Dili Tais Market is an unprepossessing place – just two narrow alleys of tin-roofed shacks. But once you step off the hot, dusty street and into its secret, shady lanes, you arrive into a world of colour and creativity.
Tais are the traditional woven cloth from East Timor, Australia’s closest neighbour and one of the world’s newest democracies. Solely made by women, tais are traditionally used for birth, marriage and funeral ceremonies, either worn as clothing or used as units of exchange.
Under the 24-year Indonesian occupation, tais weaving was a rare opportunity for Timorese self-expression and creativity. Now, as East Timor tentatively makes its way as an independent nation, tais are helping to keep Timorese culture alive and improving the economic prospects of women.
Designers and weavers are working with development organisations such as the East Timor Women’s Association (ETWA) and the Alola Foundation to make everything from handbags to rosary beads to cushion covers.
Unusually for East Timor, a deeply patriarchal country where men usually outnumber women in public places, the Tais Market is an almost exclusively female zone and all the more refreshing for it. You can amble between the tightly packed stalls, admiring the merchandise and exchanging pleasantries with the weavers, without the usual entreaties to buy that you might find elsewhere in South-East Asia.
The weavers are a skilful and talented bunch.
I meet Bela, who, with a great deal of sign language, the odd English word and a lot of rapid fire Tetum which leaves me scratching my head, helps me fill in the blanks about how tais are made.
Bela tells me there are three types of tais.
Tais’mane’ are worn by men and consist of a cloth which is wrapped around the waist. Tais ‘feto’ are worn by women; a tais fashioned into a tube which is worn as a strapless dress. ‘Selendang’ is a neck cloth worn as a scarf and often given in ceremonies.
Making a single tais can take anything from a day to a year, depending on the intricacy of the design. Techniques are passed from generation to generation, with women relying on their memories and the knowledge of other women in their community, to learn how to weave. Or, as Bela says, “no writing!”
Tais are woven from raw cotton, known as ‘kabas’, which is hand spun into threads before dyeing.
The arresting colours used are thanks to the resourcefulness of the weavers who use a mind-boggling array of materials – anything from ash, roots, soil, mango skin, potato leaf, cactus flowers and turmeric – to create a spectrum of colours. Colours may vary from district to district but many tais incorporate red – an important colour for the Timorese as it symbolises strength, courage and lasting life.
The sets of threads that will be used are plunged into boiling dye several times, depending on the number of colours to be combined, in a process is known as ‘futus’. The two sets of threads, warp (vertical) and weft (horizontal) are then interlaced to create the cloth. The warp threads are transferred to the loom and the weaving process begins.
Tais feature distinctive geometric patterns, known as ‘kaif’. These patterns might feature images such as crocodiles, the ancestral animal of Timor, and, like the colours, can vary from region to region.
Kaif are made by the warp float technique in which weavers group and lift specific warp threads to embellish the design. This is done using slender sticks which move along the cloth, with the end result looking a little like embroidery.
As the most oil-dependent nation in the world, 90 per cent of East Timor’s budget relies on oil and gas revenues which, as the Dili-based human rights organisation La’o Hamutuk (Walking Together), warns, are expected to run out in 10 years.
Many observers say the country must now begin to develop its economy beyond this – exporting coffee, tapping into tourism, building on its cultural capital which, in addition to the fair-trade handicrafts movement, includes respected artist collectives such as Arte Moris.
ETWA think that developing traditional crafts is “fundamental to sustainability”.
Describing weavers as the “cultural guardians of this complex, difficult and fascinating art form”, ETWA say it is essential that “new and emerging economic development processes make room for women’s traditions and respect their capacities as artisans.”
Kirsty Sword-Gusmão, the elegant Australian-born wife of East Timor’s Prime Minister, Xanana Gusmão, and founder of the Alola Foundation, is often photographed wearing tais, skilfully incorporated into western-style clothes.
Could tais, like the keffiyeh which turned from symbol of Palestinian liberation to activist chic to high-street staple a few years ago, have their own fashion moment soon?
Only time – and support for the nascent fair-trade movement – will tell. In the meantime, Bela and her friends will continue to make their tais, just as their mothers and grandmothers did, so many years before.