Back to the Villages: Celebrating Cultural Legacy

Weaver Nai Ati looking at her copy of 'Legacy in cloth' with Sandra NiessenBack to the Villages (or Proyek Pulang Kampung) is how I refer to a cherished dream to bring my book, Legacy in Cloth: Batak Textiles of Indonesia to North Sumatra. The project took place in June 2010. Only then, upon the conclusion of the project, did I feel that my book was finally finished!


There were three main reasons why I wanted to bring my book to North Sumatra:


In the first place, I wanted to thank those who assisted me with the research. Not only did they have a right to the results of the research, but I felt personally indebted to them. Without their help, I could never have researched Batak textiles. The Back to the Villages project was, in this regard, a sentimental journey taking me back to all the places that I had once visited. A powerful experience.


In the second place, I feel an obligation towards the Batak weaving tradition in general. My labour on Legacy in cloth gave me a boundless appreciation for the skill of Batak weavers and admiration for the ancient heritage. The history of textile design is a distinctive code of social history, a code invented and deployed by women. The weavers are not just executors of weaving techniques, they are producers of culture. Decoded, the textiles tell of centuries of adaptation to changing social and economic circumstances. During the course of the many long years in which I was writing the book, I witnessed the decline in weaving (largely due to the poverty in the region). I saw that the region got “cleaned out”, as the collectors say, and the best examples of the heirloom textiles disappeared into their hands and the hands of tourists, dealers and others. It is self-evident that a tradition cannot grow without reference to its own past. However, it is not possible, reasonable or even conceivable to return ancient textiles to the Batak region. Distributing a compendium of photographs of the repertory, on the other hand, seems a reasonable thing to do. If the people can’t come to the museums, let the museums come to the people! My book, Legacy in Cloth: Batak Textiles of Indonesia, contains just such a compendium of photographs.


Was the distribution of the book in North Sumatra effective? The Back to the Villages project was an experiment and time will be the judge of its efficacy. I undertook the project with the belief that what the weavers can do with my findings could well be the most important result of my research, and the most lasting and significant consequence of the dissemination of my work. In due course, I will want to see whether the book has inspired new textile designs, or the re-making of old ones. I did not give the book just to weavers, but also to dyers, former weavers, designers, and even the owner of a mechanized textile production operation. All are players on the production-side of the Batak textile scene, and/or constitute links with the marketing side. (See my blog for a series of postings on my June 2010 Back to the Villages trip to North Sumatra. These run from three posts in May, through the trip itself in June and on into July up to the map of my travels posted on 1 August.) While in North Sumatra, I started to conceive of myself as a farmer sprinkling seeds on every kind of soil, not knowing which soil would prove to be the most fertile for the cause. Serendipity will no doubt play a strong role. (Some of these seeds soon began to sprout and the story of the period from June 2010 to December 2011 can be read in the Pdf file Kaleidoscope (1.7Mb)).


In the third place, Back to the Villages was a way to honour Batak artisans. In my book, I tried to present the human face behind the cloths that are otherwise seen as anonymously produced. Socially, the work of weavers is drastically undervalued. I hoped that the book would  stimulate more recognition from neighbours and families of the weavers as well as village leaders and those who visit them. I learned, while in North Sumatra, that it could also stimulate marketing demand by cultivating pride and interest in the tradition. At the end of the project, I found a message in my email from a recipient of the book who claimed that those to whom he had shown the book felt “very proud”. Pride is an essential component in the survival of cultural traditions.


I am very grateful for the funding assistance that I have received to be able to research, write, and publish Legacy in cloth. Increasingly, however, I find it strange that none of the granting institutions stipulated that the research results be given to the “informants”. For the Back to the Villages project, I found an alternative source of funding consistent with the goals of the project.

See donations to the Back to the Villages project.


See my blogs for feedback on book gifts as they happened.


Download the Pdf file (1.7Mb) for a words and images account of Proyek Pulang Kampung/Back to the Villages Project from June 2010 to December 2011.


Go to a page on my blog where all the blogs that I made throughout the Proyek Pulang Kampung/Back to the Villages project are linked.


Go to the Simalungun Weaving Centre information page to see my response to the crisis in Batak weaving and on which, since 2016, I have been focusing my energy.