Throughout the world, the wealth of traditional Balinese textiles is well known. While they are admired by many for their beauty and sheer artistry, textiles play an important part in the daily life and ceremonies of the Balinese. An interesting fact about traditional Balinese clothing is that most consist of a simple rectangular piece of cloth which is then elegantly wrapped around the body. Textiles in Bali, though, not only serve as protection against the cold and sun but are also powerful symbols indicating the status and well being of the wearer. The women of royal families always vied with each other to make the most beautiful creations using sumptuous materials including silk imported from China and gold and silver thread. Further many textiles were believed to be imbued with magical powers which could protect the wearer against malevolent influences. They could also serve as intermediaries with the supernatural world in religious rituals such as cremations, where hundreds of costly meters of cloth would be turned into ashes to accompany the soul of the dead to the other world. The guardians of the secret knowledge of textiles. including the ingredients of certain dyes and a rich compendium of sacred motifs have always been the women of Bali. Weaving is their domain, just as rice farming belongs to men. One of the most important duties of a mother would be to hand down her knowledge to her daughter to continue the heritage.
From the Malay word to tie a knot, is an ancient technique whereby a motif is dyed into the threads of a cloth before it is woven. There are three types of ikat, two of which are found in Bali. The first is warp ikat usually woven in silk. This ikat was found in many parts of Bali and usually used to make saput or outer sarongs or scarves worn on ceremonial occasions. The design and motifs of these have been profoundly influenced by the patola textiles of India. Like the patola the ground color is almost always a deep red. The Balinese, with their typical creativity would take the more abstract patterns of the patola and create new variations. Many of the best were fanciful creations with wayang puppets or other mythological figures taken from Balinese legends and myths. Singaraja in north Bali was always renowned as home of the best of these. While most warp ikat is silk, one finds in Bali a sacred cloth usually said to be woven on the island of Nusa Penida that is a warp cotton ikat. This is the cepuk considered to have powerful protective properties.
The most famous ikat in Bali is the mysterious geringsing woven only in the tiny Bali Aga village of Tenganan East Bali. Here the ikat pattern is created in both the warp and weft threads. Known as double ikat, the process is frightfully difficult and requires both expertise and patience to align the two patterns. The geringsing is considered sacred throughout Bali and has always been very rare and expensive. Many stories have been told about it, such as human blood is necessary to obtain it deep rich color. Old pieces sometimes come up for sale but these are inevitably damaged. The villagersof Tenganan will not sell you their sacred cloth and the pieces they have are usually bought from the outside to be sold at inflated prices to tourists.
Today there are any number of places specialising in new ikat cloths. On the main road just as you enter Gianyar there are numerous ikat factories with hundreds of women still weaving by hand. Sideman, on the way to Besakih Temple, also has a famous factory. Today ikat is rarely woven silk but rather from cotton or rayon. The colors are usually very bright and many of the motifs are new. To test quality see if the colors run or if the cloth shrinks before going in too deeply. If you want to buy new geringsing, it can be found in Tenganan but they are seldom as beautiful as the antique cloths and often nearly as expensive.
Songket or supplementary weft
Thi is a technique by which gold or silver threads are woven into a cloth into beautiful patterns. Antique cloths are sometimes to be found if you are willing to pay the price. These are as with the ikat usually woven in silk and rarely in good condition. New songkets of various qualities are still woven in such places as Klungkung. The quality is reflected in the price. Cheap pieces mean that the songket is usually loosely woven.
Several other traditional cloths are also found. One is called prada. Here pure gold leaf is attached to an old batik cloth using gold. This technique has died out. Today the only prada cloths found use imitation gold paint, usually on polyester that are used in fans and hotel decorations. Most Balinese dance costumes are also made of prada. By tying off sections of a cloth to prevent it from coming in contact with the dye, beautiful patterns are created usually in silk. Many people who come to Bali ask for Balinese batik. Batik was never really made in Bali until recent times and even today most batik comes from Java. There are many other types of traditional textiles including loosely woven scarves and a host of simple to complex checked sarongs. You will notice the ubiquitous black and white checked sarongs wrapped around the guardian statues. Known as kamben poleng, they are thought to represent the polar forces of the universe.