A Quick Guide to Dressing Like a Man in Bali

Sarong Series Number 3: Some thoughts on gender, the body, and the universe (and sarongs).

Dressing like a man feels like winging it every time; I am not a man. I don’t have a detailed physical routine around wearing a sarong like a man. I have no reliable physical habits that direct my hands this way and then that, hold here with the left, turn at the waist slightly, pull with the right, wrap, fold, hold, accordion, roll; I have not wrapped my sarong like a man enough times for it to feel natural. My understanding is visual, conceptual, not tactile and physical.

In this series of photographs I am demonstrating how to wrap a sarong like a man. The photographs do not have the same finely detailed, step-by-step character as my Anatomy of Ceremony Clothes description. Maybe this is partly because I don’t have the same granular sensitivity to operations. There are things I’m missing – exactly how much overlap over the belly, how precisely to engineer the folds in the center front.  What are all those subtle hand movements that make it work just right so it looks right and feels right and stays together even while doing men’s work all day, every day.

Hands on hips: angry stance in a Balinese grammar of body-language.

We did the men’s sarong images after the women’s sarong-wrapping instruction (see previous post for more description of the photoshoot). Chris was still directing and he asked me to put my hands on my hips. I did and mentioned that arms akimbo means anger in a Balinese grammar of body language. That surprised him and he commented. He asked me to take another attitude. I corrected again, saying no, I can’t do that. It’s not male. He asked what is male? So I described the gender of attitude and demonstrated dance positions – male, female, banci (androgyne) as a quick shortcut to the difference in how a woman stands versus a man. I took a strong, male dance position – opened my eyes wide until the whites showed (fierce), did a deep sort of plie with my legs wide, arms spread, fingers spread. Then I stopped dancing and just squatted in the relaxed position of a man, knees wide, arms outstretched, elbows on my knees. This is the position of men resting, or waiting by the side of a road or path for nothing in particular, or watching other men harass their roosters to prepare them for a mock cock fight.

Igel muani keras – Strong male dance position.
Bengong – staring into space in a resting (men’s) squat.

Men’s sarongs wrap in the opposite direction from women’s. Women’s sarongs wrap from right to left, the sarong finishing with the left covering the right; men’s sarongs wrap from left to right, the sarong finishing with the right covering the left. This simple oppositional organization of fabric is part of a gendered logic that pervades Balinese cosmology, starting with the human body, which is conceptualized as a small homologue to the universe.

In a Balinese worldview (epistemology), gender is a way of describing just about everything and the relationships between types of things or processes. This is how symbolism works – certain categories of things or people are granted a value or an identity that is meaningful within a universe of other values. To begin to map this out, imagine the body oriented in space, standing facing north. The sun rises on the right hand and sets on the left. The east where the sun rises is male, as is the sun; the right hand, the sweet hand, is male. The west where the sun sets is female, as is the moon; the left hand, the dirty hand, is female. North and east are male (and one should always orient the head of a bed so it faces north or east according to a Balinese version of feng shui), the south and west are female. Magic is right-handed (benevolent and male) and left-handed (malevolent and female). The right hand is social. To rest the right hand in the left is to make a polite request. Babies are taught to ask for things in this way before they can speak. The left hand is intimate and private. To give someone something with your left hand, especially food, doesn’t just demonstrate intimacy; it creates intimacy. If the relationship is not an intimate one, then giving something with your left hand, especially food, creates hierarchy and would be an insult between status equals.

Humorally speaking, heat is male where coolness is female. Sky is male. Earth is female. Every plant, situation, object, activity and relationship can be broken down into gendered complementarities. Gender is a nuanced language for talking about relationships, interdependencies, the order of things. Nothing is complete without the combination, in some way however subtle, of these gendered aspects. Gender is generative.

Back to sarongs. I intend this document as a baseline, an instruction and also a kind of visual glossary of gendered categories that are embedded in the way people wear their clothes, and which repeat, like reverberations, like sound waves or the concentric circles of disruption that reveal the submergence of a stone. This water-reference is a cliché but it visualizes something that helps me to convey the expansive, encompassing aspect of the ideas that are relevant to sarong-wrapping (and everything else). With this in mind, I’m going to relate to you a folk story. The teller recorded, transcribed, and translated it from Balinese into Indonesian. I haven’t re-read it. I’m relying on my memory of the tale as that is how oral tradition works. It was told to me. I am telling it to you. You may ask yourself what this story, and the way I contextualize it, has to do with sarongs. The answer is – it has nothing to do with sarongs and it has everything to do with sarongs. I am going to say to you what authors sometimes say to their readers – just listen. Come with me.

In the story of Chandra[1], a commoner has abducted his high-born love-object in an attempt at marriage by capture (malagandang) but he doesn’t violate her.  He wants her to give herself to him. She tells him she will marry him, but only if he will climb a magnolia tree to get her the flower she points out in the tree’s crown. The Cempaka magnolia (Magnolia Champaka) is the most beautiful, with the most exquisite perfume, of the seven white, scented flowers used to infuse holy water. It is a small blossom – the petals roughly two inches long – for such a massive tree, that can grow to 160 feet tall with a trunk up to six feet in diameter. The tree in the story, of course, is one of such magnificent proportions.

Cempaka flowers are picked by men[2] who climb the trees in the early morning before the dawn coaxes the buds to open fully; in the dark, the Cempaka’s petals remain soft and straight, modestly concealing the flower’s sexual center instead of arcing back to reveal the stamens and pistil. The hopeful lover climbs the tree in the dark and calls down to Candra when he reaches one of the buds – this one? She says no, the one farther up. Can’t you see it through the branches? He climbs higher, again reaching a flower, again calling out – is it this one you want? No. It’s the one above that. Can’t you see it glowing white amidst the leaves? He climbs higher, every time calling out, every time told that the bloom Chandra wants is still above him. When he gets to the top of the tree without obtaining the particular flower his beloved wants, he looks up at the sky from the Cempaka tree’s topmost branches and suddenly realizes the glowing white, unopened bud he has been searching for is the moon he sees glowing out of the morning-dark. He understands, then, that she is utterly unobtainable; her very name – Chandra – means moon. In despair and shame, he throws himself from the top of the tree and dies. His body, then, begins to change and each part of it becomes a botanical element that sounds improvised in the words of an excellent story teller – his cheeks become the white flesh of the Durian fruit; his eyebrows transformed to become the perfect arc of the leaf of the Intaran tree (Azadirachta indica, also Neem); his fingernails now cloves of garlic; his teeth the seeds of the white pomegranate (delima); the whites of his eyes now tiny cakes of yeast; jasmine blossoms where his nostrils were; sweet spices – nutmeg, cinnamon, clove – replace pubic hair; Salak fruits for testicles; a long eggplant for a penis; Pepper vine for sinews; the blue water lily for the glance of his eyes; a coconut for a skull, the leaves of the water lily wrapped around it are where the membrane covering his brain used to be, the music of a palm frond left in place of the sound of his breath.

