Women's War: An Update of the Literature on Iban Textiles

By Heppell, Michael | Borneo Research Bulletin, Annual 2006 | Go to article overview

Women's War: An Update of the Literature on Iban Textiles


Heppell, Michael, Borneo Research Bulletin


Gavin, Traude, 2003, Iban Ritual Textiles, Leiden: KITLV Press.

Linggi, Datin Amar Margaret, 2001, Ties That Bind: Iban Ikat Weaving, Kuching: The Tun Jugah Foundation & The Borneo Research Council.

Ong, Edric, n.d. [2002], Woven Dreams. Ikat Textiles of Sarawak, Kuching: Society Atelier Sarawak.

With three books in as many years, Iban textiles are clearly of note. (1) Their range is without equal in island Southeast Asia; their beauty undeniable. They are purposely made to be beautiful. As such, they attract the gods. The gods then pay attention when being supplicated. The major cloths--the pua'--are inextricably linked with headhunting. Part of the process of creating them is called "Women's War." They are used by women to incite men to take heads. Many cloths have an intrinsic force or power, sufficient, at least, to kill a woman not experienced enough to weave them. The power comes from the extraterrestrial phenomenon captured and pictured in the cloth. The main design (2) is surrounded by borders to contain the power. Particular spirits like crocodiles are given pictorial food to eat so they don't become hungry and break out of their barriers and feast upon their makers. At least that was an understanding prior to Gavin's book which reduces all this to decorative aesthetics.

There are a number of Ibanic groups who weave. Among the Iban, there are two quite distinctive styles, which Gavin calls the Saribas and the Baleh/Batang Ai. Not only are the styles distinctive, but so also are all but a small core of designs. Across the border in West Kalimantan, live Ibanic speaking weavers like the Kantu', Ketungau, Desa, and Mualang. Their styles are also quite distinctive, though there is a small core of "motifs" that are common to all including the Iban. Little, however, is known about these weaving traditions. They are not ignored by our authors, with Gavin tantalizingly including one Kantu' skirt (p. 94) among her eight color plates and a second (p. 181, no. 100) as an illustration of a particular Iban skirt "pattern" and Ong (p. 79, EO1) showing a pair of Mualang loincloth ends. Hopefully, a proposed project involving the Kobus Center in Sintang and the Tropenmuseum (Museum voor de Tropen) in Amsterdam might lead to more information about these Kalimantan traditions, so that a fuller understanding of the iconography of all the groups can be achieved.

All three books devote a considerable amount of space to photographs of Iban textiles, though only the Linggi and Ong books set out to represent their beauty with good quality plates. Linggi's book exhibits a broad variety of outstanding cloths from various Sarawak collections. That range is unmatched in the published literature. Gavin's work is more focused on naming individual designs, and less attention has been paid to producing quality illustrations. For clarity of detail, however, Gavin's earlier work, The Women's Warpath (1996), published by the UCLA Fowler Museum, remains the benchmark.

Both Gavin and Linggi present good descriptions of the process of dyeing and weaving. Linggi's book has the great merit of documenting the whole process of weaving a cloth. It takes the reader from the growing of cotton, preparing it for dyeing with particular attention being given to applying the mordant (in the important ngar ritual), the dyes that are used and how to prepare them, then organizing the warp threads on the back-strap loom to take the weft, and then weaving the cotton into a cloth. The descriptions of the weaving process are accompanied by diagrams clear enough for an apprentice weaver to follow. The whole process is illustrated by good colored photographs which include the materials, the equipment and each Iban-identified step in weaving a cloth. In effect, it presents a "manual" of the traditional process which will become increasingly important as the traditional process is altered to save time and produce cloths more quickly and, consequently, forgotten. …

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