Sarongs of Sumatra
Sumatra is the second-largest and westernmost island of Indonesia. Over a thousand miles long and three hundred miles wide, it stretches from the northern tip of Java up towards mainland southeast Asia. Sumatra is justifiably famous for the wide variety of textiles it produces. One casue for this variety is the island's location on one of the world's major trade routes: virtually all trade from Europe, the Middle East, and India bound for Southeast Asia and China had to pass through the narrow straits of Malacca between eastern Sumatra and the Malay peninsula. Many such goods were also destined for Sumatra itseslf and left a permanent mark on its art and craft traditions. Another reason for its variegated textile production is the number of different ethnic groups who inhabit Sumatra. These range from the relatively isolated Bataks of the Lake Toba region to the cosmopolitan inhabitants of the coastal cities with their distinctive overlay of Malay, Javanese, Chinese, Arab, and Indian culture.
Most of the weavers responsible for the spectacular textiles of Sumatra are women who fitted in these artistic labors with thier other daily activities. For this reason most of the works in this exhibition would have been produced at home, and such a means of production often mean that well over a year elapsed from the first dyeing of the homespun yarn until the fabric was finally completed. What has been learned from Sumatra's "coastal silk cloth tradition" also incorporates a number of materials that originally would have had to have been imported, such as silk, metallic yarns, and eventually, artificial dyes.
Kain is the general word for these textiles, often modified by the term songket, referring to the use of a supplemental weft. The Sumatran kain songket can take many forms, but are almost always untailored cloths intended to be wrapped around the body in a variety of ways, such as the sarong (a long skirt worn by both men and women), the slendang (a shawl wrapped loosely around the shoulders), and the ikat kepala (a head covering or turban). Today, the most elaborate sarongs are only used for ceremonial purposes, such as the complex exchange of gifts that accompanies marriage rituals. Most of the sarongs in this exhibition come from the southern region of Palembang, which is famous for its red silks, often featuring suble weft ikat backgrounds, with brocade in supplementary gold and silver weft yarns.