The botanical equivalents for the body – each body part proxied by a fruit, a flower, a seed, a leaf, a stalk, a root, fungus, mold, vine– are established in this story in a seeming improvisation.  Yet, these same botanical equivalents for the body are discoverable in the contents of two huge mortuary offerings in which every part of the small world (buana alit) of the human body is represented by its counterpart in the big world (buana agung) of the universe: from this we know there is a logic. These proxies are used to adorn a corpse when it is bathed and wrapped in meters of white fabric, doused repeatedly with holy water containing the seven scented blossoms, including the Cempaka.

So you see, the metamorphosis of the despair-inspired lover’s corpse is not only a story told late at night to entertain. It’s an inculcation that describes and teaches a critical act of transformation and un-making that must be performed for the dead, part of which involves assembling the offerings about which I am telling you, and which are later burned with the corpse during cremation.[3] After the burning, the body’s botanical proxies are used to adorn another proxy made of Chinese coins strung together to form a stick figure with all the fingers and toes articulated. The coins are laid on top of a reiteration of the body made of its vestiges. The bone fragments of the deceased are retrieved from the ash of cremation by hand, through sifting and searching for every discernible piece, placed in three shallow dishes made of leaves. In each dish are collected the bone-shards of the head, upper body, and lower body.  The ash-proxy’s head is made from head shards; the proxy upper body and arms from upper-body shards, the proxy lower body, legs, and feet from the lower-body shards.[4]

I did an interview once with a neighbor. It was a structured conversational interview – I had a set of questions I asked all of my interviewees, but the questions in between those questions were determined by the specifics of each conversation. Part of the interview asked the interviewee to draw a picture of the human body. My neighbor, whose name escapes me, was then in her forties. She was sitting on the floor, leaning against the wall, her legs straight out in front of her. I gave her the piece of paper and a pencil and asked her to draw the body. She held the pencil awkwardly and stared at the paper for what seemed to me like a long time. I think about it now and there were so many assumptions embedded in my request. I had a notion of an abstract body that could be separated from the specificity of particular bodies. I had a notion that this abstract body could be represented in a drawing. I started with an assumption that asking my interlocutors for such drawings would be a comprehensible request. I was starting with pictures from anatomies in my mind. I actually had no idea what my interlocutors were starting with. Of course I wanted to find out. The fact I handed my neighbor a piece of paper and a pencil suggests the body could be described in that way, with those tools. But why should it be? (I asked her later to draw the contents inside the body and again she paused before saying (roughly, in Indonesian of course) – well, I’ve never seen the inside of the body but I’ve cut pigs and I’m guessing what’s in pigs might be similar to what is in humans . . . Humbled again. Of course I have never seen the inside of the human body either.)

Then she looked up at me and she began to pat her body – her chest, her lap, her legs, back to her chest – with both hands as she asked me – you mean this? You mean me? So (going with whatever she was thinking) I said yes. And she began to draw. She pressed hard on the paper with the pencil to make her lines thick and dark and drew a stick figure with intense focus I didn’t understand at the time. To me it seemed strange she would work so hard on such a simple figure.  She narrated as she drew – this is me after I have died, after I have burned. A man from my family will make this for me . . . then if it has been done correctly, some time later, one of my sons will dream I have come to the gate of the compound, then entered the yard and asked for food (minta nasi, literally request rice, the word rice being a gloss for food generally). If/when this happens, they will know that the next child born in the house will be me; I will have returned.

At the time I didn’t understand what my neighbor was telling me. I was trying to make sense of it on the hoof – watching, listening – but it didn’t make sense. It was only later, I don’t remember how much later, that I realized she was talking about her own cremation and the final reiteration of her body after her corpse was finished burning, using her bones and ash arranged on a white cloth, then overlain with the coin proxy and adorned with the botanical proxies, doused in holy water, bundled up with a small inscribed shroud, placed in a miniature replica of a cremation tower, something like a sedan chair for bones and ash, and taken on its last physical journey to the ocean for the final dis-integration – water to water. My neighbor’s rhetorical move is fascinating to me. The abstract, generalizable human body I asked her about becomes her specific body. She drew a self-portrait, but not of her living self. She drew a self-portrait in ash.

I only know a small percentage of the botanical elements that correspond to the body; probably only the eldest and most skilled ritual offering specialists have memorized the contents of the most complex mortuary offerings and know what all of the possible proxies are. Sometimes a particular ingredient isn’t available so she has to know what else can stand for the veins or whatever. I watched an offering specialist call for the frond of a particular species of palm that proxies the ribs and no one could find one quickly so she instructed her assistant to go to the nearest metalsmith (there were many in that village) and request a tiny proxy in metal of the ribs curving out from the spinal column.

I couldn’t see the landscape the same again after that. Intaran leaves on the ground around the tree are perfect eyebrows. That particular palm that makes a quiet tuned percussion with its leaves is the ribs and their flexing with breath. The blue water lily is the glance of the eyes. That is how the anatomies called Tatwa Wit – Root Teaching – begin: the blue water lily is the glance of lovers’ eyes.

