The Honolulu Museum of Art collection of Tais sui bobonat from the North Biboki district of North Central Timor Regency, West Timor, Indonesia
TypeArt fabric
Place of originSelaru Island of Tanimbar Islands (originally), Maluku Islands and East Nusa Tenggara Islands (in Timor Island; divided into West Timor of Indonesia and Timor Leste)
ManufacturerIndonesians and Maubere
Woman in Cova Lima weaving tais in 2009
Woman in Cova Lima weaving tais in 2009

Tais is a form of Tenun weaving tradition native to the eastern Indonesian regions of the Maluku Islands, the Tanimbar Islands, and the East Nusa Tenggara Islands (in Timor Island, the political government divided into West Timor of Indonesia and Timor Leste). It has become an essential part of people in the eastern Indonesia hemisphere region (as well as Maubere people in Timor Leste),[1] which mainly used for ceremonial adornment, sign of respect and appreciation towards guests, friends, relatives, home decor, and personal apparel.

Since 2012, Tais officially recognized by the Ministry of Education, Culture, Research, and Technology of Republic Indonesia as integral part of the National Intangible Cultural Heritage of Indonesia.[2]


Etymologically, the term tais is Selaru in origin,[3] which is a corrupted form of tapis taken from Lampung, derived from tapih in Old Javanese.[4] It literally means "cloth" or "fabric" (to cover body parts) in general.

History and social role

Origin background

According to historians, Tais history dates back to the 13th to 15th century era during the heyday of notable empire from western Indonesian archipelago hemisphere. It is possibly the Majapahit empire that was once launched a program to strengthen the economical status of people under its empire's territory. Tais is thought to be a form of simplification reconstruction or simple re-imitation process based on Tapis of Lampung people in the southernmost hemisphere of Sumatra (region with heavy Javanese influence); the name of Tais itself is possibly a corrupted term from Tapis which however adapted or derived from Old Javanese. During its development and deployment period, Tais eventually turned into a medium of exchange in barter that had a value as valuable as money for transactions.

Female Tais weaver in North Central Timor Regency of East Nusa Tenggara, Indonesia, c. 1900s
Female Tais weaver in North Central Timor Regency of East Nusa Tenggara, Indonesia, c. 1900s

Deployment and development

The process of influence deployment related to Tais is thought to be divided into two main periods, firstly during the heyday of Majapahit, and secondly when the colonizers from Europe arrived in the Indonesian archipelago (including Timor Island).

From Greater Sunda Islands to Wallacea

This first spread is thought to have occurred when the Majapahit empire program was originally intended to improve the skills and economics of indigenous people in the Wallacea region. These idea and creativity was brought from Java and Bali which later spread to Tanimbar Islands in Wallacea. But the practice that occurred turned Tais into a bartering tool instead, the main manufactor of Tais was being massively produced in the Tanimbar Islands.

From Tanimbar Islands to its surroundings

During the 1500s era, the Tanimbar Islands which is part of the Maluku Islands (a.k.a. 'Spices Islands') has become one of important trading spots when the Portuguese arrived in eastern Indonesia. This led to Tais gaining popularity and increasingly seen as a valuable commodity (in the textile sector).

Introduced to Timor Island

During 18th century, the Portuguese colonizers arrived in the eastern hemisphere region of Timor Island (these region evolved as East Timor in 1945-1999 and Timor Leste in 2002) and brought slaves from Tanimbar (especially from Selaru Island) to work with the locals of eastern Timor Island. Tanimbar people who bring their tradition then start to introduced their weaving tradition to the locals and Tais frequently has been used in barter as a unit of exchange, often for livestock or other valuables.

Social role

A female Tanimbar weaver in Tanimbar Islands (photo from the Tropenmuseum collection)
A female Tanimbar weaver in Tanimbar Islands (photo from the Tropenmuseum collection)
A Tais weaver in Tanimbar Islands, 1900s (photo from the Tropenmuseum collection)
A Tais weaver in Tanimbar Islands, 1900s (photo from the Tropenmuseum collection)

In ceremonial use, the tais is usually worn along with feathers, coral, gold and/or silver.[5] Still, the sale of tais has become common only in the last thirty years. Although small-scale commerce of tais is an important source of income for women, however, export is difficult and nearly all sales take place with foreigners.[5] In recent years, the public textile market in the capital Dili has seen an influx of foreign-made weavings, which often look like tais and are sold (and made) more cheaply.[6]

Weaving of tais is performed solely by women, with techniques passed down from generation to generation in an oral tradition.[1][6][7] The activity often serves as a community gathering as much as a chore of productivity, and served as a rare form of self-expression in the restrictive environment of the 25-year Indonesian occupation.

Tia Veronica Pereira weaves a special tais to commemorate the 1991 Santa Cruz Massacre
Tia Veronica Pereira weaves a special tais to commemorate the 1991 Santa Cruz Massacre

Tia Veronica Pereira created a black tais with the names of the 271 victims woven in red into it, to commemorate the victims of the 1991 Santa Cruz Massacre.[5] The influence of textiles on the lives of women is reflected in the East Timorese expression "bringing a thread and bobbin" in reference to a newborn child.[5]

During the occupation, Indonesian soldiers were a considerable market for tais weavers. In the 1970s, tais for the first time began to feature inscriptions, usually written in Indonesian. In the era of independence, tais artisans have begun specializing in customized weavings, as well as tais-like products such as handbags and scarves.[5]

Since 1999 workers in NGO's and the UN bought tais to take home as gifts and mementos and new messages found their way into the tais in English and Portuguese as well as Tetun. A quite remarkable fact, given that most of the weavers are found in rural areas where they have not had the opportunity to learn how to read or write.

