Rejecting Misfortune with Gringsing
Beyond the simple colours of Balinese weavings
by Murni Ridha, translated by Stanley Widianto
“Murni, do you know about the double ikat fabrics from Bali?” Ibu Mia, my former boss, asked one day as we were relaxing after work.
I shrugged. I had never heard of double ikat fabric before. Now curious, I learned that most woven textiles — known as kain in Indonesia — are usually woven with a single thread in the weaving process. The double-ikat technique, on the other hand, involves tying the lungsi and pakan threads simultaneously.
“There are only three places that make double ikat in the whole world, and one of them is in Bali,” said Ibu Mia emphatically, as if ordering me to look into it right then and there. So I did: apart from Indonesia, the two other places to find double ikat are in India and Japan.
Now I was a little embarrassed, because Ibu Mia is a Belgian who knows more about Indonesian things than I do. I decided that on my next trip to Bali I would see this weaving for myself.
The Origins of Gringsing
Desa Tenganan Dauh Tukad is located on the west side of Bali in the Karangasem regency. The village pales in comparison to Desa Tenganan, which is more of a tourist destination, but Ibu Mia had specifically directed me here because of its lack of tourists. Bli Wayan, my guide around the village, said that most people were out farming or otherwise staying in their homes. It’s hot out here, he said. Better stay indoors.
Bli Wayan (Bli being a sign of respect in Bali, like Mas in Java) told me a story about the people who live here. The Bali Aga are part of the traditional community that originated in Bali and mostly live in the mountains.
“Bli,” I said, “I want to see the double ikat fabrics!”
“Oh, the gringsing fabric? You know about it?” Bli Wayan said, sporting a wide smile. “Come on!”
Enthusiastically, Bli Wayan invited me to his home and asked me to sit down on the porch. He disappeared behind the door. Not long after, his wife came out and prepared her weaving tools.
The Double-Ikat Technique
Bli Wayan’s wife sat down and prepared the back strap that connects to the weaving loom and keeps the fabric in place throughout the weaving process. Within the loom I saw the beginnings of a brick-colored scarf with a black-and-yellow motif. My first impression was that the fabric wasn’t anything special, just a simple pattern using old-fashioned colors.
I sat down next to Bli Wayan’s wife to watch her weave. It took her a long time to arrange the threads before banging hard at the tool to compact the threads together. Behind its simple colour and motif lies a lot of complicated effort. When weaving a regular piece of fabric using a single thread, the pattern is usually only visible on one side. However with the double-ikat technique the weaver must ensure the warp and weft of both threads align, so that the gringsing motif appears on both sides of the fabric.
The colours of the gringsing fabric were unique. For instance, the dark bluish indigo colour was achieved by fermenting the tarum leaves, and the brownish red colour was made from the roots of the noni plant. Both dyes are made in two different villages.
“All of the threads are dyed organically. But only the elders want to do it nowadays, because it can get pretty smelly and wormy,” Bli Wayan said in a disappointed tone of voice.
I felt goosebumps when Bli Wayan said “wormy.” If nobody wants to take on this task, then why would they still use organic dyeing methods?
“Only by using the organic methods can we reject misfortune,” he said.
The word gringsing stems from local words: gring means ‘ill’ and sing means ‘well’. So the thread is believed to reject sickness and misfortunes.
Not long after this explanation, Bli Wayan got to his feet and went inside his home. I was left on the porch with his wife, who was still weaving and carefully watching the pattern to catch any mistakes.
“Bat bones,” she explained when I picked up a tool that looked like a bear’s fingernail and asked about it. “You can only use a bat’s bones,” she continued. “Other bones easily break.” I placed the bone into her hands. Later, I watched her use it to detangle threads and arrange them on the weaving. I was awestruck by her meticulousness as she straightened the threads into a neat line.
For Bali Aga locals, gringsing contains personal significance that continues across the life cycle, from birth until death. Gringsing weavings include a sacred motif that is relevant to its origins. The gringsing comes in various motifs, sizes and functions. The most familiar motifs are the kawung and belah ketupat geometrical patterns. The sizes, too, can also be adjusted to suit its purpose: as a shawl, headband (udeng), or decorations for the home, temple, or other sacred spots in local rituals.
Bli Wayan came back out of the house carrying a photo album. He leafed through the pages. I was confused, trying to guess what he wanted to show me. Bli Wayan stopped on a page that had a photo of a teenage girl wearing gringsing wrapped across her chest. The fabric matched the brightly-coloured wrap she wore around her waist. Her face was also beautifully made up, complemented by the jewellery around her neck and in her hair. The golden colour perfectly contrasted with the gringsing fabric.
“The fabric is used by the Bali Aga people when they reach puberty, and it has to be worn in traditional rites for the rest of their lives. This one fabric will be theirs forever,” Bli Wayan said.
Bli Wayan also said that the weaving process involves many complicated rituals and prayers to ensure the final fabric will ‘reject misfortune’. This process starts from collecting cotton, spinning the cotton into threads, and then dyeing them for use in weaving the fabric. Bli Wayan, who also works as a farmer, mentioned that many fabrics are produced without the additional prayers, and these are intended for sale to tourists.
Before returning the photo album to Bli Wayan, I looked through the photos one more time. Some of them contain groups of teenage women in the photos, looking shyly embarrassed and wearing gringsing fabrics. All of them were beautiful despite — or because of — the dizzying number of colours in their outfits. To me, the fabrics were interesting not because the Bali Aga people use them to celebrate the transition from adolescence to adulthood. Instead, their beauty came from the weaving of threads that are made from the prayers of ancestors and then passed on for future generations.
Given the complicated weaving process results in an expensive end price (a small shawl costs around US$25), I thought about the clothing I wore when I reached puberty. What was I wearing, and did I celebrate it as I should have? I tried and failed to find that memory.
In the hour that I sat on Bli Wayan’s porch, his wife only managed to add five rows of weaving to the fabric. The single, small shawl will be completed in a month — quicker than usual, because it’s intended to be sold to tourists, so it’s woven without the time-consuming rituals and prayers. I grimaced at the thought of buying a fabric that was so hard to make, knowing that I wouldn’t wear it often. Nonetheless, I was happy to discover something to add to the list of Indonesian traditional fabrics, one with a high degree of difficulty and contributing to the beauty of Indonesian culture.
I said goodbye to Bli Wayan’s wife and continued with my tour around Desa Tenganan Dauh Tukad. As I listened to Bli Wayan’s ritual stories, I gave a silent prayer that one day I would return and learn more about this village wrapped in gringsing fabric.
Murni Ridha is a digital content enthusiast and one half of Indohoy.com. Since beginning as a travel blogger in 2009 she has worked in the tourism and digital content industries with Wego and IWasHere, and is now currently working as a freelancer. Blogging has enriched her life and given her a different perspective on countries, including how she sees her own country, Indonesia. She has a soft spot for clothes, especially after traveling Indonesia and seeing the diverse techniques and patterns and the love that people have for their kain.