TIMOR – the island. Lets go on a journey into a traditional land

Geologically, Timor is a limestone atoll ­ having risen out of the sea some four million years ago and still emerging at a rate of three millimetres a year as the Australia plate crashes up against the Asia plate. Limestone makes for good fossils, fish, ammonites, blastoids (the first sea animals), crinoids and dentoids­ from Upper Triassic about 300 million years old as well as Miocene 6MYO coral – but it makes lousy farming land.

Pressures of population growth in the last 60 years have taken their toll, and now the landscape is denuded and eroded, resulting in lower rainfalls according to the old timers.

Timorese people work hard at eking out an existence from gardens, 90% are subsistence level farmers and feeding livestock, although a few do have administrative jobs in the bigger towns. Bus and truck driving, service industries and selling goods at the market are some of the ways to supplement income in order pay to send their kids to school and where possible send the eldest boy to University.­ However, this rarely bears fruit for the rural family because only about 20% get jobs afterwards. This, along with the two-child policy, is having deep ramifications upon the social structures in villages, as the young invariably do not return to the kampong (small village) creating an unintentional genocide.

Remarkably a lot of what the Timorese refer to as ADAT or traditional cultural values still remain.

Timorese weaving tradition

I have been blessed to have found a small percentage of clever and talented weaving artisans. The tradition of Timorese weavings has been documented by a few­ and an in-depth study in the varied vastly intricate Timor textile tradition is by Ruth Yeager and Mark Jacobsen   (see Timorese Craft for details).

Many rural Timorese still wear their selimut – blanket, selendang – scarf or tais – sarong daily and usually have a special one for Sunday church and occasions such as ADAT ceremonies, birthing days, weddings and funerals. It is a point of pride because each textile is unique and speaks to the weaver’s status and members of her clan as well as her protective ancestors. This makes for bright and gay affairs on such days.

People from Mollo in north central Timor


Delphi, Zeus & Aja

The Queen and King of Boti – one of the two remaining Animist Villages

I have photographed and documented over 2,000 weavings. No two weavings are the same. A weaver inherits her motif and the construction of her textiles according to where she lives, and she may never weave the same story twice. Each handwoven piece has a story, it has a meaning. It is possible to identify a person’s clan and village to within 3-5km of her village as the textiles are area specific. The few exceptions to this rule are the cross-road pieces where intermarriage had created a blend of 2 unique styles.

For a number of years I despaired as I saw very few girls learning this craft, which used to be essential knowledge in order to marry (got to clothe the family). I am heartened to see small numbers of girls taking up the tradition and a recent decree by the Governor of the Eastern end of Indonesia for office workers and school children to wear the traditional cloths of West Timor has seen a massive upsurge and uptake.

I particularly value pieces woven with hand-spun cotton and natural dyes. Commercial factory threads and dyes are making great inroads, and the weavers of futus ikat tie-dying or sotis/lotis supplementary weft weave or float weave who use hand-spun cotton and natural indigo dye are becoming fewer.  Commercial thread is so much quicker to work with. Westerners understand short-cuts. One of my aims is to encourage the more traditional cloths by paying well at source.

Timorese carving traditions

The carvers of Timor are even more area-specific, with virtually only one province in each of East and West Timor continuing the tradition producing the authentic craft indicative of this Pacific Rim Island.  I have been fortunate to travel to the main carving areas and meet many personally.

I owe this legacy in part to Pak Piet Tallo, the then Premier of Timor Tengah Selatan (TTS), West Timor. He was a remarkable man who, among his many deeds, encouraged the people to retain and have pride their culture and craft.

Pak Piet Tallo ­ Govenor of NTT Some young carvers of today

One famed story is of how, when out in the villages, if he saw someone using a plastic container to hold their lime powder and crush it underfoot, then dig in his pocket, give money to replace the lime powder which is important in the Betel Nut chewing process. He would then tell the person to make another lime powder container (Kal-au / Dawan, Tempat Kapur / Indonesian) out of traditional material such as bamboo, wood, coconut, bone, buffalo horn or gourd and to embellish it with their traditional motif then use it with pride. The result is an amazing array of betel nut and lime containers in which we see Timorese carving at its most unaffected.

Additionally, Pak Piet would never shame his people for wearing their traditional hand woven Ikat (Mau – Dawan, Selimut – Indonesian) instead of trousers or skirts and to place their betel nut ritual gear into shoulder bags (cloth woven bags for the men and baskets for women). Thank you Pak Piet.

The art and practice of chewing betel nut (see also Culture and Daily Life in Timor) is still prevalent throughout West Timor with most men and some women enjoying a chew. It is a time to reconnect and cement relationships, at all levels; a time to sit in the shade, spin your cotton or work on your betel nut container, mask or statue and talk of the stuff of life.

