Weaving magic on Nusa Penida Bali

Part Two of Weaving in Bali

“The doors of awareness are opening.”

These are the words of a veteran expat who inspired me greatly with his words last week when Trish and I visited him. And these were the words I carried with me as I ‘set sail’ to Nusa Penida on Saturday to visit a master weaver’s family and one of Bali’s most influential fabric dyers.

Nanek Nusa Peneda

I’d travelled to Nusa Lombongan previously, wearing my tourist eyes.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with these eyes. They still take in beauty, they are still windows to the soul if you want them to be, and they still appreciate the natural harmony of life in many parts of Bali.

But tourist eyes, they have no ears. Oh, we think we do listen while we look, but do we? Is this the subtle difference between a tourist and a conscious traveller? Am I shedding the layers that provide a life of faux luxury, and really starting to listen to the drum of life in Indonesia?

Am I beginning to understand that culture is not about my lifestyle choices as a guest and how they fit with my host’s? That culture is not to be stared at or oohed and ahh’d at, but to be immersed into, with respect and tolerance. And to help the host if needed or wanted, to preserve what makes them unique and special.

Are the doors of awareness opening?

On the way to the village

As we hedged our way around the coast of Nusa Penida, the fast-boat slowed as it reached the ‘harbour’, a white sandy beach with a pier in need of urgent repair and beach huts dotted along the shoreline. There were no villas, no hotels overlooking the strait, and the water was crystal clear. The huts I found out later, were the shelters for the seaweed farmers from the elements through day and night as they toiled in the water. Remove the huts, remove the seaweed, and you remove an indelible part of a community.

We reversed into shore and stepped into the warm waters of the Bali Sea, and made our way up to Pantai Kutampi (Kutampi Beach). Warm smiles greeted us as a gentle breeze lifted our hair and hands reached out to ensure our safe passage to shore.

I turned back and looked at Bali. A black cloud hung over her. I don’t mean to sound despondent, but if you think of the hectic pace of Kuta, or Sunset Road, as I stood on Nusa Penida the cloud seemed an analogy to compare the peaceful life here to the mayhem just a 30 minute fast-boat trip away.

My mind kept tripping over a niggling thought as I juxtaposed where I now stood, against the strip of Kuta recently featured in a Channel Nine expose on Bali…”what the hell have we done?” I thought.  Later in the day, I was to learn how tourism has not only displaced Balinese from their seaweed farms, but risks environmental damage to the reef which are protected by the farms, and to the web of life that lives amongst the seaweed.

Snippets of knowledge kept poking their way to the surface…mass hotels, many almost empty. A comment made by a seven-year long expat whizzed by – some of these hotels were just for show, with no intention of profit. Nusa Penida is fragile, not just for her lack of rain and harsh terrain. She is alluring, tempting and within reach of the arms of tourism. Will we heed the lessons learned on Bali?

I shook my head and turned my thoughts back to today…exploring the importance of weaving on Nusa Penida. But I was to learn so much more about this fragile island and her history. And about for the need for positive help for our hosts, rather than the perceived benefits of tourism for tourism’s sake. About poverty, a need for assistance, and the preservation of one of Indonesia’s most important wildlife sanctuaries.

Our guides for the day were Liza Dawn, Chief Operations Officer of the ROLE Foundation, Made, her weaving guru who teaches young women in need of better education as part of the Weaving Futures program, and Wayan, a local who worked for two years with ROLE on the island.

We drove to a simple warung (cafe/restaurant) on the beach for a quick bite before our one hour drive into the mountains. A concrete shanty. Liza smiled as she was warmly enveloped in the cook’s arms. Liza had lived on the island for a year and it was obvious that her gentle nature, quick sense of humour and Bahasa Indonesia skills had endeared herself to the people of Nusa Penida. Liza skipped around to the back of the warung to check it out, before coming back, her eyes smiling, as she told us that our dining area had one of the best views in the world.

She was right! A little bamboo bale on the edge of the Bali Sea was what she was referring to. An elderly woman sat and made offerings as we ate and chatted about environmental and cultural issues effecting Nusa Penida. Drinking in the fresh air, the view and feeling the energy of a woman who lived a simple life but had the biggest smile, my door of awareness edged open a little further.

