Sumba Textiles


The textiles of Sumba

The textiles of Sumba (an island in eastern Indonesia) represents the means by which the present generation passes on its messages to future generations. The pieces are deeply personal, follow distinct systematic form but show the individuality of the weaver and the village from which they are produced. Internationally, Sumba’s textiles are collected as examples of the highest quality textile design and are found in the major museums of the world as well as the home’s of collectors. One hundred years ago the Dutch were already exporting textiles from the island of Sumba. Today great numbers are still produced by a relatively small number of women, mainly on the eastern coastal districts of the island. These cloths are made not only for export out of Sumba, but also for trade with people from the interior for ritual use, where by custom the process of ikat was forbidden.

Significance and symbolism of the textiles in Sumba

Since textiles are the products of Sumba women, they are understood as the tangible representations of the female element of the bipartite universe. On Sumba this male-female complementarity is encapsulated in the notion of the Highest Being who is the Father Sun-Mother Moon and the Creator/Weaver of human life. The Sumbanese believe a person is able to acquire the special powers and qualities of certain creatures when textiles displaying such motifs are worn. Although different cloths are appropriate apparel for men and women, textiles are seen collectively as a female component of their cosmos. Cloth is a symbol of the woman’s family, the wife givers, who are ritually superior on ceremonial occasions. In ritual exchanges textiles are a prominent part of reciprocal gift for male objects such as metal, buffalo and ivory from the man’s family, whose burden in gift giving is heavier because of the inferior status of the wife taker to that of the wife giver. is  Textiles on Sumba are both clothing and the currency of traditional ceremonial exchange: Many fine folded cloths must be presented at each marriage as part of a counter-payment for a bride wealth paid in horses, buffalo, and gold, and at each funeral as a sign of mourning and later also a counter-payment for animals contributed to the slaughter. Cloth is also given to show that a contract is binding (“you sign your name when you accept the cloth”), as a kind of “interest payment” to ask for more time to discharge a debt, and as a gesture of thanks for a kindness extended long ago and never reciprocated. Cloth in this sense is counted; its value is estimated on the basis of its materials, workmanship, and design, and its relative worth in relation to the livestock traded for it. These estimations place indigo dyed cloths at higher rank than those made with commercial dyes, place hand-spun thread ahead of store-bought threads,and overall value labor-intensive techniques of supplementary we! and ikat dyeing over simpler and faster designs.

Weaving and dying techniques

The dominant weaving technique for the hinggi is ikat of the warp although supplementary weave of both the warp and weft are sometimes used in these cloths. The ends of the more important cloths are finished with a tapestry weave. The process of dying pattern of a particular cloth involves first setting the warp up on a frame which gives us the length of the cloth. In most cases one end mirrors the other and the left side of a panel mirrors the right. Two identical panels are dyed, woven and then joined. The technique is very labour-intensive and so the designer, usually the weaver, double up on the setting out and dying so that two cloths are constructed at the same time.

The women’s skirts, the lau, are a plain weave with a variety of decorative techniques added. Embroidery, applique of shells and beads, supplementary weave of the weft and occasionally ikat.


Hinggi are large blankets decorated with warp ikat used for adat exchanges and as a man’s clothing. They are usually made in pairs, one cloth is wrapped around the hips and the other thrown over the shoulder. When destined for the nobility the cloths are usually larger and are dyed with red and indigo. The color and motif combine to indicate the status of the wearer as well as the giver. In the past only the nobility had the right to the use and wear such cloth. They were seen only at great festivals, where they were worn by nobles, their family and retainers as a sign of their power and wealth, which was concomitant with the wealth of the total society. The subjects of the designs refer to local objects such as horses, roosters, deer snakes fish and prawn. Other specifically Sumbanese images include the skull tree and the mamuli, a gold ornament which is also a rank indicator. As well as these, foreign symbols such as dragons taken from Chinese ceramics and the rampant lions of the Dutch coat of arms are sometimes incorporated.


Lau are the tubular skirts worn by women. The same motifs that appear on a man’s hinggi reappear on the women’s skirts, but the range of techniques used are greater than ikat alone. It includes designs worked by a supplementary weave warp, embroidery, application of beads and shells and occasionally tufting with supplementary yarns. These figures appear in light yarns on the plain background cloth of dark blue, red, brown or black.

Lau pahudu is the name for a skirt worked with the supplementary warp. Lau hada is the name for the skirt worked with beads and shells. They are also known as pakiri mbola which means “at the bottom of the basket” and refers to the way they are carried when bought as part of marriage gifts.

Images of these skirts can be seen by following this link.

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