'It is in this kingdom where men and women are only dressed in paper, and because this isn't durable, the women are always working on it. It is made from the bark of a little tree we have seen here. They flatten it with a strangely shaped stone and make it as fine as they want. They paint it in all kinds of colors. A big part of it is brought to Manila and Macau, where I have seen bed-sheets made from it; it's the best you can get when the weather is cold. When it rains, the people undress to protect their clothes from falling apart.'
This is what the Spanish monk Domingo Navarette wrote during his visit to the Palu Valley in 1657. At the start of the 20th century, when Dutch colonial servants, Europeans pioneers and Western missionaries entered the dense rainforests of Central Sulawesi, they saw that the local population was still wearing the same kind of clothes. These mainly nomadic farmers and hunters had never came into contact with the technique of weaving and had little contact with other populations. However some groups had fabrics, imported from India, Europe or South Sulawesi, they weren't worn, but kept as heirloom.
This kind of clothes was created by taking the inner bark from certain trees (figs and breadfruit mainly) and to cook the bark. After that they are soft enough to be washed and later smashed into one piece. The fabric is pressed for one to two weeks before it's treated with a conservative and dye, extracted from one of the plants which is named ula (which means 'red' in many Austronesian languages). Then the fabric is finished they are processed into blankets or regionally branding clothes.
The traditional daily clothes of men were a simple brown cloth. Adult women wore fine linen skirts in several layers and tunique blouses. Black fabric is created by putting the red-brown product in mud. In some areas, small pieces of mica were added as decoration. Sometimes the clothes were decorated with small items, which were sown on with hemp fibers. Rough fibred, single-colored daily clothing was replaced for better clothing for important events.
For religious festivities a thinner, softer kind of tree bark was used. The fabric was colored with natural dye to create colorful designs for men's hats, sarongs and blouses for women.
However the populations in the inlands of Central Sulawesi aren't commonly known for their arts or technical skills, their 19th century production of tree bark fabric is one of the most refined systems which this area has ever created. Before the 20th century the fabric was exported from Central Sulawesi as cloth, paper and even as painting backgrounds for Balinese calendar paintings.
The period between 1910 and 1940 marked the end of this art. In that time the Dutch government and protestant missionaries started to be present in a more aggressive way in the Central Sulawesi highlands. Contact with foreigners, among them Indonesians from other areas, increased, which was the opportunity for cotton to be introduced and used soon after.
The use of tree bark clothes for daily use was almost gone towards the start of the Second World War, but when prefabricated fabrics from Japan became unavailable all of a sudden, the women returned to their ancestral technique to dress their families. Clothes in western style, made from cotton or polyester, are nowadays common, but in the highlands of Pandere, Kulawi, Pipikoro, Tobaku, Bada and Besoa you can find a tree bark blouse if you are lucky.
Fertility and femininity
In Sulteng (Sulawesi tengah, central Sulawesi) the production of this material is mainly the responsibility of the women, however in some areas the men are sometimes available to cut down big trees, peal the bark or make tools from wood or stone for the women. Only in areas like Napu, Besoa and Bada it was allowed for male transvestite priests to practice the painting of tree bark. Elsewhere all young girls learned how to make and decorate the tree bark fabric from their mothers; it was expected from them that they had finished a complete set of ceremonial clothes on the day they are getting married.
When a Kulawi-bride was six months pregnant, she was given a white tree bark blouse which she had to wear from the seventh month until the baby was born. A Kulawi ceremony which used to be held after the baby was born, shows the relation of the creation of tree bark fabric and fertility and femininity. When the child was born, it's sex was announced in the village to place certain symbolic objects in front of the house. For boys this was a sword, a shield and a copper bell, for girls this was a basket with tools and a pair of bamboo smashers.
The production was surrounded by many taboos. It was forbidden for women to produce tree bark fabrics inside the areas of living or agriculture, in the fear that the spirits would be scared by the smashing or for hitting one of them by accident. No fabrics were allowed to be made after sunset, during harvest, during or shortly after epidemics or during rituals following death of a family member or noble person. Before starting, sacrifices of pinang nuts were put outside to please the ancestors and in the are around Poso the elderly women asked the ancestors not to get angry by the smashing sound, but to be patient for the tree bark fabric to be made for them.
Before the arrival of the missionaries, tree bark was used as an object of spiritual power. In some areas the fields of the community were blessed by the noble descendants by giving each house a strip of tree bark. This was used as talisman in the fields to fend of bad spirits. Still, many of these traditions are used. The cloth is now mainly produced in Christian areas; on Sundays there is no production - of course.