I gazed to my left and noticed the plastic rubbish piled up in front of the temple. “Lack of education”, said Liza. “Lack of education”, said another expat. “Lack of education”, said Wayan later. Lack of education, sang the chorus. I tucked it away as an issue to explore another day. But Nelson Mandala’s words have been plastered all over Facebook in recent days and they jumped into my mind:

“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” 

Although I could have sat and chatted and drunk in the view all day, we needed to get a wriggle on. The road to the village was steep, pot-holed and winding. I shot some video and it looks as though I am flying through the air bouncing on a trampoline. This is the road locals take everyday to go to market, ceremonies, work. So I sat back and tried to ignore my increasingly queezy tummy or numbing bum!

The landscape in the hills is harsh yet beautiful. Growing is difficult in the dry season and as a result, famine is all too familiar.

Song by Noah, Puisi Adinda

Agriculture and famine

As we approached the village the landscape changed from jungle, to craggy hills and stark treeless land. Liza explained that it should all be turning brown by now with the dry season, but the recent and continuous rains were bringing some latitude this year and the green had not yet faded.

Crops on Penida vary from bananas, to jack fruit and corn, to many other staples of a Balinese diet. We have already covered seaweed farming on the three islands and in a later article, will explore agriculture more. However you can easily understand how famine would have raged across the islands prior to the fast boat or ferry. The land is rocky and difficult to dig, with limestone just below the surface in many parts. Liza pointed out the terraces, which look like abandoned rice paddies. Instead, they are an innovative way of trapping the soil into nooks as the water washes down the hill, feeding through the intricate stone walls to the next, leaving a bed to plant on above it. This is the nature of permaculture and the locals have known about it for decades, if not centuries.

Famine is something the residents are all too familiar with, as shown in this news article.

Officials have declared Nusa Penida a disaster area because of the threat of famine in remote areas of the island due to drought, but they cannot release (the money) held in disaster relief funds because a range of regency agencies must first sign off on the plan.

Residents of the island…where staple food crops are corn and cassava rather than rice, which is not farmed there because of naturally dry conditions and absence of perennial streams, have been unable to harvest since September.  Attempts to grow corn from seedlings sent to the island as aid from the central government failed.

…depleted availability of water is affecting 47.83 percent of poor households on Nusa Penida where drought has badly impacted on 459 hectares of corn, 292 hectares of beans and 161 hectares of peanuts.

Supplies of rice intended for poor households were not having the desired effect (of assisting the destitute) since on equity grounds many villages not threatened by famine had applied for and received relief rice supplies.

This article was not written in 1858. Nor 1957. It was published in The Jakarta post on November 27, 2009. If tourism was to creep onto the island, how would enough water sustain the influx of people who require five times more than the average person due to washing, pools and other uses.

As we make our way up into the hills, the importance of weaving on this community opens the door another notch.

A weaving family

1079279_10151703227203911_758868421_nPak Ngurah wearing a Ndehk agal, his wife Gede Diari and her mother, a weaving master

Pak Ngurah has not always dyed cotton for weaving. He married into a weaving family, however wanted to conserve the knowledge of natural dyes before it became extinct.

[I jot this down. “Extinct.” We always think of animals and plants becoming extinct. Not a skill or craft. Something else to think about later.]

We spend time watching his wife Gede Diari prepare a loom for her mother to weave. Hundreds of threads wound around and painstakingly counted. On a concrete wall on one of the verandahs, there are chalk marks. Counting is necessary to ensure that the pattern is accurately portrayed from one side to the other, a bit like knitting fair isle.


Wayan and Pak Ngurah chat with me about weaving, dyeing and women’s roles in Bali

I ask how old the loom (hani) is. They laugh. They have no idea! Generations old, I am told, perhaps centuries!

Trish wanders round the sparse yard clicking away. There is a temple in one corner. Three buildings are for the family and extended family, and where the business is conducted. They provide orders for Threads of Life in Ubud. They are a fair trade business and this family has benefited from regular orders for their textiles. When this family becomes too busy, they give the work to other families, creating more opportunities.