I first worked on a series of Tatwa Wit with two, later three, teachers, all high-caste men in their 60s who read, translated, and wrote palm leaf manuscripts in Old Javanese, which can perhaps be compared to reading, translating, and writing in Latin. The Tatwa Wit’s Western correlative texts are anatomies, with their meticulous visual deliberation on the particularities of the body and their representation. Considering Tatwa Wit alongside Western anatomies I was (and am still) struck by the disembodied, unlocated nature of Western anatomic representations of the body. The flayed and splayed bodies in our anatomies are chronicles of dissection. These disembodied bodies are particular but not specific, an additive model that begins with an armature, the skeleton, and builds the body layer by layer. The (Western) anatomy I have adds these systems, roughly, in the reverse order of the dissection that was the mode by which Western men came to understand the body and its ‘systems’ and then, perhaps, by order of perceived importance: the muscular system, nervous system, limbic system, parasympathetic system, orthosympathetic system, digestive system, respiratory system, circulatory system, lymphatic system, excretory system, and, finally, at the very end, the reproductive system. In the particular anatomy I am consulting, there are two headings below “Reproduction” – Man and Woman and The Male Reproductive System. “The female reproductive system” is a sub-heading under “the male reproductive system.” The very last discussion in the book is “Insemination, pregnancy and nursing.” Anatomies are maps of power. The conceit is that authoritative texts are simply true. Embedded dynamics of power, gender, and race are effaced and implicitly these documents purport there is no culture; there is only nature. I don’t accept that. You probably know that about me already.

Tatwa Wit anatomies start with the desire of lovers.

Sex is the foundational productive act/relationship that launches the continual, transformative process of making and unmaking that is the body over the course of a life and into death.

This is a tough part to write because what I am writing seems so obvious.  Sex makes new bodies. But I’m writing about anatomies. And there is a contrast between indigenous Balinese anatomies (Tatwa Wit) and the Western anatomies I grew up looking at, which depicted White, adult, male bodies as the exemplary representations of human contents and characteristics. The body was a fully-formed (male) body in stasis, perpetually flayed, taken apart, every functional aspect already disarticulated from every other – what the Balinese do through mortuary at the end of life.  Western anatomies, within this framework, are snapshots of corpses. not representations of living bodies in flux. And, indeed, we know it’s true that they are snapshots of corpses.

The originary combinatory impulse is initiated by the glance of would-be lovers. Their first insubstantial exchange of emotion, legible in a look, leads to a feeling. Their hearts beat faster, their breaths become shallow, their ears ring, the world constricts. They have sex. In the terms of the Tatwa Wit, their souls meet, their bodies meet and then their procreative fluids (kama putih and kama bang, literally white desire and red desire) meet to form an embryo the word for which (ajur mula) means molten metal, the creation of an alloy of white (male) and red (female) to form the body of a child. The fetal body develops out of an ongoing combination of gendered fluids mixing in a woman’s body over the months of a pregnancy. Old people admonish young couples to have regular sex during a woman’s pregnancy so the child will develop fully with no deficits; they clarify that sex is the work of marriage.  In this way, new bodies are made through sex, made of sex. Sex is the responsible creative act that brings bodies into being through their complementary contributions.

It’s gendered turtles all the way down.[5] Every productive process or relationship references sex, viewed most simply as the combination of male and female (androgynes are not the absence of gendered relationships but their combination in one body instead of two).

Sarongs are no different; sarongs are located in this symbolic scape. The way they wrap is not coincidence or random. It is determined by this cosmo-logic.

For men, the sarong is wrapped like this:

Image 1. You start the fabric at the center front or just to the right of the center front so it covers the genitals.

I’m not sure if the left hand position is correct or not. I did not watch adult men wrap their sarongs but my guess is that the left hand would start over the genitals.

Image 2. Wrap around the back, to the front again and accordion the remaining fabric to form a phallic drape down the center.

Arranging the phallic drape in the front.

Image 3. Over the sarong goes a shorter – in both width and depth – piece of fabric called a saput.  

Trying to organize the saput. I think you can tell I’m not used to this.

Images 4-6. A sash or leather belt secures the folds of the sarong and saput, which are then rolled down over the belt to hold all the layers in place at the waist.

Starting the belt.
Still working on the belt.
Rolling the sarong and saput down over the belt.

Image 6 (above)  In contemporary Balinese ceremony dress, men wear a kemeja, a simple button-down shirt with long or short sleeves. In these photos I wore a jacket rather than a kemeja. Historically, men wore no chest covering except in the temple or other context in which the most polite or reverent attitude was required, and then they wore the saput pulled up under the armpits and secured with a sash around the ribs (actually, I’m not sure if that’s correct. I don’t know if the fabric pulled up to cover the chest was also called a saput).

Image 7, I stand like a man.

I am not really standing like a man here, more like a dancer about to dance a male character. My toes are up in a dance move. My hands are tense with fingers spread in a dance move. This posture looks like I’m about to raise my arms into the stance of a strong character, like I’m gathering the energy to become a powerful figure. My teacher taught me to start the development of a male character at my feet, gather energy there first, then pull that energy up my body and fill the stance with power and intensity.

About the textile:

Before I left for the photoshoot I sewed the two pieces of a Songket Alam sarong together. Balinese Songket are hand-woven in two lengths the width of the loom and less than the 2 meters you would typically get with a batik sarong; because Songket are fine, you don’t get excess length the way you do in other fabrics that are less precious. Prior to the photoshoot, I had never worn any of my Songket Alam textiles as a sarong.  Songket Alam (alam means natural) are a modern style of hand-woven, supplementary-weft textile in which the motifs are created by colored cotton or silk instead of the gold or silver threads of traditional Songket, which were luxurious fabrics reserved for nobles and royalty. In supplementary-weft textiles, generally, the threads that make up the design are described as ‘floating’ on top of the base fabric; they are ornamental, integral to the visual design, but not structural. If you cut all of them off you would still have a length of cloth. I was told that what makes Songket Alam ‘natural’ is a combination of natural and commercial dyes so that once the cloth is woven and washed, the natural dyes run and combine while the commercial dye stays bright. The result is often a muted palette with splashes of color that can be extremely beautiful. For awhile, this style of weaving was the latest trend in luxury sarongs. It has been supplanted since but it’s still my favorite.

