Gavin, Traude: The women's warpath

GAVIN, Traude (1996). The Women’s Warpath: Iban Ritual Fabrics from Borneo, Los Angeles: UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History. ISBN 978-0930741501, hardback, 100 pp., fully illustrated in colour and b/w photographs, bibliography, short glossary. Price: US$ 20.00.

For generations men in Iban society in Borneo gained status by headhunting, while women gained status, and still do, by weaving. Weaving, and especially the ritually dangerous ceremony involved in applying mordants before dyeing thread with morinda (the root of the Morinda citrifolia tree), is referred to as kayau indu or the ‘warpath of women'. This book looks especially at the patterns found in pua cloth (textiles used as blankets or coverings) and in women’s skirts. These textiles, often ikat, are of hand spun cotton in natural dyes (red, black and beige) and completely covered in intricate abstract designs.

The author, who conducted several years fieldwork and numerous interviews with Iban weavers, places the importance of such textiles in context. She convincingly argues that the supposed anthropomorphic figures on many pua textiles is a misreading by Western collectors and anthropologists.

Most interestingly, some 75 textiles from the 19th and 20th centuries are illustrated in full colour photographs and described. These textiles formed the basis of an exhibition by the UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History on pua cloth. The difficulties of dating and provenance are also described. Maps clearly show the land areas of the Iban, and there are black and white photographs that show some stages of ikat dyeing and weaving.

Recommendation: This book will interest collectors and curators of Southeast Asian textiles and anyone interested in the social and religious uses of textiles.

Shelley Anderson



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