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Batak Fabric
Multi-colored, traditional sheets

The woven fabrics (ulos among the Toba, uis among the Karo) can't be missed from the traditional Batak community. Earlier they formed the daily dressing. Nowadays they are given as a present at special occasions, to strengthen the relationships between relatives.

The need to exchange ulos at weddings, births and funerals is the most important reason for producing them. Besides that they are also worn as towl or scarf by women.
Picture: A Toba weaver
In many areas, the fabrics are not made by the population itself. Their job is taken by the textile factories in the bigger cities like Pematang Sianter and Balige. The remaining traditional centra of weavery are mainly located in the Toba area, where the soil is relatively poor. The population mainly lives from rice production, and the women try to make some extra money with weaving.

Weaving as profession

In several areas, weaving for selling has become the profession of many women. They weave on order for traders from the city (also women). This commercial weaving is still being professed in the area north of Danau Toba, the sitelu huta (three villages): Tongging, Paropo and Silalahi. Early in the morning they leave for the markets around Danau Toba, to go back home late in the evening.

However the women from the sitelu huta are Toba Batak themselves, they don't originally produce traditional Toba fabrics. Instead they have been weaving for the Karo Batak in the north for centuries, which - due to the fertile soil and export products like fruits and vegetables - could spend more money on uis and jewelry than the Toba.

To be assured that the right traditional patterns were made by the otherw, the Kato women painted thair stuff themselves, and also got it on transport to sitelu huta for further production. This is still being done. Besides these Karo fabrics there are also other fabrics to be made nowadays: modern creations with synthetical paints as well as the traditional Toba fabrics are still made for the tourist industry. These are sold in souvenis shops in Prapat and in Tomok and surroundings on Samosir.

Because of the flourishing trade with the karo, many Toba weavers moved from sitelu huta to the Karo area to be closer to their buyers. In the 1920's, when Kabanjahe still was a wealthy small village, the village head reserved a part of the village for the weavers. When the village developed into a centre of trade, more people flocked to the city, and nowadays there is an entire quarter especially for the weavers from the Toba.

Weavers order their yarns with the local painters. These painters grow indigo in their own yards, but this is not always enough for the total production. Once a week more indigo stock is brought to the area from one of the three Toba villages, they trade it with their painted yarns. In this way the relation with the area is kept.

The motives that are being made for the Karo are dependent on their orders, but also on the personal preferences of the weaver. Some elderly weavers refuse to work with synthetically painted yarns. On the whole, the Toba weavers in Kabanjahe are older then their colleagues from their earlier habitat around the lake and they produce more traditional patterns. This is encouraged by the costumers, because the need in the Karo region is still conventional.

For many head- and shawls a dark-red non traditional color is used, it's from the Simalungun-area. This red color has been populair among the Karo; youngerst often don't even know that their traditional fabrics were only painted with blue indigo.

The Toba women in Kabanjahe also weave their own, traditional motives from the sitelu huta villages. A part of that is sold, another part is reserved for own use to be devided among their family after their death. The traditional handycrafts is nowadays embattled by industrial products which look the same, but are cheaper and thinner, and painted with synthetical paint.

Too bad these fabrics are so populair that the younger generation doesn't buy much else. There is an ever increasing demand for industrially made fabrics with traditonal Karo motives, where gold- and silver threat is uses, instead of the traditional colors.

Last revised on December 17, 2011
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