[1] The “C” is always pronounced like a “ch” in English.  Candra is pronounced Chandra. Cempaka is pronounced Chempaka, and so on.  I use the Indonesian spelling throughout.

[2] Sky is male. Anything that involves climbing trees or scaling heights is men’s work because of this association. Women do not climb trees.

[3] The main tasks of Balinese mortuary are to return the body and soul to its original forms and locations. The two souls must be separated from the physical body. The eternal soul – atma  – is returned to the undifferentiated divine from which it was borrowed. The personal soul – jiwa – is coaxed out of the body so that it may be prepared for return; a Balinese understanding of reincarnation entails the personal soul returning within the family rather than returning in some other higher or lower form of living creature unrelated to the deceased. The persuasion and shepherding of these souls to their proper places is performed by a Pedanda Siwa. At the same time, another priest, a Pedanda Buda, works to take the body apart through mantras and mudras while the family and community of the deceased do this work physically, taking the corpse through a series of rituals that return the elements of the body to their origins – earth to earth through interment, fire to fire and air to air through cremation. Ether I’m not sure about. And water to water through taking the body to the ocean in the form of ash and submerging it there. If the family can’t take the ash to the ocean, they take it to the river. Around each of these tasks are elaborate and beautiful preparation that are more or less elaborate depending on status and wealth: special offerings of meat and botanical elements; gorgeous textiles; proxy bodies made in various materials – sandalwood plaques, Chinese coins, botanical elements; inscribed shrouds; gold ornaments; gamelan music; cremation towers, sarcophagi in different animal shapes depending on caste and clan; and more I’m forgetting or don’t know about.

[4] I have done this – sifted through the ash to find the bones of the deceased – for the wife of the priest who was a relative to one of my teachers. I had been at the bathing of her corpse, observed her adorned with botanicals and bound in white cloth, her body stored under an inscribed shroud (tumpeng salu) while the complex offerings for her cremation (pengawak and tetukon) were assembled. I walked to the river with her grandchildren and her sister in law (who was a female priest) who carried a clay pot in which the liquid of the decaying body was collected, turned ritually into holy water and used to mark the third eye of each of us before it was emptied into the river. There was hardly anything there; corpses are now semi-preserved with formalin to spare the family the stench of death while they wait to purify the body with fire and the house with the smoke of incense and holy water. I have done this intimate work alongside the deceased’s adult children. This is work we must do for our parents; they brought our bodies here, our tangible materiality borrowed from the world around and our intangible essence lent by the divine. In turn, we shepherd their bodies and souls back to their origins. We return the immortal soul to the undifferentiated god stuff from which it comes, release the individual soul from the specific body (making it available to return), and restore the five elements of which the body is made: fire returns to fire; water returns to water; earth returns to earth; air returns to air; space returns to space. 

I have done this for someone else’s parents and I will not be able to do it for mine.

[5] Turtles all the way down is a reference to an indigenous concept of the world resting atop a turtle. Sometimes this turtle foundation is not just one turtle, but layers upon layers of turtles. Turtles all the way down, then, is a way of talking about a fundamental reality; there is no end to it.

Sarong Series Number 1:

Searching the Market for the Right Sarong for Wayan’s Grandmother

Having lived half or more of my life already has given me a sense of urgency I didn’t have when I was young. I had the sense that there was always a chance to do it again, to go back. But there isn’t. There never was. You are only ever where you are, who you are, once. We live each experience with that particular viewpoint a single time. And once it has past, any similar situation or occasion is already populated by memory and emergent understanding. Any return is a frame for comparison within the self. To return is to revisit experience that already has formed us

How do I say this better/different? We do a thing. And we think we can do it again, re-do it. But we can never recover the strangeness of a first confrontation with difference or unfamiliarity, the pure curiosity that comes from knowing almost nothing. We can never see the colors and hear the sounds and smell new air in the same way again. We know this. We only have first impressions once. This sense of fresh wonder is so beautiful and even as we bathe in its sensuous beauty it is emptying out of us, replaced by the memory of fresh wonder.

The stories I want to tell you are not stories of things that happened every day in the same, predictable way. Such stories are non-specific and so begin to be cultural descriptions – women ask “have you cooked yet” in the morning. You ask (or used to ask[1]) – have you bathed yet? – of people on their way back from the river. I can tell you this because I have (been) asked this question so many times.  It’s a bit like – how are you? Yet even as I write that – that I don’t want to tell you stories of things that happened in the same way many times, I realize that isn’t true. I do want to tell you those things. They come to mind when I start to tell you about the time when something happened a little differently. And they remind me of the first time I heard the question and felt confused about how I should respond. When I lived in east Bali, in Karangasem, my kitchen had a window that looked out on a path people used to get to their gardens. When we would see Ibu Tumpek (literally Mother Tumpek, but in cultural terms something like Mrs Tumpek), my neighbor across the road, walking on that path in the morning, she would look up and call out – have you cooked yet? – even as she could see we were cooking. This happened every day. It was habitual ritual.

This is my favorite sarong – an example of hand drawn batik (batik tulis) on very fine cotton.

There was one (first) time when Wayan’s grandmother came into my kitchen (actually Wayan’s kitchen; I was borrowing his house) and lifted the lids off all the pots in which I was cooking the food I would eat that day (because women always get up early and cook for the whole day so that’s what I do when I am in Bali), looked at each dish as the steam carried the smell of rice and vegetables out, and then asked me – in Balinese – ampun masak!? – have you cooked yet? And I answered – Ampun – already. And then we did that every day. Every day she came in with small offerings to distribute throughout the kitchen – little squares of banana leaf with a tiny pinch of rice and grated coconut colored yellow with fresh turmeric on each – on the stove, on top of the rice cooker, on top of the cabinet that held dishes, resting on the basket that held the basic cooking ingredients (shallot, garlic, fresh turmeric, ginger, galangal, hot peppers), the bucket where the uncooked rice was stored.

