What does it really mean to be a socially aware company in the textile industry? Meet Threads of Life
The last decade has shown that socially-aware companies are on the rise. In the fashion industry a conscious business usually takes the form of artisan vs factory work and use of eco materials. Threads of Life appears to be one such company, working with indigenous weavers in Indonesia to preserve their traditional textiles. But far more than a textile merchant with strong values, the Threads of Life business model doesn’t hint at the cultural, spiritual and environmental depth they cover.
As a socially conscious business they tick every box on the checklist - providing an income to rural areas, use of eco materials and environmental regeneration. But under the PC surface is a rich narrative that was discovered by accident, and which grew organically around one of the oldest forms mythology: storytelling through cloth.
Threads of Life founders William and Jean discovered this path organically after years in the travel industry taking tour groups to remote areas of the Indonesian archipelago. They were already familiar with the deep poverty, and villagers would often hawk textiles with invented motifs for traders and tour groups. It wasn’t until the economic crash of 1998 that they witnessed a new kind of art. The islanders brought out their real treasures to sell: heirloom textile relics belying complex Ikat motifs.
These textiles had been preserved for generations, portraying an artistry handed down by their ancestors. To create an Ikat design, the weaver has to think both vertically and laterally, creating a pattern that fits seamlessly together. But this design is more than technical competency, it’s also represents the cosmological vision of Indonesia’s near-extinct past.
Indonesian fabric expert Mary Hunt Kahlenberg wrote in her book Textile traditions of Indonesia “the art of weaving -the intercrossing of warp and weft- symbolizes the structure of the cosmos: the warp threads fastened between the ends of the loom represent the predestined elements of life; the weft passing in and out and back and forth represents life’s variables.” In Indonesia technical mastery and spiritual mastery are one and the same.
The Indonesian archipelago is seeped in an animistic past. The inhabitants of the 1000+ islands were believed to have migrated from the mainland of China some 4.5 thousand years ago, although little is known. Austronesian migrants landed across what’s known today as South-east Asia, dispersing and mixing with other cultures to create the melting pot it is today. In Indonesia Bali and Java are modernized, but the rest of the numerous scattered islands have been kept isolated from the outside world.
Bali’s predominance of Hinduism, Muslim and Christian religions isn’t seen on the smaller islands, which are still deeply rooted in animism (the belief that everything, including plants and inanimate objects, is alive and has a soul). The isolated nature of island life has sheltered and preserved this original culture, keeping it relatively intact up until the last century. Most of these islands went from a barter to a cash economy only in the last few decades.
Once the depth of the textile tradition was revealed to them, their focus shifted from tourism to textile. As you can imagine, integrating into insulated culture where often 20 languages can be found on one island alone. “We quickly realized our business relationship was only as good as our personal relationship” William recalls. It took them years of building trust before a single textile was made for them.
They now work in over 10 islands, including Flores, Timor and Sumbawa, and are now gaining broader recognition. They deal directly with over 1000 weavers - there are no cooperatives, and the women work from home in their spare time.Only after years of building trust and relationships did the weavers start to reveal the hidden process of their dye techniques. To fully capture this knowledge, they realized they would have to become weavers themselves, as the villagers would only share knowledge as equals. Dye process research and conservation now forms a large part of their sister NGO, The Bebali Foundation.
Selection of Natural Dyes
The islanders have been practicing selective breeding of the dye plants for centuries, honing a diverse permaculture system to produce species with exact color ranges. Threads of life and the Bebali Foundation have created partnerships with ethnobotanists worldwide to study and capture this information. They have a partnership with Kew Gardens in London, where they send them dried plant specimens for latin naming, as they are only known otherwise by their local name. Documenting this environmental knowledge helps preserve the culture and enhance it, allowing them to communicate with the modern world without leaving their past behind.
The Bebali Foundation has continued to study the dye processes by planting their own botanical dye garden at Umajati Resort. These plants supply the natural dye workshops where they work with designers and textile artists from around the world. Threads of Life have extended this specialist knowledge worldwide, participating in international museum exhibitions and receiving a growing interest from curators interested in contemporary expression of tradition.
Clothing and fabric in ancient Indonesian culture is synonymous with human life - it blankets babies from birth, serves for warmth, rituals, ceremonies and accompanies them to the grave. The metaphorical and spiritual references from the islands have impacted Threads of Life and their work dynamic. What began as an intention to tread carefully and not impose their western values, became the reverse- they began to adopt some of the islander’s worldviews. According to William, “In western culture, body, mind and spirit are separate - the doctor, school and the church each have their own place. Here there in no separation.” They now wholeheartedly ask for permission to the ancestors before entering the islands. With 20 years behind them, Threads of Life is now looking to the future and how to introduce natural indigo dyes into the mainstream. Their dream is to create a full-scale natural dye workshop, offering dye services to apparel and textile designers and eco fashion brands worldwide.
Threads of Life textile and basketry art can be viewed at their Ubud Gallery: Jalan Kajeng 24 Ubud, Bali 80571
Open 10 am to 7 pm daily
Classes and Workshops from Thread of Life & information to volunteer at the Bebali Foundation can be viewed here:
By Kerry Clarkson
Kerry is British-Peruvian writer who spent the last decade as a fashion industry creative, living between Europe, the US and South America. She investigates how imagination can be used to innovate new paradigms in art, design, social advances and leading creative thought. To better understand the creative forces molding our future, she experiments with a semi-nomadic lifestyle along with her 7 year-old daughter, exploring the indigenous design culture of rural areas and the art of living.
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