Unable to weave as it is too cold and the cotton snaps, she spends her day waiting for the weather to change


It takes up to three months to weave a sarong. The one that Gede is working on will make four sarongs, each 2.5 metres long, and it will take her a week…just to prepare the loom.

Pak Ngurah brings out some samples to talk about. The first is the Saudan which was described in the first part of this series. Used for babies at their three and six month ceremonies, and then their 210 day ceremony, many families no longer are able to afford them. Even if they could, they are rare so must be hired. The baby is unable to touch the ground until it is 210 days old, so was once carried in this sacred sarong until the ceremony. Now, if they are able to obtain one, it is only used for sacred purposes however may be used until the child is around seven years in the many ceremonies a growing soul takes part in.


The second we are shown piled on top of Dulangs (see image below), which women carry on their heads to ceremony. They are piled on top of their heads and wrapped around the ceremonial posts.



The third one is a beautiful blue and is old. They are no longer used due to scarcity, but was once used for the roof over the offering table. Now, says Ngurah, they use white and yellow.


The fourth is called the Pungran which women wrap around their chests during a spiritual dance. It takes one month to make.

The fifth is one that I cannot stop touching. Red chequers, it is called a Kaliasem and the dye is from the colours of the earth. This one is over 100 years old. Liza and I look at each other, eyes wide open. Surely this should be in a museum where it can be preserved? I feel very blessed to be close witness to such beauty and history. The Kaliasem would be used on the roof for the place where they perform potong gigi, tooth filing, usually before a young couple is wed. Today due to cost impediments, tooth filing can occur at almost any time, usually when several others have it done at the same time.

The final one is the Ndehk Agal, a powerful cloth that in years gone by, would be dyed from the blood of humans. The sarong would be commissioned by rich and powerful men to signify their importance. Today the dyes are more natural, however I quietly reflect that I’m glad this practice is no longer coveted by the Balinese. (See image of Pak Nguruh above with one draped over his shoulder.)

This one is remarkable and they tell me incredibly difficult to master. Each thread is precisely dyed at intervals to form the pattern. Lengths of white, then red, then white, then red, each thread with different lengths of coloured dye. The one we are handling is very old and it is understandable why the many weeks it takes to make one cannot be afforded in today’s current fast pace, and the need to produce to make an income. Perhaps, with the Role Foundation’s assistance, this will change.

We sit and chat and I ask about the tradition of women requiring to learn the skill prior to marrying. Yes, they all confirm. It’s not true for all villages, but most certainly the weaving villages. I ask whether the men needed to do anything before marrying. Wayan laughs. “No!” he says. “For boy is free!”

“Good job for boy, ya?” he says with a chuckle.


Pak Ngurah is keen to show us his cottons, dyed from several different natural resources. His colours are bright, bold and stunning. We covered the process in the previous article Weaving hope for women, but were keen to meet the master behind the process and teaching. His skills are becoming known all over Bali and he is patently aware that they must be shared in order to keep this craft alive. Thankfully, we are shown none made from human blood!


Liza is clearly proud of Ngurah, and Made, his student, shyly asks if she can have her photo taken beside him. The family quickly run for various sarongs and drape them around their bodies as Trish clicks away, recording their smiles, and a page in history for eternity.


Beaming Made wearing a Cepuk, Gede with Saudan, and Ngurah with one used for the roof over an offering table


Back home, I am keen to research more about the new words in my Balinese vocabulary. Dulang, Kaliasem, Pungran, Ndehk agal. Google fails me. And fails Bali. This rich heritage, these magical words that describe a life that is still in many ways relevent, even with the advent of the modern age, cannot be found.

The door of awakening clicks one stop backwards. We are not there yet. But in time, perhaps travellers will roll these words off their tongues and the women of Bali will be able to embrace their rich heritage with pride. Not to necessarily immerse themselves back into long hours of weaving and dyeing. But to simply be aware of what their ancestors achieved, how their beliefs were interwoven with every thread of their lives.

