Weaving a Spell

 

Weaving a Spell

Weaving a Spell

Carol Walker
Travel Today Egypt, September/October 2004

 

Years before I first saw geringsing, I had heard stories of this famous, supposedly magical textile of East Bali. Experts on Southeast Asian weaving assumed a reverent tone whenever speaking of this fabled cloth. Even the name — pronounced “GRINGsing,” with a rolled “r” — sounded like an incantation.

Bali’s magical textile geringsing is back at the market.

Made only in the village of Tenganan, a tiny insular community whose strict rituals and religious beliefs differ from those of even their closest neighbors, a single piece of geringsing can take five to fifteen years to produce. The cloth is used in various rites and is believed by villagers to offer magical protection from harm. It is also worn by both men and women, in the form of belts, wrapped skirts and hip cloths.

Because of its rare and painstaking method of production, along with its muted, natural colors, the cloth is both distinctive and beautiful. But over the years, fewer villagers were engaging in the grueling production process, and geringsing had become increasingly rare.

If you wanted to see geringsing, much less purchase it, you had to go to Tenganan itself, about 65 kilometers from Denpasar, Bali’s capital city. In the late 1980s, I finally did visit Tenganan and held an antique piece of geringsing in my very own hands.

Ironically, as vivid as the experience was, the look of the cloth barely made an impression. I viewed it inside a dark hut, but I recall the feel: It was surprisingly coarse and papery, and the threads — more loosely woven than I had expected — made a faint whispery noise as I unfolded it. A villager stood nearby ready to stop me if I handled it too roughly.

Did the geringsing have a magical effect? Probably, because I came close to purchasing it — and with a price tag of $2,000, it was far more than I could afford. Of course, that same piece today would probably be worth more than $10,000, so perhaps it would have been a wise investment. But I didn’t have a clue about geringsing. I vaguely knew that it was double ikat, but didn’t appreciate what that meant.

To understand double ikat, you have to know what ikat is — and before that, resist dyeing. Resist dyeing is a technique in which the textile’s design is marked on cloth or threads with wax, mud, or any substance that repels dye. The material is then colored and the resisting substance removed, leaving a motif in the original hue of the threads, surrounded by the color of the dye. This process can be repeated several times to create a design.

For ikat, the dye is kept from penetrating by tying fibers in knots around small bundles of the warp or weft (vertical and horizontal) threads. Sound painstaking? It is. Now imagine dyeing both the warp and weft threads in such a way as to produce distinct patterns when they are woven together on a hand-loom. That is double ikat, a technique so difficult that despite Indonesia’s sumptuous tradition of making fabulous textiles, the Bali Aga — the ethnic group inhabiting Tenganan — are the only people in the entire archipelago to practice it.

Once you’ve developed an eye for ikat, it is unmistakable. When both warp and weft are variegated, the overall effect is striking. The colors are always shades of cream, reddish-brown, brown, and blue-black, produced by dyeing and overdyeing with colors made from local roots and indigo. The weave is a loose tabby, a simple over-under-over-under weave.

The mechanics of geringsing are scarcely the whole story. The complexities of the Bali Aga’s belief system make anthropologists ecstatic. The holy book of the Tengananese states that the Bali Aga are of divine origin. Accordingly, their central purpose is to honor their gods, demons and ancestors through rituals, and even clothing.

Through the years, I continued to dream, hopelessly I thought, of owning a piece of this mythical cloth. So this spring I was stunned to see several examples of genuine geringsing available for about $100 and up, at Murni’s Warung Shop in Ubud, Bali.

To my astonishment and delight, the clerk told me that Ibu Murni, a well-known connoisseur of fine textiles, had convinced five Tegananese women to weave geringsing for her. Their knowledge and expertise creates beautiful results. However, the work is so demanding that perhaps only one in four cloths is of top quality.

My only decision was which one to buy. The clerk offered to measure me so that I could select a piece of the correct size to wear as a chest cloth, but I declined, preferring to make my choice based on a combination of motif, size, and price. Now, my very own geringsing hangs in my home where I can admire it every day. It’s been close to twenty years since I first heard about geringsing. It was worth the wait.

Weaving a Spell