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Legacy in Cloth:

Batak Textiles of Indonesia

Published in Hali Magazine 163 Spring 2010

Sandra Niessen

KITLV Press, Leiden 2009 568 pages, 900 illustrations ISBN 978 90 6718 351 2 Price €54.90

Reviewed by

Thomas Murray


Sandra Niessen worked for thirty years on her Batak textile treatise, Legacy in Cloth and it shows; clearly, her time was well spent. This is a fabulous book that sets the bar so high for future scholarship and publishing aesthetics that it is safe to say there will never again be another monograph on her topic. In producing such a beautiful tome, she shut the door on her way out –  none of today's scholars can ever replicate the timing or the depth of her research begun a generation ago.

Although a researcher could write a thesis on traditional cloth patterns now being used in contemporary Batak couture, no one can go back in time to perform the quality and quantity of interviews that she has done with women old enough to remember the context of their textiles in pre-Christian beliefs,  impossible now when so many of her informants are living with their ancestors.

Beginning in 1979 as an anthropology student, she conducted ?eld research for almost three years spread over two decades in north Sumatra, in and around the mountainous region of Lake Toba. Home to the Batak people, this area is considered one of the strongest animistic cultures as well as one of the most beautiful locations in Indonesia. For a short time she lived on the west side of Lake Toba in the village of her weaving teacher Ompu Sihol, an old woman. Here, and in Tarutung south of the lake where she lived for eight months, she attempted to unlock the secret code of Batak textile production techniques: the spinning of the yarn, warping, dyeing, weaving, the symbolism of the motifs and ritual use. There was plenty to keep her busy, not only working on her language skills, but also conducting surveys of weavers in other regions around the lake.

When she returned to the West, she tracked down and examined Batak textiles in every early colonial collection that she found in European museums; she has also researched all known publications and reviewed the notes of scholars and missionaries. And although she has written two other books and many articles on Batak textiles, those were teasers for what was to come.

Through a combination of persistence and inspiration, she wrote and revised her text until it was as comprehensive as possible. She has also assembled marvellous historic/ethnographic photos, as well as sourcing images of some very exotic and truly rare ulos, the generic name for Toba Batak cloths. Included in the illustrations are textiles found during that museum search, some with very early collection dates, while others were gathered during her field work. These are shared through the book's well-organised and intellectually rigourous chapters arranged in four parts. 'Design' includes Design Foundations, Early and Modern Design History, and nomenclature.

The second section addresses six Batak weaving regions, four around Lake Toba, Karo, and Simalungun. The  'Catalog' sorts the cloths using an effective taxonomy – blue textiles, warp stripes, plaids, stipple ikat, chevron ikat, lozenge ikat, weft patterning, and foreign textiles in the Batak repertoire. In part four, Niessen reveals the secrets learned about techniques, including ?bre and yarn preparation, dyes and dyeing, warping and warp ikat, the loom and weaving, decorative warp and weft and finishing techniques.

Despite all the wonders described above, and as close to my heart as they are, if asked what I liked best about the book, I would mention two things: Niessen's acknowledgment list (she made notes on virtually every Batak person she spoke with!) and her almost Platonic inquiry into the current state of Batak textile scholarship and her justification for this comprehensive treatment.

There is a famous Batak saying, "If you ask five Batak people the name of a textile, you will get six answers!" It is a great and important contribution that Sandra Niessen has finally made it possible for us to know but one!