By telling this story, and the others that will follow, the doors of awareness may begin to open again, for all of humanity. And, for Bali.



My staff Nyoman is due to give birth soon, so I purchased the Saudan for her, and printed out the meaning of it in Indonesian which I photographed from a Balinese textile book. She will now go back to her village and learn more from the elders of her village. Spreading stories is so important in Bali. I felt sad she didn’t know what the Saudan was. But, now she does, and she knows that this special gift will endure for generations now, in her own family.

Nyoman 2


The kitchen at Wayan’s house. The back wall has the Bali Sea behind it, and once their seaweed farm, which they sold when his mother retired.


Wayan’s father, ready to head to Pura Dalam Ped, one of Bali’s most important temples


The road that follows the coast line, still traditional and untouched by tourism. Typically those who come to Nusa Penida come for diving activities, snorkelling or to immerse themselves in authentic Balinese life.


To see the video of this journey, click here.

To read the full story, and others on Nusa Penida, get the book.

If you would like to assist ROLE in their Weaving Futures program, please visit their website Weaving Futures where there are a variety of ways you can assist financially or through donations of materials or tools.  To grow into a cooperative they need to establish an office and small-business skills learning centre, where new members can learn basic computer, book-keeping and office skills as well as the technical skills of dyeing and weaving.  The budget includes three weaving looms, desks, computers and office equipment including a printer/scanner, internet connection and projector/screen for training sessions.

To order directly from Pak Ngurah, you may contact him on +62 82 897 004402 or +62 82 1474 58780. Please let him know that Clara and Trish from Bali Soul Journals referred you. Or, contact the Role Foundation directly.

Gift ideas for Balinese families

Many visitors want to buy something special for a Balinese family. Consider a sarong that can be used at a ceremony. Pak Ngurah can help you with this if you need. This is a timeless gift that will stay in the family.

Text: Clare McAlaney & Photography: Trish McNeill

Copyright 2013. No image or text may be reproduced without express permission of Bali Soul Journals. Please use the contact form below if you would like to use this article for commercial purposes. The full article will be available later in 2013 with interview transcripts and the photography of Trish McNeill.

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5 thoughts on “Weaving magic on Nusa Penida Bali

  1. Dear Clare,

    My name is Altaire, and I currently live on Nusa Penida and am a good friend of Liza’s! I was so sorry to miss you during your stay here; I was actually spending the night in another weaving village, Ampel, where I am setting up a social entrepreneurial endeavor that appreciates many of the themes you illuminate in your writing.

    I wanted to turn you on to my blog, which details my research on the island. I am currently studying climate change and it’s social impacts, especially the ways it is affecting seaweed farmers and land farmers on the island. You mentioned an interest in agriculture, and so I thought I would pass my writing on as it may intrigue you.


    Thank you so much for taking the time to give honor and credit to the incredible talent of Nusa Penida, and for asking all the right questions about tourism and development! Cheers – Altaire


    1. Dear Altaire, we are so sorry we missed you! Nusa Penida has really resonated with me and I hope to write more about it as time goes by. Our hope is that there have been lessons learned in Bali and they are not repeated there.

      I will most definitely have a look at your blog and if I can work out how to do it, put it in the related articles!

      Thank you so much for your kind words, as I sit here typing away after days of journeys and interviews, it is heart warming to know that we are travelling in the direction we set out to go in.

      Please feel free to let me know when you are next on Bali, I would love to catch up,



  2. Ladies,
    I’m so glad you have connected already! Clare, it is really wonderful the way your writing does justice to the fragility of traditional artisan crafts and cultural heritage in the face of globalization. It takes centuries of shared knowledge to develop the complexity of ritual and spiritual meaning woven into these textiles and just one generation to lose it.


  3. I am excited to be going to Nusa Penida in 2 weeks with Liz Dawn, who organises small groups to go to the weaving villages and make baskets, mats etc and learn the craft. She does these only 3 times a year. I found out about this on the CONSCIOUS TRAVEL BALI facebook page. For more info get in touch with liza@weavingconnections.com


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