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Palepai Ship Cloths – Threads of Ancestry

June 27, 2015 2 min read

Palepais are the most magnificent members of the Sumatran Ship Cloth family.

The others – Tampans & Tatibins – are smaller and have fewer restrictions on usage and inheritance.

Tampans are the smallest usually squarish and less than 1 meter long on each side. Tatibins are about 1 – 1.5 m long rectangular pieces.  But Palepais are over 3 m long.

Further, while Tampans are used by all descendants of the family, the Palepai is special. Only the direct male descendant of the clan founder had the right to inherit and use the family’s ancestral Palepai and display it on the walls during all family events.


Gittinger’s article suggests that there are 4 types of Palepais

1. Weavings with a single large blue ship sprawling across the textile

2. Weavings with two blue ships side by side

3. Weavings with rows of stylised humans

4. Weavings with 4 or more discrete designs

Here we have two Palepais, both with Red Ships that do not fit into the segments mentioned.

Screen Shot 2015-06-05 at 10.29.00 pm

This textile shown is very similar to the one at the Metropolitan Museum NY with respect to the character of the threads and weaving [thicker threads, tighter weaves, stiffer design than some of the oldest ship cloths seen.]. The Met Museum Palepai is said to be from the 19th century, If we use the similarity as the basis for estimating age, that may be the natural conclusion for this cloth shown above.

The second cloth below is appears to be from an earlier time as the base cloth is finer than the one above. But in both cases I have many questions. And I hope to find answers  through an interview with an 80+ year old dealer through whose hands hundreds of such ship cloths have passed.

Antique Tampan Palepai Ship Cloth from Lampung Sumatra

These textiles are no longer woven today and the older examples are from the 19th century. All woven before the devastating Krakatoa volcano eruption.

Age and rarity are  definitely factors that add to the allure of the textile.

But going beyond that, is the cultural symbolism contained in it which makes this a majestic textile. Those that would have been handed down the centuries would have seen family histories being written!

And at the final level, the crafting of such a textile is itself a wonderous thing. The supplementary weft, the loom, the management of the various threads, the symmetry … all of these would have required some superior expertise.

But all we have is the final product from which to draw out all stories, real or imagined.

And so it is no wonder that acquiring these leads to a little celebration!




June 2015

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