Many people wishing to assist East Timorese women develop income streams have imported tais for sale and assisted weavers and sewing groups to produce items such as purses, bags, cushion covers and baskets that are saleable in Australia and elsewhere. The selling of tais is rapidly moving off-shore as many of the people taking these initiatives belong to Local Government Friendship groups in Australia.[8]

An East Timorese man in traditional attire, including tais mane
An East Timorese man in traditional attire, including tais mane

Traditional Timorese culture is supported by growing, cutting, tying, knotting, weaving, dying and sheathing a variety of fibres, grasses and leaves for ceremonial and practical purposes. The weaving of the tais plays an integral role in Timorese life and especially women's lives: shaping identity and attitudes towards them. Before the introduction of currency and after, the tais has been used as a valued object of exchange in gifting and ceremonies. Textiles are the art-form of the South-east Asian region and often the most beautiful tais are used to wrap around the bodies of loved ones for burial. Its role in wedding arrangements and the associated family ties, is attributed by some writers with contributing to the maintenance and strength of Timorese identity despite hundreds of years of colonial occupation. A Forum was recently held in Melbourne to stimulate and expand the debate and dialogue about the impact of commodifying the tais because it is a craft grounded in culture and sacred life.[9]


Tais in the National Parliament
Tais in the National Parliament

The imagery and patterns of tais vary greatly from region to region, but they often include messages of locale and significant events.[6] Imagery often includes animals such as the crocodile, upon which the creation legend of the island is based. Geometric patterns known as kaif are also employed in most tais.[1]

Styles of tais worn on the body are differentiated by gender: men traditionally wear the tais mane (or "man's cloth"), a single large wrap around the waist usually finished with tassels. Women wear the tais feto ("women's cloth"), a form of strapless dress woven in the shape of a tube.[6] A third type known as the selendang, a slender cloth worn around the neck, has become popular in recent years.[5]


Women in Lospalos weaving tais in 1986
Women in Lospalos weaving tais in 1986

Using mostly cotton threads, the cloth is created during the island's dry season, almost entirely by hand. The use of cotton is a legacy of the Portuguese colonial era, when Timor was an important port for the trade in the material. Synthetic fibers like rayon, acrylic and polyester are becoming more common as they are imported more cheaply into East Timor.[1] A single tais can take anywhere from several days to a year, depending on the complexity of design and variety of colors used.[6]

Dyes are used to create bright colors in the tais; these are mixed from plants like taun, kinur, and teka.[1] Other dyes are derived from mango skin, potato leaf, cactus flowers, and turmeric.[7] Individuals skilled in mixing dyes are sometimes compared to alchemists, using traditional recipes for creating desired colors.[1] Although colors carry different associations from village to village, red is often used predominantly, as it is connected to long life and courage, in addition to being the base of the East Timorese flag.[7] When the United Nations became the administering power in East Timor from 1999 to 2002, tais markets increased production of blue fabrics to match that organization's trademark flag.[10]

A collection of tais from around East Timor, 2003
A collection of tais from around East Timor, 2003

One of the most common tools for tais weaving is the back-strap loom, which allows tension on the cloth while the warp is manipulated. The pressure from the strap and the time required for the intricate designs on many tais produce significant pain for many women.[7] During the 1999 wave of violence known in East Timor as "Black September", many tais weavers saw their tools and equipment stolen or destroyed. Recent years have also seen a decline in the number of young women learning traditional methods of tais weaving.[6]

Regional variations

Designs, colors, and styles of tais production vary greatly in each of East Timor's thirteen districts. In the enclave of Oecussi-Ambeno, Portuguese influence is most apparent, with floral and religious imagery predominating alongside subdued shades of black, orange, and yellow. In the capital city Dili, by contrast, bright colors and solid panels reflect the focus on tais commerce.[1]

In the district of Ermera, black-and-white designs are most common, reflecting the royalty of the traditional leaders, who often lived in the area. The village of Manufahi produces tais with certain common animal themes, specifically the lizard and pig.[1]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h Sacchetti, Maria José. "Tais: The Textiles of Timor-Leste" Archived 26 January 2007 at the Wayback Machine. Timor-Leste Government Tourism Office. 2005. Retrieved 7 February 2008.
  2. ^ "Tais Pet Tanimbar". Ministry of Education, Culture, Research, and Technology of the Republic Indonesia. 2012. Tais of Tanimbar Islands
  3. ^ Temmar, Vany Helyna (2010). "Dampak Sanksi Harta Buang Berdasarkan Keputusan Latupati Kecamatan Selaru" [The Sanctions Impact on Disposal of Assets Based on the Latupati Decree of Selaru District] (in Indonesian). Satya Wacana Christian University. ((cite journal)): Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  4. ^ Budiman, Hary Ganjar (2013). "Makna dan Nilai Budaya Tapis Inuh pada Masyarakat Pesisir di Lampung Selatan" [The Meaning and Cultural Values of Tapis Inuh in South Lampung Coastal Communities]. Patanjala (in Indonesian). 5 (3). doi:10.30959/patanjala.v5i3.116. Retrieved 4 March 2021.
  5. ^ a b c d e f Niner, Sara. "Strong Cloth: East Timor's Tais". Craft Culture. 2 September 2003. Retrieved 7 February 2008.
  6. ^ a b c d e f Delaney, Dawn. "Threads of Hope". Craft Culture. 7 May 2003. Retrieved 7 February 2008.
  7. ^ a b c d "Hand-weaving: threads of hope". East Timor Women Australia. Retrieved 7 February 2008.
  8. ^ Friends of Suai.
  9. ^ Suai Mediaspace.
  10. ^ Pride, p. 17.