I wrote this in Yap but have just now gotten around to getting the pictures ready...hopefully you enjoy reading it as much as I did writing it...
Through our travels in Yap, I’ve obtained quite a collection of lava lavas. I’ve paid for some, I’ve been given some. Some were very pretty, some were kind of out there and some were said to be “cheap.” What they all have in common is their origin. Women in the outer islands of Yap are known for their intricate patterns and creative use of colors in these hand woven skirts. Traditionally they were made out of thread made from hibiscus bark and dyed in colors derived from natural elements. Over the years, the process has simplified and they have begun to be made out of colorful threads found at the local store, similar to the thread we use to sew or embroider with in America. I use the term simplified loosely as this is no simple process. I was soon to find out how difficult it was first hand.
I expressed an interest to my Yapese friend Agatha, originally from the outer island of Wolei, in seeing how these lava lava’s were made. I had seen the various parts of the loom and the threads in the stores, but I had no concept of how it was actually done. What started out as a simple curiosity, soon turned into a project for both Agatha and myself. She was going to help me make my own lava lava.
I met her at her house on a Sunday morning to start the experience. She had laid out all of her lava lavas and I was to first pick the pattern that I liked most. The patterns appear to be very similar when you’re out in town admiring others, but when you sit down and try to pick one out, you start to recognize all of the small details that make one stand out from another. Fortunately for Agatha, I’m a pretty quick decision maker, not one for too much pondering, and we were on our way to the store for step two…picking out the main colors. Yap is a small place so it didn’t take long to find what I wanted despite having to go to two stores. Now it was time to prepare the threads in the pattern I had chosen and get it ready to go on the loom. Agatha and I made a date for later in the week to get started.
Our first session was an eye opener for me. The preparation of the thread involves a piece of wood with 5 small poles attached perpendicular to the wood. There’s lots of knot tying and lots of looping of the thread around the poles. Agatha started and after a few dozen rows, she offered me a turn. It took a few tries but eventually I got the hang of it. There was so much to remember; which pole to wrap the thread around, keep the string loose but not too loose, don’t forget to go ALL the way around the back, etc. It was apparent after about five minutes that if I were to be the one making this lava lava, we were going to have to move to Yap. Since we were planning on leaving in a week, Agatha was generous enough to offer to make it for me, “I enjoy this. Please let me do it.”
The weaving itself was fascinating, but I quickly noticed that this is a social event as well. All of the women in the house gathered to watch and help and offer opinions. Girls are taught from a very young age how to weave lava lavas. Lava lava is actually the English name for it. In Yapese it’s called a toeru (pronounced tear, as in rip, with a little Yapese twist that I’m unable to reproduce with this southern drawl). Each woman develops her own manner of weaving. They might add a little to a pattern or take some away, but it’s a small way to show off their personal style. The newer generations have even figured out how to weave their names into them.
After all of the details are sorted through, it comes down to good, old fashioned hard work. While sitting on the floor, a belt is strapped around the waist of the weaver and attached on either side to the loom. Several rods are pushed through the threads to hold it in place and differentiate between sections. After each pass of thread, a large wooden board is used to tighten the weave. It’s back breaking work and I, for one, was glad Agatha wasn’t holding me to my naïve notion of “making my own.”
Working at night on the lava lava, after an already long day at her job as a nurse, Agatha spent a long hard week finishing up. I went to their house the day before we were to leave Yap to pick up the finished lava lava and was overwhelmed with the dedication and work that went into this gift for me. What started out as a kind of cool thing to have turned into a bonding experience that left me with a friend for life. I hope Agatha felt the same way. I will always cherish my experience and friendships made in Yap and while I don’t think I’ll need reminding of how much I enjoyed it, it’s nice to have this beautiful, hand woven, one of a kind lava lava to help bring those images up whenever I please.