Wayan’s grandmother is so tiny. I don’t speak much Balinese (Indonesian, the language I speak, is a completely different language) so we didn’t have a way to sit down and really talk. But I loved her in the way you love someone who becomes part of your life every day, part of your habitual ritual, like the fox talking to the little prince (in Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s The Little Prince) about what it means to become tame, that missing someone effects a kind domestication that we choose. So when they don’t come you worry. When they never come you cry. And then when they come again you cry again for confronting the fact you were working to make peace with the loss – by death or anger or some other departure that you never know.

I gave her a sarong when I left Bali that year. She held it with one hand underneath it, cradling it as if she held a platter. She put her other hand, the sweet hand, on top, covering it as if she was protecting it. And then she held it against her chest with her left hand and with her right hand she stroked my right arm from my shoulder to my wrist over and over. I’m kind of making this up. I don’t have that kind of memory that captures everything.  Maybe I do and the problem is that I don’t recall everything, or can’t conjure it perfectly from wherever it’s stored in the brain. Or maybe I do but I don’t think I do so I decide my memory is a generalization, a cultural trope, rather than a specific moment.

How Wayan’s grandmother held the sarong I gave her. These are my hands, holding my sarongs. I am wearing a kebaya, a traditional garment always worn for ceremonies and by some old women every day. This kebaya is silk and specifically for ceremonies.

I am describing something that we can gloss as habitual ritual. This is what people do when they are starting to walk toward loss. Maybe this is what, in particular, women do, when they are preparing to let go of someone, stroke the arm from the shoulder to the wrist, shoulder to wrist, shoulder to wrist, hold at the wrist, eye contact, shake the wrist for a half a second and let go.

This is how Wayan’s grandmother held the sarong I gave her against her body so she could touch me with her right hand.

This is what a kiss is – cheek to cheek, an inhalation, switch sides, cheek to cheek, an inhalation. If you are kissing someone you don’t know well, your cheeks don’t touch, the inhalation is quick and shallow. If you are kissing someone you love, your cheeks touch and the inhalation is deeper, slower. If you are kissing someone you have loved a long time, someone who has been gone or will be gone awhile, hold your cheek against theirs, breathe them in until your tears mix with their tears.

Wayan’s grandmother is gone, as my grandmother is gone. I saw neither of them die. I was far away both times. So to me they have never died. They are alive in my mind. I don’t feel sad. Remembering Wayan’s tiny grandmother holding my arm and then sitting with me, her hands in my lap and mine in hers, sitting with the (f)act of leave-taking, she is here with me. The past is happening right now.

She was married by capture. When I asked my friend Wayan to ask her how she married and she told him the story, which he reported to me, he looked at me astonished. He never knew. And I observed that he had never thought to ask. His mother, too, was captured. She told me about it, not him. But those are long stories, tales of the betrayal of women, the force of men’s love and desire, and also about the Japanese occupation before Indonesian Independence and families’ efforts to keep their daughters from being taken as comfort women. I will tell you those stories but not yet. What I want to tell you right now is about searching in the market for that sarong for Wayan’s grandmother, the gift I gave her before I left Bali (I wonder who has it now? I wonder if she was cremated in it?).

In Bali, bright colors are called warna muda, young colors. Dark colors are warna tua, old colors. These terms both describe the relative values of colors (warna), their lightness or darkness, at the same time they describe who should wear them. The young should wear light/bright (young – muda) colors. The old should wear dark (old – tua) colors. I was looking for a dark colored sarong but I had a particular technique in mind for how the fabric should get its printed pattern. I wanted a batik cap. Batik is a style of resist dyeing in which a design is drawn on fabric in wax. When the fabric is dyed, everything but the area painted in wax will take the dye. A batik made by drawing these designs by hand is called batik tulis. Tulis means to write. So batik tulis refers hand-drawn batik. Batik tulis is the most valuable form of batik, especially if the design is very complex with tiny lines and elaborate floral and faunal motifs. The finest of fine batik tulis designs are drawn on silk.

This sarong, and the one below, are both in the warna tua range. They are batik tulis, not cap.

The local market was largely for tourists on the first floor and for local people on the second. There was no batik tulis there, being too expensive and special to find at a local market. Such high-end fabrics are only available in special fabric stores or fabric markets and the best batik tulis you have to go to Java for. Batik is not indigenous to Bali though they have developed a distinctively loose and improvisational batik style that is beloved of tourists for its bright, beachy holiday aesthetic.

I was searching for batik cap, A cap (prounounced chahp, the ‘c’ in Indonesian sounds like ch in English, the a an ah sound) is a stamp in which the batik design has been rendered in thin copper wires that, when dipped in wax, can be stamped onto the fabric leaving the wax behind in a pattern with a repeated motif. These simple batiks can be rustic, with sloppy registration and over-lapping repeats.  They can also be refined, almost indistinguishable from the lowest levels of batik tulis. I looked for hours, stall after stall, inspecting the right sides and the wrong sides of so many fabrics that fell into the tua range and were not too fancy for daily use. Machine-printed fabrics that mimic batik are common now and some of them are very good. You have to inspect the repeats carefully, studying the way the color bleeds to the back, to tell them apart. The printers are clever. They build into their designs the distinctive crackling of wax that allows a tracery of dye to impinge upon solid fields of color.

Another batik tulis in the tua range.

Market vendors will always tell you what you want to hear. Is this batik cap? Yes, that’s cap. Before noon, they are looking for their first sale of the day and promise you a ‘morning price’ – using the phrase in English with rolled r’s – if you will buy what they are selling. After they receive the money they will take the bills and brush them against all the other wares in the shop, imbuing the goods with a kind of sympathetic attraction magic. One sale draws other sales. We know this. (For a rambling description of several different kinds of Balinese attraction and invulnerability magic, I have written a footnote: [2])

The sarong I bought was one of several. Hers was brown on blue with areas of a dark red. It was perfect for an old woman. And though I thought it should be good for every day, Wayan’s grandmother said she would wear it to the temple. It was a beautiful, dark sarong, the best among many. I bargained hard for a good price, refusing the seller’s efforts to price the sarongs individually, insisting instead on a price for the group. 

