I had already heard of tais before I actually arrived in East Timor/Timor Leste. You only have to do a smidgen of online research about Southeast Asia's youngest nation to find out about its traditional textiles. It was my luck that the owner of the hotel where I was staying just outside of Dili, the Tibar Beach Retreat, was something of an expert on them.
Alice and her husband Rui, both native-born Timorese, had built the hotel on their return from exile in Australia, where they had lived for many years. Alice is a connoisseur of tais, and collects them on her own account in addition to selling them in the hotel's gift shop. She volunteered to accompany me to the Tais Market in downtown Dili to help me choose a few for myself.
She was as good as her word, and I ended up buying three tais from two different vendors, but first a word about what tais actually are. Tais are woven lengths of cloth with various colours, patterns and motifs. Favoured motifs include the national symbol, the crocodile. Other materials are sometimes used, but most tais are woven from cotton. The traditional method is back-strap weaving. More recently, machine weaving and synthetic materials have come into play.
For an explanation of the traditional significance of tais, I cannot do better than to reproduce the information posted in the tais exhibit at the Oriente Museum in Lisbon:
The museum displays some very fine specimens of tais. It's not explained on-site, but they're of such obvious quality that I assume they must have been made for very high-status people.
These colours are considerably richer than the ones I saw at the Tais Market in Dili. Let's take a closer look at the one on the right.
I think it's a male tais, which I was told are narrower and shorter than female ones, and have longer tassels. If I'm wrong about this, please give some gentle correction in the comments.
In close-up, you can see the fineness of the work.
The three that I ended up buying in at the Tais Market aren't quite as fine as the ones pictured above, but they're still very nice. Alice identified one of them as being vintage (the vendor said "antique," but was very hazy about how old it might be). She also said which part of Timor it was likely to be from, but I'm afraid I've forgotten what she said, exactly. It's worth noting, however, that different colours, patterns, and motifs are deployed in different regions, and even in different families or clans.
I displayed my tais in the Lotus & Persimmon tent at the Monday Market in Kincardine's Victoria Park this year (2017). Two of them are pictured below. The one on the right is the vintage one. Both feature a stylized crocodile motif. Both of them are quite wide, and are in fact three panels sewn together.
I'm offering the ones pictured above, as well as one that features Indonesian-style ikat elements, for sale on this website. If you're interested, please click not the product descriptions at the bottom of this page. For more about East Timor/Timor Leste, please click on the links to other Timor-related articles also at the bottom.
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