Organic Cloth in Alor – In the Hands and Feet of Syariat Libana

Submitted by mumunmumun on 15 December 2015   •  Destination

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How far do we know about the clothes on our back? That day, I was wearing a plain turquoise shirt from Giordano and pants that was given by Firsta. All I knew was that it’s a mildly hot day and I should wear thin cotton and no jeans. But, that’s about it. I knew nothing of where my clothes came from, how it was made, or how it would live on after the day I die. In the terms being ecofriendly, I probably was far from it. All of this hit me at the artisan workshop of organic cloth in Alor,  Syariat Libana.


Organic Cloth Alor

“Are you Ibu Syariat?” I asked a beautiful fair skinned woman that was laying out the cloth.

“Oh, I’m not her. I just help the gallery. That’s her now,” she pointed a small rugged woman wearing matching track suits and barefooted. I could have mistaken her for the cleaning lady, but to be fair she wasn’t ready to accept guests. She was due to prepare herself later on, when the important people came.

Syariat Libana of Alor

Syariat Libana can multitask

Concept wise, Ibu (Mrs.) Syariat’s cloth was nothing new. Local Alor woman, fighting to maintain the technique of making cloth the way her ancestors did. Everything was made from scratch and sourced from nature around her. But then again, women like her need not be new, but many.

“Where’s the cigarettes?” she asked me. I shrugged and told her no one said that I should bring her cigarettes. “Bah, what’s wrong with your friends?” her face stayed straight. She was a tough cookie. I then forced Unggul, my travel companion at the time, to surrender his cigarettes. He pulls out his ‘white’ smokes.

“This is too light,” but she took them anyways. I smiled hoping my bribe came through. I sat beside her on the dusty mat, without my sandals, as she did. She says that I should keep my sandals on, but I insisted I do like her. She looked at me as if I was weird (I’m truly not) but then surrenders and starts to tell me her story.

“People used to say I’m crazy, after going in and out of the forest just to find ingredients,” she said, pointing to the bushes behind her shop. I started to gaze at her rugged feet. “No one wants to make cloth this difficult,” she continued explaining how hard it was to develop her product, not to mention also to convince the local women to come back to the old ways of weaving. “It’s exhausting,” she admitted.

However, after much experimenting and hard work, it paid off. In her success, she had built a workshop for organic cloth. Her cotton are gathered from her garden and her colors are sourced from the forest and sea. With the right mix, she could create the kind of red, orange, yellow, green, blue and black that she wished. She started with the recipe of 9 different colors from her ancestors and had developed to about 200 on her own. She is awesome!

She said, that the same people that used to say she was crazy, later asked her to teach them and share her recipe. She refused bluntly. “You don’t want to learn anything from a crazy lady,” she gave me a smug. I smug smiled back. We then laughed together.

As we sat on the mat, she walked me through the process. Her equipment are simple, handmade devices, nothing running on fuel, placed on an open-space area. Nothing fancy, on the contrary, dusty.

“My late father in law made this device,” she showed me a simple ironing-like contraption that separated the fine cotton from the clumpy ones. She told me that not many could make it these days. She took out a metal blade about 20 cm long and told me it’s the device’s screwdriver. She tapped a few parts to open up the gap with the metal, the gap that had tightened returned to its original size. Such a screwdriver! Another device required the assistance of the feet and instinct off the fingers. On another corner, bowls contained of reddish wood sheds, squid ink, and local sea salt for coloring. Near the gallery, a woman is weaving the colored threads into a tailored scarf. That’s about it. The process, true enough, gruesome. Taking much labor indeed.

The filterlike device to seperate clumpy cotton

The screwdriver

Ibu Syariat puting her instict to making thread

Picking up soft cotton

The coloring station for organic cloth

The making of red thread for organic cloth in Alor

It’s all to support her belief that traditional organic cloth is the way to go, not only in Alor, but in our daily lives. She also advocated that it was the best material for our skin and environmentally friendly. Who knows what kinds of chemicals are touching our skin? I was mildly slapped in the face realizing I hadn’t thought much about it. In a time where I’ve become more conscious about how to have healthy skin, I hadn’t given much thought about parts outside of my face.

It also got me thinking about the caves of Londa in Tana Toraja, South Sulawesi. Within the cave and also scattered around the cave entrance were coffins and also clothes remains from the deceased. The bodies have degraded and yet their clothes have not. By logic of a simpleton (that’s me, by the way), these clothes might be from a modern time, where textiles are a mix of synthetic materials that take much time to decompose and result in much damage during process. Then, I looked down at my own clothes. Can they degrade fast enough?


Cloth weaver from Ternate Island - Alor

Weaving close to home - Alor

Other local Alor women helping Ibu Syariat

“I like it here. I can weave and head home to see my family on the (Ternate) island. I don’t have to work as far as Bali anymore,” the young weaver said as she worked on not one, but two scarfs at once. “It’s faster and brings more income,” she said confidently.

I paced around the mini gallery, one that was built as a CSR of a company from the Timor Island. There were much cloths, thick and thin, colourful, to choose from. I decided to buy one as I’m a sucker for cloth in general. However, considering my lack of ability to preserve them as written here, I decided to give it away on our giveaway. It was hard to do so, because the green she created was a bit different to those I’ve seen across my journeys in Indonesia. Unique, but I had to let it go.

Before leaving, I asked Ibu Syariat for a picture of her hands, my obligatory frame for artisans I meet. She gave me her hands out of confusion. She then pulled me and said “Come! Take a picture of my feet.”

The unique green cloth for our giveaway

Hands and feet of Ibu Syariat Libana

Signage at weaving central - Alor

After paying my dues, without succeeding in negotiation the price, I bid farewell. I would very much recommend people visiting the workshop as you could learn much from such an awesome woman. It’s also food for the brain to think about traditional cloth, especially those made with organic material. My visit was brief, but my knowledge of traditional Indonesian cloths extended far.

“Tell your Jakarta friends to come visit me and shop here. OK?”

I will, Bu!

Address: Weaving Central Gunung Mako, 

Alor Barat Laut District.

Head north from Alor Kecil Village and find the sign above on the right side of the road.

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2 Comments on "Organic Cloth in Alor – In the Hands and Feet of Syariat Libana"

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Daphne Hankins
3 years 6 months ago

Posts like this are why I love travel blogs! What an amazing insight into the craft. What an amazing woman.