I am good at this. I am animated and persuasive, charismatic in those moments of pursuit. I remember once when I was twenty-two, during my first trip to Bali. I was in the middle of haggling for something when the seller suddenly laughed and said (in heavily accented English) “bew-tee-full”, so disarming me that I felt shy and embarrassed at the praise. I don’t remember exactly what happened then. Maybe that was her concession and I paid for the thing and left. Or maybe that was her counter and I conceded and paid for the thing and left.

The fabric-seller finally accepted my offer and we both had a moment of triumph until a look of panic crossed the woman’s face and we both realized she had accepted a price that was too low but it was already done. When you are already to that stage the only way you can undo it is to refuse the sale altogether, another kind of misfortune. When I paid her I unraveled my haggling and gave her more than she had asked for at the outset, folding the money into her hands so no one, not her, not the other vendors, would see what I gave her. I love the game of bargaining but I never want to hurt anyone. It is enough for me to know that I am not being gouged as an idiot tourist who has no understanding of the value of things. To pay more than you should entails a kind of shame; women should know what things should cost.

[1] When I did my PhD fieldwork between 1998 and 2000, the Balinese I knew in the village where I worked had bathrooms in their houses, but still used the nearest river to bathe in the morning after breakfast and in the evening before dinner. It was not uncommon for people, also, to shit in rivers and people I knew talked about the experience of shitting in the river as extremely pleasurable (definitely preferable to shitting in a bathroom) for its sensuous aspect as well as a kind of contemplative ambiance they felt squatting in cool running water. For those of you who might wonder how to shit in a river, here is how: Pick a river, and part of a river, where there is a good current. This may be just ahead of a little falls or an area where the water speeds up because it narrows there, either narrowing by the river bed squeezing or narrowing by virtue of rocks that create sluices between them. Definitely don’t shit in a swimming hole or just above one! If the body of water you are considering is sluggish at all, don’t go there. Choose the woods. Always shit downstream of any place where other people will be bathing or swimming or picnicking.  Take your shoes off, but not your sarong (hopefully it’s obvious that in this instruction you are not wearing anything under the sarong such as underwear or tights or whatever. If you are not wearing a sarong and are, instead, wearing pants, then you will take those off and if you want to cover yourself on the way into the water, use your pants, or some other piece of cloth, such as a towel, as if it were a sarong). Wade into the water, but only so far that the water comes to your hips when you squat. As you squat, if you are worried about being seen by someone else, pull your sarong (or sarong substitute) up so that it is always just above the water until you are fully squatting and you can gather the sarong at your waist. If you don’t care about being seen, or you know you will not be, you may, of course, just take off whatever clothes you want and get in the water.  Squat facing upstream. Then, once you are comfortable squatting, just relax and let your mind wander and etc.

[2] Some sellers will use a more complex and dangerous attraction magic. During my first fieldwork, I studied attraction magic formulae called pengeger, a term we can gloss as magnet, used for love and desire. The principle is the same for all pengeger. The basic idea is this – there is a mantra in which the object (beloved, customer, antagonist) is constructed as bereft of everything s(h)e needs. In love magic, this looks like imagining the beloved is sick in a wasteland, her entire family gone, her village annihilated, fields burned, shelter destroyed. In sum, she has nothing but the lover, the one who is reciting the love magic formula. By reducing her to this level of devastation, the objective is to make the lover, in effect, the last man on earth, the only one she can turn to for shelter, food, family, comfort, health, love.

You can make a pengeger yourself, if you know what you are doing. Most people don’t know about these things as they are considered rare knowledge and protected in palm leaf manuscripts written in Old Javanese, creating a kind of linguistic threshold most people can’t cross. You can also purchase a pengeger from a ritual specialist. If you are making it yourself, you will say the mantra over something you will then consume (food, drink, betel, cigarette), while imagining your object. If someone else is making the pengeger, they will say the mantra over the thing they will imbue with attractive power. There will be prayer, an offering, incense (the smoke carries the prayer to the gods), holy water. Then you consume the now-potent commestible.

There are other ways to incorporate the pengeger for more long-term benefit. A ritual specialist can inscribe your body invisibly with Balinese sorcery symbols, including writing sacred syllables on your forehead in oil and on your tongue in honey, which of course you then swallow. Balinese sorcery symbols and sacred syllables are potent images and sounds that invoke unseen beings. Invoking such beings carries with it risks. Once these potent beings surround you with their persuasive powers, as long as you do the correct propitiatory rituals you can keep them satiated and helpful. If you make mistakes – forget about them and fail to pour a libation of your drink before you drink, drop a bit of food from your plate onto the ground before you eat, ask for permission before you pee, etc., — you can incur their wrath and they are unforgiving and vengeful. Often when men die unexpectedly in out-of-the-ordinary ways – drowning in shallow water, for example – it is presumed they offended unseen beings (I have never heard of this related to women).

The most dangerous form of attraction magic I learned about is a tiny length of thin, gold wire called a ‘needle’ (jarum) that is imbued with magic and then pushed under the skin at the third eye. This style of attraction magic is also a kind of invulnerability magic that is protective against malevolent attacks. I never heard of women using jarum. And when men talked about it they would whisper, speculating about other men who might be using one based on their extraordinary abilities to avoid injury in conflict with others and their remarkable capacity to attract young and beautiful girls as lovers or gain political power and wealth. Jarum are incredibly ‘hot’ and require considerable personal power (sakti) to control. If a woman were to use a jarum, she would be an extraordinarily powerful and ambitious woman, tantamount to a man in Balinese cultural terms. If you don’t have the personal power to manage a jarum, it will kill you in a distinctive way. You don’t just die in your sleep from using a jarum. You will die by having a coconut land on your head when it falls, or by falling out of a coconut tree despite being well tethered, or by falling off a cliff.

If any of the sarong-vendors in the soft-goods part of the market were using pengeger, they were weak. None of the sellers could persuade me to buy any fabrics I later wondered why I had purchased; this is how you know you have been magically manipulated; you think – what was I doing buying this piece of junk for that ridiculous price?!? Similarly, you know you have had love magic put on you when you emerge from an affair and later think – what was I doing? I don’t even find that person attractive?!?

