The Resilient Textiles Of Southeast Asia
What’s one thing everyone loves about Southeast Asia besides our yummy food? Our incredible textiles, of course! Bold and exciting as our dishes are, our fabrics are just as captivating with their vibrant colors and intricate designs. Textiles have always been at the forefront of our cultural identity, each country boasting its own special fabric unique to them and their sensibilities. Behind the design, the color choices and patterns lay the intention and arduous labor that would make one think twice about calling it just fabric. Batik, ikat, golden silks - they are a representation of culture displayed and histories conveyed.
As one of our more popular exports, Southeast Asian textiles are so eagerly consumed by the Western audience. Our designs have made an impact on fashion and even home decor. Ikat can be found everywhere from clothing to pillowcases and curtains.
The high demand for these beautiful designs unfortunately leads to their meanings getting lost in translation, getting mass produced and even getting appropriated by major fashion designers; Ulla Johnson having entire lines of batiks and Vogue Runway featuring basahan without mention of its Filipino origins. However, what saddens us the most is that without acknowledgement and proper respect, these careless pieces become fragments of the real thing instead of the symbolic relics they could be.
Embedding Culture Into Textiles
Our artisans have transcended raw materials and engineered their own techniques in producing colors, dyeing, and weaving to expertly tell a story. More than just to clothe oneself, these fabrics identify one's status, class, and even evoke their spirituality.
Batik: Indonesian, Malaysian, Hmong
Batik Process in Indonesia
Batik in Indonesia is made by a technique in which the artisan uses hot wax to first draw out designs on the fabric then douse it in wax resistant vegetable dye. The wax is then boiled off and the fabric dyed again in a different color, revealing an intricate pattern. This process is repeated with different colors until the desired look is achieved. Each region has their own batik unique to their people, with nature, Islamic geometric sequences, and Chinese motifs heavily influencing various batik designs.
A symbol of national pride, Indonesians proudly wear their batik and incorporate it in their daily lives as much as possible. Special batik is reserved for milestone events such as weddings while everyday batik is worn at the office or to parties.
Hmong Batik is characterized by its deep Indigo color, simple patterns of lines and shapes mimicking seeds, leaves, mountains, and even people.
Hmong Batik Fabric
Ikat: Indonesian, Cambodian
Ikat is the process of wax resist dyeing like batik but unlike batik, it is the threads that are dyed before they are woven into cloth.
Khmer Ikat found in tapestries called pedan depict Buddhist imagery like buddhas, nagas, and temples with no pattern or repetition and are used for ceremonies. Sampot hol are the skirts worn by women, while in Laos the traditional skirt or sarong is called a sinh.
Weaves in Southeast AsiaTenun: Indonesian, Malaysian, Myanmar
Indonesia also has a weave called Tenun. Tenun from Bali, Geringsing, is usually red, black and yellow with geometric motifs. It is a deeply sacred garment that takes time to make due to the prayers and rituals that are said over the geringsing as it is made. Said to protect its wearer, it is always worn during rituals and ceremonies.
Another tenun is songket, which is also found in Malaysia and Brunei. The songket is a skirt and sash that uses gold threads to embellish the already colorful and intricate weave and its elegance is reserved for special occasions such as weddings. It is considered a luxury garment and very expensive; it is often passed down and given as dowries.
Piña is an intricate and innovative textile found in Aklan, Philippines which uses pineapple fibers to make an eco-friendly and sustainable filament that could be used to create garments like the national dress, Barong Tagalog or adorned in Filipino embroidery called calado, which adds texture to the barong embellishments. This traditional technique is now being used to make vegan leather and footwear.
Silkworms are essential in making the golden threads that adorn the beautiful garments and ceremonial clothes in Cambodia. They feed them mulberry leaves native to Cambodia. Craftspeople of Laos have used these silks for over 1000 years to make their phra sarongs and sinhs.
Risk of Becoming a Lost Art
Tragically in Cambodia, war has played a major part in erasing Khmer Ikat. The Khmer Rouge destroyed a large portion of the ikat industry because the decorative fabrics were seen to give off elite status. The mulberry trees that provided silkworms with food were burned down to make room for rice paddies. Artisans were terrified to craft their weaves again and many of the designs passed on from generations ago ended abruptly.
