Meet a Designer Whose Love of Fabrics Launched Him on a 10-Year-Journey

Fashion designer Merdi Sihombing used his vast knowledge of Indonesia’s ethnic textiles to create a collection in which tradition meets modernity. (Photos courtesy of Merdi Sihombing)

By : Sylviana Hamdani | on 3:36 PM September 08, 2014
Category : Life & Style, Fashion & Beauty

One can easily get lost when listening to fashion designer and tenun expert, Merdi Sihombing. 

When talking about the Indonesian handwoven textiles, the designer eloquently jumps from one island to another, mesmerizing the audience with his immense knowledge and expertise on the subject — which he had developed the hard way.

The father of two ventured into the jungles of Java, Sumatra, Kalimantan, East Nusa Tenggara and Papua to live with each island’s indigenous people for months, immersing himself in their ways of life. For the past decade, Merdi has been researching the archipelago’s traditional handmade textiles and coming up new, innovative ways to promote them.

The creative knowledge he has accumulated is an invaluable treasure to a nation proud of its uniquely diverse heritage, and the details of which Merdi has thankfully preserved through a book on Indonesia’s traditional textiles.

With the help of Red and White publishing house, “Perjalanan Tenun” (“Journey of Handwoven Fabrics”) recently celebrated its launch in Jakarta.

“I think he’s a bit insane,” said Red and White founder and director Guntur Santosa. “Merdi’s mind is always busy with new creative ideas. He’s definitely a great national asset that should serve as an example to the young people in this country.”

The first edition of “Perjalanan Tenun,” which is written in Indonesian, will see 1,500 copies grace the shelves of bookstores all over the country. 

The elegant hardback chronicles Merdi’s 10-year journey of discovery, as he traveled the archipelago in search of various tenun fabrics and fused their designs into modern fashion.

The 263-paged book is highlighted with beautiful, glossy photos of the Indonesia’s national attractions, including its traditional houses, as well as natural fibers and dyes used in the making of traditional fabrics.

“That is another unique aspect of the book,” said the publisher. “It doesn’t only promote Indonesian textiles, but also the natural and cultural beauty of the islands [he visited].”

Recognizing the importance of placing credit where it’s due, Merdi also included pictures of each island’s traditional weavers creating their intricate designs.

“I dedicate my book to the weavers, who have inspired me a lot to do what I’m doing now,” said the fashion designer.

The launching even featured both a fashion show and an interview with Merdi, in which the textile artist described his long and arduous efforts in bringing tenun to the modern stage of Indonesian fashion.

Revitalizing ethnic fabrics

“We shouldn’t only promote [Indonesia’s various] cultures, but also develop them according to today’s needs and demands,” said Merdi, who studied fashion and textile design at Bunka School of Fashion, Esmod and Jakarta Arts Institute (IKJ).

As a fashion designer of North Sumatran descent, Merdi began his work by revitalizing the area’s traditional handwoven fabric, Ulos, which literally translates to “Blanket” in the Batak language.

“But Ulos does more than just warm up our bodies,” said the designer. “Ulos warms the soul and keeps the [Batak] people together.”

Traditionally, Ulos accompanies the various life transitions of the Batak people. Elders present the cloth to a child at its birth, to a newly-wed couple at their wedding and during a time of mourning at the death of a parent or spouse; Ulos is essentially a symbol of love, care and protection.

In recent years, however, the millennial generation of Bataks usually dons Ulos only during traditional ceremonies. As a result, more and more traditional weavers are abandoning the art of crafting the fabric.

Seeing this, Merdi struck a collaborative effort with weavers in the villages of Samosir, Tobasa and Pematang Siantar to produce Ulos made of silk.

Traditionally, Ulos is made of coarse cotton threads, making the textile rather thick and rough.

“Made of silk, Ulos would be softer and more beautiful; it could be made into dresses and blouses,” said Merdi.

