterity to accompany this photograph.


Follow-up:


C.F. Sidjabat contacted the writer of this blog in April 2023 because he knew the woman depicted in the photograph: Nai Jainus, Nyonya Sidebang, boru Simanjorang.


By Sandra Niessen. Read more of Sandra's blog posts here.


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