Poppy & the Carpet Beetles

A couple of years ago I found that Poppy, the tiny knitted red bear my sister made for my son, Julian, when he was little, had been eaten by critters – moths or carpet beetles, I don’t know which. I had found the little bear in some box after losing track of it for a long time and sat her on the shelf above the counter in the kitchen where we have a collection of treasures from different times and places. Some time later I found she was full of holes and I put her in the freezer. She has been there ever since. Now every time I get some ice cubes, I see Poppy, lying there in the drawer, her tiny scarf around her neck, her stuffing coming out through her side.

I saw some carpet beetles on the windowsill of my bedroom over the summer. My historic community doesn’t allow screens on the windows, as they are considered to disrupt the historic look of the community (though I suggest cars and electricity lines do that handily and more obviously) so bugs come in. Seeing the carpet beetles concerned me at the time but I didn’t find any evidence of damage until recently when I put on a wool skirt I rarely (never?) wore. I saw light through a constellation of holes in the fabric but saw no critters themselves.

Seeing the holes made me panic. My house is full of wool – clothes, carpets, yarn, fabric, embroideries. I started to search and found a tiny felted purse (made by my sister Noni) on my desk had been ravaged. A ball of yarn was lying in a shatter of fiber dust. A large tote I had embroidered showed small areas of damage. I felt agitated and sick with fear that there was more I couldn’t see being made by critters still too small to detect. I put the tote and some other embroideries in the freezer with Poppy, put a pile of carpets on the porch in the cold and started looking for internet resources on repelling and killing moths and carpet beetles.

Oil & Alcohol: Eucalyptus, Clove, Cedar & Neem

Based on what I found, I have begun to use essential oils – 10 drops suspended in a cup of isopropyl alcohol and sprayed over vulnerable woolens using a misting hand-pump: the efficacious essential oils are eucalyptus, clove, cedar & neem.

carpet beetle remedies

The oils I purchased came from https://www.bulkapothecary.com/standardized-and-commercial-grade/

A few online resources with detailed methods for managing infestations and controlling beetle populations can be found here:

15 Quality Home Remedies To Get Rid Of Carpet Beetles



BEWARE: Lavender, my sister found, attract critters instead of repelling them and so should be avoided (A shearling coat showed damage around the label where she had hung a sachet of lavender on the neck of the hanger; not the desired outcome!).  Borax sprinkled onto fabrics and brushed into the fiber is supposed to kill the destructive beasts.

Despite these new measures, I also made a mistake. I pitied the skirt full of holes and didn’t throw it away right away. Now I have found some damage in a piece of knitwear I recently finished and which I worked on such tiny needles for so long that I damaged my left hand. And now before I have even woven in the ends I find that there is a hole and I feel stupid for pitying the material of a skirt I had really never worn. That pity – the thought that I could mend it or salvage parts of the material – has resulted in damage to things I care much more about. I didn’t think far enough ahead. I couldn’t see the critters in the skirt so I didn’t properly assess the threat keeping it posed. Looking at the shawl, I know I can not make it over given my injury. I can only repair it.

Since writing the paragraph above, I have thrown the skirt away, and resumed the process of inspecting everything else in the room for holes. I need to re-spray with eucalyptus, dust with borax, wash, repair, protect, purge.


Substituting natural fibers with synthetic fabrics is one of the recommendations for avoiding carpet beetles described in the different articles to which I have linked above.  It’s also the solution I (and probably you, dear reader) am unwilling to try for multiple reasons  Many of my wool things are beautiful examples of handwork – handmade carpets, embroideries, handsewn garments and knitted accessories. I won’t give them up as I am committed to them, invested in them as repositories of memories, of stories, my own time, labor, pain, love. The handmade fabrics made by others are beautiful in themselves and their beauty is justification enough for preserving them.  At the same time, to me they represent social lives, even if I don’t know what those lives were before those textiles came to me.  They were witnesses to particular truths and moments in the lives of their makers during their production, truths and moments that are unknowable to me. And the things I have made have similar social lives that are largely known to me, but not wholly.  These social lives have a romance, a poetry, a history that should be guarded, shepherded into the future.

The beauty and value of textiles made in natural fibers is not the only reason I want to keep my natural fibers.  Shrinking my carbon footprint is another that has an increasing urgency.  I want to minimize the extent to which I use petroleum-based fibers and materials.  I want to minimize the extent to which I use fibers that shed micro-plastics into our water supply.  I want to minimize the extent to which I use fabrics that will never bio-degrade.  I have always preferred natural fibers, over synthetic ones, for their sensuous qualities. Now I value them, too, for how they sequester carbon.

Embracing Failure: the Magic Carpet Bag’s Challenge to Think Creatively

I have been confronted by a problem that has stymied me and delayed the next installment in the Magic Carpet Bag tutorial as I have been trying to figure out what to do. I finished stabilizing the textile with the muslin interlining. Following that process I stitched buckram into the bag to give it body and stiffness.

cutting the buckram to size
Cutting the buckram to size for the bag body

When I first started, it looked like it would work brilliantly. I had pinned the buckram to the inside of the bag with safety pins, same as the muslin.

Image 2 - putting the bag over a box and pinning the buckram to the bag body
Placing the carpet bag body, inside out, on a box and then safety pinning the entire layer of buckram to the bag body (excepting the bag bottom).

image 3 - pinng
Pinning on the box ensured that I connected the buckram to the bag body with twisting or distortion.

The bag stood up on its own. Fabulous! This was the precise behavior I was going for. I then attached the buckram to the textile with long basting stitches so that the buckram and the textile would act as one piece of material in the same manner as the muslin.

image 4 - securing the edges at the side seam
Basting stitches at the side seam to secure the edge of the buckram.


image 6 - catching 1 weft thread on the outside so the basting stictches are invisible on the exterior
The basting stitches are long on the interior of the bag and catch only 1 weft thread on the front of the bag so they are invisible.

zig zag baste
Basting in a zig zag covers more ground with one row of stitches.