Traveling in Timor has changed little over three decades.

From 1995 I travelled with my daughter who has her ups and downs with her Timor experience. Delphi can count amongst some of her numerous friends and experiences Kings and Queens, illness and joy, death and birth. Travel and accommodation is not luxurious and being “on the road” is not always as glamorous as it may seem. However, it is the journey after all not the destination.

I speak reasonable Indonesian and a smattering of the 32 dialects of two main local languages of both East and West Timor. I am learning to dance the shipping dance which changes most years depending on what, where and how much is to be brought back,­ one of the banes of many importers. Customs, quarantine and professional help even with packing are virtually non-existent in Timor, necessitating vast amounts of organisation and then there is the costs in Australia.

Getting the treasures assembled into one place, for packing and transportation to Australia, whilst travelling the length and breadth of the island is another logistical story: get up at the crack of dawn to greet the wonderful people who walk kilometres through the pre-dawn to bring me treasures that time constraints would otherwise have not allowed me to acquire; or head out to a market; or off on some tangent to another hopeful rendezvous I was told of, that may or may not yield gold.

I must give acknowledgment here to the good friends I have in Timor that back me up, patch me up and generally keep me going. It is often through their kindness that I manage to scrape through some of the most amazing situations with little more than naivete and pure instinct. The book is in its final edit! ☺

Preserving cultural integrity

My intention has always been to preserve cultural integrity and to try not to influence artists that might not understand that my suggestion or request is to be viewed as innovation only, not permanent modification ­ I hand out tools of the trade such as chisels and hole files with care, care not to change the face of the craft. Tread carefully and watch what you leave behind.

I contribute to households income by paying artisans and weavers directly and whenever possible adding a small gift.  I do have a “favourite” orphanage in SoE where Delphi gives toys she has outgrown and I donate clothes, books and pencils, and funds for much needed food and baby formula.

Over the years many of the artisans I collaborate with have aged, like me we are growing old together, so I have taken to bringing in as many pairs of reading glasses as I get donated and can afford to buy. I have learnt to vert glasses and test eyes and it is sheer delight to watch a person’s face light up when their world comes into focus again.

In my ‘other’ lives I am an aromatherapist, herbalist, masseuse and reflexologist I often find myself in a position to reconnect people with their more traditional forms of healing. I have met some very talented bone healers in Timor. Western medicines are expensive, sometimes fakes, difficult to access and often fail to cure, especially if the illness is connected to magic. Yes, another story.

I offer a range of unique treasures to good homes

I am able to obtain a variety of masks, ancestral figures, statues, guardian spirits, totem and offering poles. A range of traditional musical instruments, drums, guitars, recorders and flutes. Toys, puppets, jewellery. Walking sticks, weaving implements, beaters, spindles, pieces of the back strap loom, cotton gins or mangles for de-seeding the cotton prior to spinning, doors, seats, beds, totems, charms and fetishes, combs, amulets, maskettes and statuettes.

Plus a selection of betel nut and lime powder container has to be seen to believe. Along with an amazing variety of textiles. Grass woven baskets, bags, purses, containers and other assorted treasures.

Oddities such as large bamboo lunch boxes, crocodiles, toys, catapults and spinning tops, dice, hand-carved buttons and beads, low bake clay money pots and medicine pots. What I am able to offer after each hunting trip depends on what I am offered as I am loathe to place orders. Cov19 showed me and so many others that plans made in good faith are sometimes not able to be fulfilled hence I have not returned for 2 years. I miss my Timor family.

In 1993, whilst sleeping camped out in the villages I wondered what people slept on and I discovered Organic KapoK. Once I began unravelling that thread, with the potential of being a chemical free, sustainable bedding system I set about creating a business which now trades in pillows, doonas and mattresses. Owing to Australia’s strict quarantine rules I make the pillows and doona’s here using Okeo Tex® fabric.. www.goldilocksnaturalbedding.com.au

Because each product is unique I am unable to offer multiples of any items­ however, betel nut containers are plentiful, the exception being the range of organic KapoK.

It is my intention to continue to bring authentic Timorese craft to you to give good homes to for as long as I can. So please spread the word and support these living artists.


My invaluable traveling companions Delphi from 1996 and Aja Bordeville from 1992

My invaluable traveling companions Delphi from 1996 and Aja Bordeville from 1992.  Aja Bordeville has been a field collector and dealer of South Asian art and handicraft for over 20 years, based in Vancouver, Canada.  Her area of expertise is Eastern Indonesia with strong emphasis on contemporary Timorese Craft.        https://culturaltreasures.ca/

© Julie Emery / Timor Treasures 2022