Advocate for traditional textiles and co-owner of Threads of Life
I feel extremely fortunate to have had Balinese and Indonesians as my teachers and guides.
Tell us your story – how did you get here?
Like so many others who came to Bali before me, I arrived from California with a backpack, a few clothes and three books in 1987. I took a Bemo to Ubud, and after wandering around, I met a man named Darta on a small side street near the Pura Desa who said he had a room. I followed him up a tree-lined street that became a dirt path to #24 Jalan Kajeng and entered his home to the sound of priest bells and incense as they were blessing a new gate.
At that time there was very little electricity in Ubud. I used a small kerosene lamp to read my three books. No one asked me what “I did”, which was disquieting and a relief. I was just Jean. The streets were quiet then and the nights still as the few bemos and motorbikes that were in Ubud stopped operating at dusk sandikala – the time when humans retreat inside and the other world can wander the world.
I ate with the family – well I ate the same food as the family, but at that time, no one ate together – everyone took their food and went off into a corner with their back turned to me. “We are eating rice which is a form of Dewi Sri; we see eating as a quiet reflective time – not social”, explained Darta.
In 2001 when we wanted to open a gallery for Threads of Life, there was no question about it that it would be located at Jalan Kajeng #24. My husband William, co-founder of Threads of Life, wrote a book in the 1990s about our time in Bali and with this family on Jalan Kajeng. It’s called “A Little Bit One O’Clock – Living with a Balinese Family” and is available online through Amazon.
What accomplishment are you most proud of?
The accomplishment or endeavour that I am most proud of is the founding and nourishing of Threads of Life from 1998 to present. This journey has been the most complex, rewarding, and humbling endeavour of my life. I feel so fortunate to have Threads of Life as a window that has allowed me to see into traditional life and the role that textiles play in the culture, not only in Bali, but in the 10 other islands we work with.
More so, I feel extremely fortunate to have had Balinese and Indonesians as my teachers and guides. They have helped reshape my western perspective into something that can “grok” traditional cultures and present them to a western audience through the textile arts in a way that these cultures see themselves.
What impact have you made in Bali?
With the Bali bombings in 2002, William and I worked in Sanglah Hospital on the phones. As we could speak Indonesian, we could answer the calls where people were asking about loved ones and help direct them to who could best answer their questions. I think this was a time when the Balinese saw that westerners truly cared about Bali and were not just here on holiday. We worked with the Balinese to create the Peace and Unity parade in Ubud to show solidarity between Hindus and Muslims.
With this time came lots of aid money – and we were offered a grant to work with weavers in remote parts of Bali to develop weaving traditions in the same way we were working with natural dye weaver groups on remote islands of Lembata, Timor, Sumba and Flores.
Given our five staff at that time were all Balinese, this idea was met with great excitement and so Threads of Life started the revival of ritually-important natural dyed cloth in Bali: the red dyed Cepuk on Nusa Penida, the silk supplementary woven Songket in Sideman, the black and white Poleng from Sideman and the multicoloured slit tapestry weave Rangrang in Pejeng.
One of the criteria Threads of Life has in determining what textiles to revive is that the textiles still need to have local, cultural, and ritual importance to assure a local market. Today, there is a strong Balinese market for these cloths – even with the economic downturn due to the pandemic.
What does 2022 look like for you?
Given the Pandemic and the utter financial collapse on Bali due to the island being 70% reliant on tourism, it’s impossible to separate myself from the Threads of Life organisation; the 35 staff and 1200 weavers. When the pandemic started in March 2020, we had to close the Threads of Life Gallery in Ubud which was generating close to a half million dollars a year just from walk-in foot traffic. This little jewel of a gallery on our old home street Jalan Kajeng has been the only outlet for selling textiles produced by more than 1200 women on 11 islands among 50 weaver groups. So we immediately went to work and poured our hearts, souls and time to get the products up on our Theadsoflife.com Virtual Gallery.
Over the past 22 years of operating Threads of Life, we developed a precious mailing list of about 3,000 customers. A small percentage of these became our first online customers and to this day, they have continued to purchase from us online.
Today as I write this, Threads of Life is 1/10th of what it was in 2019, but we have managed to keep all of our staff employed and our gallery has just reopened to the public from Thursday until Sunday. We have been able to finally go to the field after two years and have started to buy in small quantities again from our weaver groups. Our purchases are IDR 20,000,000 compared to IDR 100,000,000, but the loyalty and friendships that we built up over the 22 years of working together has seen us through this time.
With Bali slowly opening to tourism, we see a glimmer of hope.
In your opinion, what’s the most inspiring design space in Bali?
This is an interesting question – you are posing it to someone who has spent the last 22 years thoroughly immersed in traditional cultures, and yet I am acutely aware of how little I know about this outside world of art, design and how this is a new cultural evolution on the island.
Design spaces that inspire me are the forests and rivers, temples and old traditional ritual sites. What remains utterly mesmerising to me is to sit and watch a ceremony unfold with the incense, priest bells and kidung songs reminiscent of a time when I walked into Jalan Kajeng #24. Or to be told an old story about growing up by Darta. Or to listen to an elder in Timor talk about how if someone were to steal from the community, he would send the members of the community with seeds and animals to bring to the thief, so that he would never have reason to steal again.
These opportunities give me time to reflect on my own life, my thought processes and my values, and in turn leave me feeling that all is right in the world.
Who is your Local Legend and why?
I Made Janur Yasa of The Plastic Exchange who was recently named a CNN Hero. The Plastic Exchange is “a sustainability movement that empowers communities to change their waste behaviour through dignity-based exchange systems that result in cleaner, healthier environments.“