Antique Indonesian textiles (tie-dyed Lawon and Pelangi

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Creating patterns on cloth by tie-dying is one of the oldest and most basic of the textile arts. Tie-dying has been used in many islands of the archipelago: Sumatra, Java, Bali, Sulawesi and parts of Kalimantan on a range of textiles, from coarse cottons to fine Chinese Shantung silk.

This technique of resist-dying by binding individual areas of cloth to shield them from the dye is usually known in Indonesia as pelangi (also plangi) meaning rainbow; or tritik meaning drips of water.

The processes involved in tie-dying are basically the same today as they were in antiquity, with the important exception of the introduction of chemical dyes in the late nineteenth century. It is almost certain that the tie-dying art was brought to Indonesia, particularly Sumatra through trade with India. The earliest reference to tie-dye in India dates back to the 6-7th century depiction on the wall paintings of the Ajanta caves.

Here women are shown wearing bodices of simple dotted patterns. The potential range of geometric patterning achieved through tie-dye must have appealed to the Islamic people of the Indonesian achipelago, whose own decorated laws preclude the depiction of organic forms. As a result, complex pelangi is particularly developed and popular in coastal Islamic areas.


Pelangi refers to the patterns made by resist-dyed dots. Before the dyeing process can take place, the cloth must be bleached first. Then according to the complexity of the pattern to be dyed, a variety of methods are used to mark the design on the cloth. To achieve symmetry and save time, fine cloth is folded into two, four and as many as eight times. The pattern is marked out by nails. The cloth is dampened and then pressed on the nails.

The method used now a days is for the designer to draw or block print the design on the cloth. The tier then has to pinch a series of dots along the line, often using a specially long implement that slips over the finger of the left hand. The pinched dots are individually bound tightly with a continuous thread to ensure no seepage of dye. The cotton binding keeps the dye from reaching that part of the cloth, so that when it is removed a small white circle is revealed. Within this simple method, many variations are possible.

The tip of the cloth maybe left unbound to give a colored center to the circle. The cloth may be dyed before tying, thus giving a wider variety of colored dots. Bits of padding may be inserted into the circle before tying to create a variety of shapes resembling lozenges, cowry shells and squares.

After the tying is complete, the dying process has to be carefully planned. It must start with the lightest color first, usually yellow. The cloth is immersed in a dye bath and then dried. It is then returned to the tier for ties to be made on the dots which are to remain yellow. At this stage, individual dots can be applied in other colors which are then concealed by tying. The cloth is then dyed in deeper shades, notably, green, red or purple. Sometimes, larger tied patterns and highlights may be dabbed with a color-soaked pad by hand. Dyes can also be discharged or eliminated by immersing in a solution of caustic soda ash.

It takes several days to complete a complex silk pelangi.


In Indonesia the pelangi technique is often combined with tritik. With tritik, the resist is stitched into the cloth, usually using strong pineapple thread that will not break when pulled tight, or these days, plastic, to gather the cloth. Tritik patterns are typically linear, the cloth is compressed along the line of stitching thus forming a resist and preventing the dye from seeping in.

As the name suggest, tritik resembles small droplets of water running around a single line. Borders of many pelangi slendangs or shoulder wraps are decorated in this way.

A less common method of dying borders was brought to Indonesia from South India. This involves folding the area not to be dyed and clamping it firmly between two boards, then dipping the border into the dye bath. Some earlier Lawon textiles of Sumatra may have employed a combination of tritik and this method of decoration.


Perhaps the most well know of the tie-dyed Sumatra cloths are the pelangi slendangs of Palembang. The Palembang pelangis are repositories of Indonesian trade history. Palembang, both on the trade route to India and China was a truly cosmopolitan teeming coastal city. Many languages were spoken here and all kinds of foreign textiles found their way into this city. Palembang pelangi is a good example of how Indonesians adapted foreign influences to satisfy their own aesthetic parameters.

The slendangs are formed by a combination of tie-dying and resist stitching imported Chinese Shantung silk. The patterns echo the intricate Kashmiri buttas patterns and other complex geometrical designs. Stars, ambis or the Indian paisley, squares, flame or tumpals and mithai or lozenges dominate the decorative elements of Palembang pelangi.

The colors predominantly tend to be darker hues of purple, reds, yellow and blues. Indigo, madder, imported Cochineal barnacle and a keen knowledge of mordants allowed the Sumatrans to make their cloths colorfast.

Another cloth of significance to emerge from Sumatra is the tricolored lawon. Also a shoulder wrap, the lawon typically consists of two or three very simple color fields achieved through a process of tritik and tie-dyeing. The largest color field maybe bound up with banana leaf. The color fields are then separated by a simple line of dotted tritik in the base color off white. The cloths occur mainly in reds and contrasting green on fine silk, echoing the Gajji silk women's head covers from Gujerat.

Tie-dyed fabrics have no individual spiritual significance as do some other ikat textiles found in Indonesia. But as a group, the pelangi or rainbow, represents a link between heaven and earth. As for the lawons, they too are associated with heaven, earth and water, the standard aesthetic parameters for any society.


In contrast to the complex and refined patterns of Sumatra, the tie-dye of Java and Bali tends to be simpler, more primitive and dramatic. Achieved on all kinds of cloths, from the coarsest tabby weave cotton to strong imported silk, the patterns favor linearity, either zigzags or lozenges placed in linear formations.

Traditional tie-dye in both Java and Bali is a lost art. The ceremonial dodots or oversized royal skirts from the Javanese courts are rare collectibles. These textiles recall the leheriyas or wave pattern turbans of India, decorated either with diagonal dots or zigzags in simple two tones.

The breast covers of kembens of central and East Java are often decorated with a combination of pelangi, tritik and batik design. These cloths have a solid diamond shaped central field with the pattern occurring on the edges.

It is almost certain that the Balinese pelangi derived from the Javanese cloths of antiquity. The Balinese cloths still display vestiges of their heritage, most particularly in their patterns and colors.

The Balinese cloths are possibly most dramatic of all pelangi. The lozenge and square shapes are achieved by inserting the appropriate size and shape of padding into the tied pinched cloth. Often the lozenges and squares are further decorated with bands of color achieved by hand dabbing each motif individually. The patterns are formed along the width of the cloth in broad bands.

Balinese pelangi tends to be much softer than that of Java and Sumatra. The colors almost always contrast and can be found in broad zigzags bands with a few scattered motifs in between. The colors are very varied, ranging from oranges, turmeric yellows, pistachio greens, lights blues and even pinks.

Once again the function of these textiles seems to be purely decorative.