In 2003, the designer took with him senior Indonesian photographer, Don Hasman, on an expedition of the jungles of Banten, West Java, where they lived among the indigenous people of Baduy Dalam and learned about Tenun Suat, the area’s traditional handwoven fabric.

Merdi revolutionized the textile, which is characterized by its grid-like texture, by encouraging the weavers to use softer linen threads instead of the usual coarse cotton for their work.

The designer then turned the results into vests, blazers and jackets embellished with discreet floral embroideries, all of which were featured in the runway show of his book launch.

Ethical fashion

In 2008, Merdi was assigned by the National Handicrafts Council of Jambi to revive the extinct Songket Bungo, which was originally crafted by the indigenous people of Suku Melayu Batin.

“Their songket is completely gone now,” said Merdi. “So, I visited the old, traditional houses [of the area], copied the ethnic ornaments and decorations inside and used their designs in newly made, handwoven fabrics.”

Merdi’s take on Songket Bungo boasts beautiful floral and geometric designs, which he showcased in his latest collection of chic blouses, skirts and dresses with elaborate ruffles and draperies.

“We didn’t cut any of the handwoven fabrics for this collection,” said the designer, who is also a board member of Wastaprema [a group of traditional textile enthusiasts]. “It’s ethical fashion. We treat handmade textiles with respect.”

For his Songket Bungo collection, Merdi made sure every inch of a piece of textile was used in creating an item, whether it be a blouse, skirt or dress. 

“None of the tenun was wasted,” he said. “None of the sacred traditional motifs were cut off.”

These ethnic-inspired textiles were then made into fashion items with elaborate draping techniques that keep the entire handwoven fabric, as well as their motifs.

“And anyone ever gets bored with their [tenun] dresses, they can just return them to me and I will have them altered into new pieces,” said Merdi. 

Eco fashion

In 2013, the multi-talented designer went to Alor, East Nusa Tenggara, to study the province’s handwoven textiles.

Renowned for its pristine beaches and rich marine life, the mini archipelago is making a name for itself with the main island’s ecodiving resorts.

During his trip, Merdi discovered the peculiar method Alor’s traditional weavers used to dye their tenun: by using water that had been used to rinse fishermen’s daily catch of squid and sea cucumbers. Depending on the mix and concentration, the water will generate a rich variety of brilliant colors, such as bright orange, yellow, red, blue and purple.

“I wrote about the technique and presented it during the ‘International Workshop on Natural Dyes’ in Hyderabad, India, earlier this year,” said Merdi. “The international audience was literally dumbfounded by the traditional methods utilized by the people of Alor.”

Early this year, Merdi also collaborated with a local community in Setu Babakan, South Jakarta, to develop household garbage, such as unwanted vegetables, teabags and cigarette butts, into natural dyes. These waste materials generate beautiful beige, terracotta and dark chocolate hues. 

Merdi used the method to color his collection of handwoven tie-dyed dresses, which were also featured in the book launch’s runway show. 

“It’s always interesting to listen to Merdi speak about his discoveries and seeing his creations,” said Pincky Sudarman, vice president of Alun Alun Indonesia, who attended the launching event. “His innovative ideas of utilizing Indonesia’s rich cultural heritage [in fashion] seems endless.”

Merdi’s book, “Perjalanan Tenun,” is now available at major bookstores across Indonesia and is currently in the process of being translated into English. This second edition, of which 1,000 copies will be made available, is scheduled to be published at the end of this year.

“I hope this book can inspire others in exploring the rich and diverse world of  Indonesia’s textiles,” said Merdi.

Minister of tourism and the creative industry Mari Elka Pangestu, who also attended Merdi’s book launch, praised the multitalented designer on his “astounding creativity.”

“I’m very happy that his work has been preserved in his book, so that it can inspire and motivate Indonesia’s future generations. With it, Merdi will help promote Indonesia and our rich ethnic cultures to the whole world,” said Mari.

“Through his work, I believe our heritage will survive for thousands of years.”

The English version of “Perjalanan Tenun” will be featured at the Frankfurt Book Fair 2015 in Germany.

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