In a world awash in a global trade of industrially produced cottons and synthetic fabrics, it is easy to forget that all of the cloth needed in any community once had to be woven by hand and that much of it was made from bast or leaf fibers. Today even the word bast, which refers to a layer of fibers found in the stems of plants, is unfamiliar to many people.
Bast and leaf fibers are notoriously difficult to process and weave into cloth, yet weavers around the world have learned to capitalize on the materials’ subtle natural beauty and to manipulate complicated and demanding dye procedures to great effect. In Material Choices, see an unusual array of garments and more made of these challenging fibers, explore their significant use in the Pacific, and examine the current state of many bast and leaf fiber weaving traditions that nearly became extinct in the mid-20th century but have now undergone a revival.
In a world awash in a global trade of industrially produced cottons and synthetic fabrics, it is easy to forget that all of the cloth needed in any community once had to be woven by hand and that much of it was made from bast or leaf fibers. Today even the word bast, which refers to a layer of fibers found in the stems of plants, is unfamiliar to many people. ‘Material Choices: Bast and Leaf Fiber Textiles’— on display at the Fowler Museum from Aug. 26–Dec. 30, 2007— features a selection of bast and leaf fiber fabrics used around the world and shows how weavers have overcome the notorious challenges of processing and dyeing these materials to create textiles of subtle, natural beauty and sophisticated design.
‘Material Choices’ opens with an introduction to bast and leaf fibers via an unusual array of objects: elegant coats from Japan made of hemp, wisteria and elm fiber; voluminous and beautifully dyed raffia skirts made by the Kuba peoples of the Democratic Republic of the Congo; and intricately patterned ceremonial cloths made in the Philippines from abaca, a fiber processed from banana plants. Textiles from these areas, as well as from Indonesia, New Zealand, Korea and Taiwan, provide a look at the vast range of objects made from bast and leaf fibers, while two complete looms demonstrate the ingenious ways in which these fibers have been worked.
Fiber Use in the Pacific
The exhibition next focuses on the Pacific region and considers the relationships between cloth produced on looms and items made with various other techniques including plaiting, twining, and looping. Scholars have long recognized the crucial roles that loom-woven cloth plays in ceremony and society, especially in Southeast Asia, as markers of wealth, heritage, and position. As Austronesian peoples settled the Pacific from Southeast Asia, they carried these ideas with them. Wherever looms are found in the Pacific, they are closely related to Southeast Asian body-tension looms, and they are used exclusively for bast and leaf fibers (primarily hibiscus and banana).
The loom, however, never spread far into the Pacific, and in many parts of Oceania bast or leaf fiber clothing had to be made without this useful piece of equipment. Some striking examples on display include a cloak and skirt twined by hand by Maori women from fibers of the New Zealand flax plant and a hand-plaited pandanus leaf mat from Samoa, so delicate that it can be worn as a garment. Two so-called “grass” skirts, one from the Trobriand Islands and another from Tuvalu, actually prove to be complex assemblages involving diverse plant materials, but no grass! A complete suit of armor made of coconut fiber from Kiribati and a life-sized crocodile figure constructed entirely of looped bast fiber from the Sepik River in New Guinea demonstrate the impressive sculptural possibilities of these non-loom technologies.
Revival on the Brink of Extinction
Over the course of the twentieth century, hand weaving ceased to be an economically significant activity in most parts of the world due primarily to the industrialization of textile production, the invention of man-made fibers, and the advent of global cloth trade on a massive scale. Even where handlooms continued to operate, weavers typically abandoned bast and leaf fibers produced from local fields and forests in favor of industrially produced cotton or synthetic yarns. By the 1970s, it seemed that the last remaining traditions of bast or leaf fiber hand weaving would be doomed to history.
It is rather remarkable, then, that the first decade of the twenty-first century has found hand-weaving of bast and leaf fibers not only surviving in some communities, but in some cases even thriving under newly globalized conditions. The last section of ‘Material Choices’ examines the current state of traditions in Japan’s famed “snow country” and the Ryukyu Islands, the Philippines, Vietnam, Borneo, and Micronesia that nearly became extinct in the mid-20th century but have now undergone a revival.
The exhibition is punctuated by a selection of rare botanical prints and books on loan from UCLA’s Louise M. Darling Biomedical Library and UC Berkeley’s Bancroft Library, which provide visitors with a look at the source of these fibers through beautiful drawings of hemp, banana, flax, pandanus, pineapple, paper mulberry, and lemba. Field photographs of weavers, and of their products in use, offer more context for understanding bast and leaf fiber uses.
Made possible through the support of the Getty Foundation, R. L. Shep Endowment Fund, UC Pacific Rim Research Program, Asian Cultural Council, Fowler Museum Textile Council, and Manus, the support group of the Fowler Museum.