As I worked on the bag in this way I found that the buckram softened up and became more supple. When I finished, the bag no longer stood up on its own. It just slumped.

slump 1
The Magic Carpet Slump

I have been trying to figure out what to do about the bag’s slumping ever since inserting the buckram in order to write the next steps in the tutorial. Then a serendipitous conversation happened and a colleague to whom I was describing this dilemma asked – why not share the challenge you have encountered?

It had not occurred to me to narrate the problem. I am working through this tutorial on the hoof. You are getting my process almost in real time, and that process includes this disruption in my expectations for how the Carpet Bag would work. This disruption has raised a whole series of questions for me. My first response was to think about the bag’s behavior as my failure: my approach to stiffening didn’t work. I obviously used the wrong material. What do I do now? Because I didn’t have ready answers, the Carpet Bag has languished in a soft slump.

But I can tell myself a different story about the Carpet Bag and ask different questions. When the young people I work with in my studio encounter a new task demanding new skills, they have the tendency to say – “I’m no good at that. I always mess things up.” I have forbidden this script in my studio and substituted an alternative script. Instead of “I’m no good at that.” I have instructed them to say “Wow, that is a technique I have never done before. Instead of “I’m no good at that.” I have offered the alternative script “I’m looking forward to building that skill.” They won’t actually say it despite my coaxing. They’re too cool for that. But I have seen a change in attitude that I think indicates they have internalized the message that never having done something before does not constitute bad skill. It just indicates no skill yet. It indicates an exciting journey not yet begun.

I now realized that, in response to my Magic Carpet Bag’s very unmagical slumping, I have been guilty of the “I’m no good at that” mindset I have tried to exorcise from my young students’ thinking. Instead, I am now choosing to see the Carpet Bag’s slump as an opportunity to think more expansively about what I expect from this bag and to respond to its characteristics in creative ways. Rather than view the bag’s behavior as my failure, I can view the bag’s behavior as an invitation to find success in an unanticipated guise. What am I going to do now? This becomes not a defeating question but an exciting one. How do I approach this design opportunity? What are my options? Which of them will I pursue?

slump 3

As I have begun to change my thinking, I realize that the potential next steps I have rolled around in my mind as I have looked at the Magic Carpet Slump on a daily basis are all still assuming that I am grappling with the bag’s bad behavior which I have viewed as representing my failure. In this view, slumping is bad; I need to rectify the slump with a better stiffener approach – plastic mesh, another type of synthetic, non-woven stiffener, a stiff haircell leather lining, a stiff canvas lining, boning at the side seams, cardboard in the bag bottom, etc.

But what if I decide slumping is not bad? What if I decide that a soft bag is an excellent bag? What if I surrender to the characteristics of this particular textile, which is not stiff but rather heavy with beautiful drape. Upon reflection, I suspect stiffness in this bag would elude me without extreme interventions. It would get heavier and heavier as I added material to combat its resistance. It could easily become a Sisyphusean task that no one wants to live through by way of a tutorial, and I wouldn’t want to be the one to try to execute tasks the bag wouldn’t cooperate with. I don’t want to set myself up to give up. Our projects have to match us, our temperaments, our styles of learning and work.  A Sisyphusean Magic Slump does not match me.

slump 4
The buckram, which is visible inside the bag, has given it more body and strength, but no stiffness.

I began my Magic Carpet Bag project loving the social story of household use we can discern and imagine in the textile’s damage, celebrating its handmade-ness, preserving it. I carefully married the weaving to its interlining weft thread by weft thread. Adding the buckram gave it more body and strength, but not the stiffness I sought, and there my acceptance and excitement faltered.

If I choose to accept the Slump’s slump and to see its heavy drape, like it’s damage, as its beauty rather than its deficit, the next step in this tutorial is a combination of two things – discernment and order of operations. I’ll save order of operations for the next tutorial and just tackle discernment here. What I mean by discernment is charting the next steps in alignment with the project’s acknowledged characteristics. What does it want to be and do, and how do I work with that as I make the next series of necessary choices – lining material, closure type, handle treatment? Given what the bag wants to be and do, what is my range of options for making it mine?

Each of you, whether you are working with a handmade textile, a felted or fulled bag body, or some other found or handmade fabric out of which you have begun your Magic Carpet Bag, will need to recognize how your bag is behaving and figure out what materials and processes will work with that behavior. If you have a stiff fabric, you won’t necessarily need or want a stiff material for a lining but you may.  Figure it out using visualization – imagining the bag in use, on your body, in your space – and simulation – by pinning different lining fabrics into your bag body and observing how the materials behave together and whether that behavior supports your vision. If you have a soft fabric, a stiffer lining will give it a bit more body and strength while a soft lining will retain the sensuality and hand-feel of the bag body. If your material is heavy like mine, stiffening may prove more trouble than it’s worth. If your material has alot of drape, that you really love, then choose a lining with drape rather than body so the drape of the finished bag retains the characteristics you enjoy so much.

As for my Magic Carpet Bag, I’m going to take another stab at stiffener but reserve it for the bag bottom, the most vulnerable part of the textile. The buckram I put into the bag body I have not yet extended to the bag bottom.  I plan to try 2 or 3 layers.  I don’t expect this to give it stiffness, but rather a bit of shape and greater strength.  I have also decided to try out a lining of some tightly woven, thick, unbleached canvas I have in the studio. It’s not stiff but it’s also not soft. It’s somewhere in the middle. It will not make the bag stand up. The bag will still slump. But it will be strong enough to withstand puncture by pencils or knitting needles and will not herniate in the existing areas of damage when the bag is full.

buckram on the sides only
You can see that the buckram I put on the bag was only wide enough for the sides of the bag. The bag bottom still needs help.

What else do I already know? I will use a zipper as a closure and I plan on using two 16 inch Forager flat strap handles in the middle of the bag, one on each side of the bag opening.  And I will use a Sling flat strap handle with tabs at the two ends of the bag.

sling handle with tabs
Here is the Sling Handle with Tabs that I want to put on the two ends of the bag at the side seams.  Because the tabs straddle the side seam, I can achieve a centered handle.

In what order will I do these steps?

Next post – order of operations.

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Embracing Failure: The Magic Carpet Bag's Challenge to Think Creatively - hand sewing a bag inspired by a kilim rug on the JUL Designs blog