My two presentations at last month’s World Textile Day were something of a sensation. During the first talk there was an unfortunate medical emergency requiring an ambulance, and in the second the projector plug dislodged and the screen went blank, just as I started waving my arms in excitement over an image of Imperial Purple. That’ll teach me.
I had been invited to talk about inspiration, and how I started to work with textiles after a graphic design training and several years in industry. I directly attribute my career change to travels in India, Indonesia and Australia in the 1980s where I observed unfamiliar textiles being created, used or worn. For the first time I properly understood how textiles can hold significance and meaning and became absorbed in the ways that dye can be controlled. I bought many examples of cloths and textiles on my travels which I displayed at the World Textiles Day talk, and amongst them were samples of Balinese polèng cloth. Of all the cloths I came across, polèng is the one that most changed my way of thinking.
Polèng is not technically complex. It’s formed of equal strips of warp and weft in black and white set up to intersect and create black, white and grey squares. In the West we often see similar, coloured checked cloth used for tablecloths, children’s dresses, casual shirts and curtains. We call it gingham. It has a homely feel to my eyes, and when on my first trip to Bali in the ’80s I noticed it draped around trees, shrines, altars and statues I was puzzled by the meaning and usage of this unmissable cloth.
Next to where I stayed in Ubud was the home of a remarkable Italian dancer called Cristina Formaggia. Cristina was a most extraordinary woman (she died, too young, in 2008) and I include several links about her below. She had lived on the island for some years and through her kindness friendship and humour I learned much about Balinese life, belief, ritual and dance. Her insights and knowledge were offered from a dual perspective as both Westerner and deeply-embedded student of Balinese tradition. Only when planning the Word Textiles Day talk did I realise how much I owed to her, which included an explanation of polèng.
If you seek an academic explanation of polèng, please stop here as I can’t give you one. My simplified version is that for everything, there is an opposite. For good, there is evil. For sickness, there is health. For heat there is cold, and so on: no element exists without its opposite and through its opposite each element acquires its meaning and purpose. So it is with the equal black and white squares, and with spiritual awareness comes the grey, the point at which elements blend and stand in balance. The need to maintain these opposite elements in balance seemed to me to be what polèng symbolises, and what every Balinese knows as elemental when they see the cloth.
‘..polèng is an expression of the community of existence: being in its totality, which is made up of black and white, in the world of both the visible and the invisible.’
Brigitta Hauser- Schäublin, quoted from the book linked below
Cristina Formaggia links
Book: Chapter seven focuses on polèng cloth:
Balinese Textiles; Brigitta Hauser-Schäublin, Marie-Louise Nabholz-Kartaschoff, Urs Ramseyer, British Museum Press, 1991