The island of Sumba in eastern Indonesia has become renowned among collectors for their fluid and sophisticated artworks, in particular their ikat dyed textiles. Ikat is a resist-dye technique that differs from similar methods such as tie-dye in that the resist is applied to the yarns before they are woven into a cloth. Once the handspun threads are placed on the loom, experienced weavers tie waterproof resist material around the yarns, determining at this early stage the final design and pattern of the cloth. The threads are then dyed, often multiple times, to achieve rich and varied tones. Traditionally only two dyes were used: indigo blue and a rust-red dye called kombu, taken from the roots of the Morinda tree.

One of most well known cloths are called Hinggi, traditional sarongs worn by men on ceremonial occasions. They were tied around the waist or worn over the shoulder, at times also functioning as shawls and blankets. The color and motifs of the Hinggi determined the social class of the wearer. Hinggi Kombu, dyed predominantly red, were exclusive to royalty and the nobles. The secret of kombu dyeing was kept well hidden by the noble women who wove them. Men of the common class were only permitted to wear indigo blue and white cloths, called Hinggi Kaworu. However, elaborately designed Hinggi Kaworu were often also favored and donned by noble men.

Equally as valuable as the dyes – or perhaps more so – were the designs. Symmetrically woven on either side of a central vertical axis, the motifs included geometric patterns as well as animal and human figures. Certain animals were symbols of wealth and status and could only be worn by nobles. Deer with impressive antlers, for example, reflected not only the majesty of the king but also a tradition permitting only the nobles to hunt the animal. Horses were perhaps the singular most important symbol of power, rank, prestige and courage, ridden into war to exemplify the strength of the rider. They also held ceremonial importance as it was believed that spirits of the deceased were carried to the afterworld on the backs of mystical horses. Motifs of aquatic creatures such as fish, lobsters and octopuses were associated with the afterlife and ancestor spirits who were believed to occasionally take their forms. The Naga snake and crocodile were held in high regard for their intelligence and deadliness but also for their dualistic nature of living on both land and in water – straddling the border between life and death.

Textiles have long been a valuable commodity for the people of Sumba. Economically, they were the center of export trade for hundreds of years; culturally, they were used in gift exchanges, denoted status and illustrated tribal identity. When not in use during ceremonies the Hinggi were carefully stored in a basket under the roof of homes, accounting for the excellent conditions of the textiles, some of which are well over half a century old.