Today, local artisans are competing with mass produced weaves and batiks and they struggle to keep up in an unstable economy. Global warming makes the raw materials harder to obtain. Because of the dwindling market, the next generation of would-be artisans are taking on better paying jobs to cater to their modern needs. Authentic textiles can take weeks to complete and there is simply not enough cash flow between sales, making handmade wares a difficult craft to keep producing. Oftentimes, some of the more skilled weavers are forced to take on simpler designs in order to sell to tourists looking for inexpensive souvenirs.
Making a Sustainable Comeback
At Tuk Tuk Box we love learning how descendents, many first and second generation makers are working hard to preserve our traditional craftsmanship. Hope clings on as interest in sourcing traceable textiles takes priority for the sake of sustainability. This new mindset revives the craft not in the pursuit of money, but to honor culture and tradition. Workshops are popping up to teach the younger generation age-old processes from drawing and dyeing batik to weaving and embroidering. As traditionalists race against time to pass on the craft, innovation and ingenuity inspires others to repackage our art with a funktastic twist.
Here are a few Southeast Asian-owned brands that we love that are repurposing textile and showcasing what their heritage means to them:
Rajana Threads Khmer inspired wear ethically handmade one of a kind pieces preserving legacies and ancient traditional crafts paving the way for contemporary Khmer-American fashion.
Passa Paa pushes for an eco conscious and sustainable way to preserve Hmong batik by using the timeless technique to create modern clothing, bags and even masks. To operate sustainably, they employ local Lao artisans for their skills and look to local farmers for raw materials.
Malaysian creatives at NovakBatik conceived diy batik painting kits that lets you design your own contemporary batik design!
Here’s where it gets really exciting: what happens when you combine both beloved Southeast Asian exports?
Gulung LA asked exactly that when the Indonesian-run, LA based business rolled out [literally!] their swiss roll cakes with traditional batik designs baked right onto them! Aptly described as “food art,” Gulung LA’s mission is to introduce intricate batik designs and enjoy them in a new way- batik designs before being limited as a feast for the eyes, Gulung LA has developed it to take center stage at a literal feast! “Batik may be ancient, but it is also ever evolving.”- Gulung LA. We definitely agree!
Oodaalolly Chocolate is a Filipino-owned and US-based small batch fine chocolate company utilizing Swiss techniques to harness Filipino cacao. Owner and master chocolatier, Hernan Lauber infuses Filipino culture into every bar by exclusively using Filipino cacao and collaborating with other Filipino brands to develop its flavor- or story. The chocolates are neatly packaged in beautiful wrapping with Filipino textiles printed on them. When you unwrap the bar, an extra element of surprise and elegance peeks underneath- even the chocolate itself has been molded into a beautiful traditional Filipino weaving pattern. They’ve used the geometric patterns of squares and rectangles of Binakol and the bold diamond shapes found in Mandaya. As if chocolate wasn’t an exciting enough medium to get people into learning more about Filipino culture, Hernan added a free kids activity book written in both English and Tagalog. Truly, the most delicious way to appreciate our textiles!
Support SEA Textiles
Each of us can play a small role in preserving and sharing these arts by simply listening to their stories. You can learn more about and support local artisans by checking out the links below.
- Ock Pop Tock values women artisans and collaborate with communities to preserve the textile traditions of Laos.
- Cut From The Culture reclaims Hmong culture by creating contemporary pieces inspired by Hmong paj ntaub ("embroidery")
- Oy Lao Store is a family owned Lao fabric store in Fresno, California featuring ethically sourced Lao clothing and accessories.
- Jungle Vine Foundation works with indigenous Khmu artisans in Laos to promote, market, and sell their JungleVine® handicrafts all over the world.
- Batik Kudus preserves the local wisdom of Kudus batik by offering workshops to teach students
- Sukkhacita makes batik and commits to investing in women in order to overcome poverty and reverse climate change.
- IKTT works collaboratively with individuals and organizations worldwide to promote and educate on sustainable long-term social, environmental and economic growth in Cambodia.
- Sabaidee Buatique is a Lao-owned slow fashion lifestyle brand with a focus on promoting traditional handicrafts through contemporary wear.
We hope that you can understand the importance of keeping our traditions alive, not just in the fabric of our clothing, but of our people. Knowing where the textiles originate and also paying fair market price ensures that Southeast Asian artists can continue to develop and pass on the knowledge for generations to come.
In stoking these resilient fires, Tuk Tuk Box believes in the hope that we may get to see ourselves in our weaves for generations to come.