Ulos is the traditional textile of the Batak people of North Sumatra (my people). In this region Ulos means blanket, where people here in the past used ulos mostly as a blanket or shoulder cloth (for a smaller ulos), to keep themselves warm as the Bataks usually live in the mountainous part of the land, and the temperature usually slightly colder up the hills. Different types of ulos have different ceremonial significance. The ulos is normally worn draped over the shoulders or for the larger ulos, they are used as a sarong, or dress for a woman. The Bataks don’t wear ulos every day, they are usually worn or used for ceremonial purposes, such as a wedding, funeral, birth or religious related events. Most Ulos are traditionally hand woven, but the designs and colour of ulos are evolving with times. Ulos that are vintage or antique proofed to have better quality, and they are normally left to the recipients as heirlooms.
Today ulos are being produced in bright colours and they are used for many different things, including fashion apparel, home decor, and other purposes which are not culturally related. Dark shades ones such as large Ragi idup, Sibolang, Sirara, and many other primary Ulos are still made in the same dark colours and much of the designs are still using the old ikat patterns. Quality of ulos made today vary, depending on how they are produced. Some ulos are still produced using the back-strap loom and some are mass produced using ATBM (Alat tenun Bukan Mesin), the shaft loom. As demand for Ulos is very high within the Batak societies, some low-end Ulos have to be produced in factories.
Ulos means a lot to me, it has a special place in my heart and as a woman who was born to a Batak family and someone who is crazy about traditional textiles, I feel truly blessed to have inherited a few family heirlooms. As a Batak person and with my grandmothers’ weaving background, is not strange if my knowledge on ulos is a little bit more extensive than any other Indonesian traditional textiles.
I have inherited several Ulos textiles left to me by mother, where a few them were left to her by her mother. Below is the Ulos Ragi Idup (in Batak language means the colours of life)which was woven by my grandmother. This type of ulos is often used for a very sad occasion, but on the other hand, is also worn for some very prestigious event in the Batak people’s lives.
I also have a special Ulos which was given to me on the day that I was born, an ulos which was considered as a guardian cloth in which my family believed that would protect me from evil. This ulos called Ulos Lobulobu. It is usually given to a mother who is expecting a child, someone who had experienced still born previously. This ulos would also be given to a baby whose mother is concerned about his/her health. This ulos is fairly small and interconnected with plaited frills. My ulos was made from very high-quality cotton, almost linen-like and coloured with indigo natural dyes. (please see image below).