In Focus

Woman's tubular garment (tais feto)

The Dallas Museum of Art has three outstanding examples of tubular skirts from the Belu region of Timor. These impressive sarong feature supplementary weft wrapping techniques. Known as sui among the Tetun speakers and buna among Atoni groups, the raised patterns on sarong are the result of a deft, painstaking process that requires supplementary weft threads to be wound around collected strands of warp yarns. The weavers do not use pattern sticks, and the intricate designs on these skirts have to be memorized and picked out by hand. The most beautifully decorated sarong are owned and inherited by females from the warrior and aristocratic classes. These textiles are worn or displayed during important ceremonies and festivals when age-old traditions and customary laws are honored and one's social identity is reaffirmed.

Heirloom skirts from Belu are among the finest surviving examples of textiles from Timor. They are easily identified, because the sui sections are tightly wrapped with richly colored and costly imported silk thread (letros) that became rare in the 20th century and disappeared completely with the onset of World War II. Open areas of warp-faced plain weave and bands of warp ikat of varying width are sometimes found on these sarong. The most eye-pleasing ones juxtapose indigo blue with brownish-red, maroon, or purplish-burgundy hues from mengkudu (Morinda citrifolia) or Indian mulberry, a tree in the coffee family. In comparison, modern skirts are dominated by the use of chemical dyes. Their more garish palettes, along with a propensity for covering most of the surface area with densely packed designs, while eye-dazzling, lack the deep dye tones and areas of elegant contrast that are the hallmark of antique sarong.

The most densely designed Belu skirt (1983.105) is from the village of Nurobo in the kingdom of Mandeu in Belu. This weaving dates to the late 19th century. It would have been owned by a member of the local raja's or king's family there. Each side panel is populated by numerous anthropomorphic creatures in a colorful array of letros threads, while the center is dominated by tight geometric ikat designs punctuated by stripes of plain weave.

The second Belu skirt (2003.20) is from the village of Faheluka, where this design pattern is said to originate. It can be worn by any woman of high-ranking status there. A small number of skirts that depict variants of this pattern are now in museum and private collections. This particular sarong was woven in the early 20th century by a master weaver named Mama Maria Manek. Its shifting arrangements of silken colors are vibrant, perfectly chosen, almost melodic. These visual qualities are heightened by the adept tight wrapping of letros, which is punctuated by the occasional use of gold-wrapped thread.

The gem among Dallas's Belu skirts (1983.106) is also from Nurobo. This heirloom sarong from the 19th century is reported to have been worn only by the king's wife during ritual ceremonies and festivals. It is unique among Belu skirts, as its supplementary work, rich colors, and the addition of tightly woven bands of ikat with geometric designs are so breathtaking. Cast silver earrings (kavata) are depicted within the narrow-striped inner ikat bands. These are symbols of wealth reflecting the large amount of metal goods that were exchanged during the forging of matrimonial alliances. On the skirt's side panels, alternating stylized skeins of thread are bounded by protective lizards (teki) that are depicted with an unusual verve and sense of authority.

Excerpt from

Steven G. Alpert, "Woman's tubular garment (tais feto)," in Eyes of the Ancestors: The Arts of Island Southeast Asia at the Dallas Museum of Art, ed. Reimar Schefold in collaboration with Steven Alpert (Dallas: Dallas Museum of Art; New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2013), 260-263.