Textile Retreat in Bali with Roberta Leary
Updated: May 7
Creative Living Retreats evolved from my 20 years as a gallery director in Perth, alongside my love of yoga and making art. Now, after 8 years, and 19 painting retreats later, here is the first textile retreat, working with Perth-based designer Roberta Leary.
Indonesia's textile traditions are rich and varied, and here on Bali, tucked into the mountains close to where I call 'home', is the Bali Aga village ('traditional Balinese') of Tengenan, famed for its double ikat hand-weaves. Tengenan is an important destination for discerning collectors who appreciate the mind-boggling complexity of these fabrics where the pattern is pre-dyed into the weft threads (for 'double ikat') and / or the warp threads (for single ikat) to produce the uniquely recognisable motifs which have enjoyed a 'fashion moment' in recent years.
Visiting Tengenan for a detailed encounter with its villagers and their traditions has been just one of the activities this week, as a group of twelve textile enthusiasts joined fashion designer Roberta Leary and me for a week-long retreat to create our own textiles whilst learning about local traditions, meeting artisans and sinking into the languid pace of life in the secluded seaside village I call 'home'.
Mendira village is a pleasant 90-minute along the south coast from Bai's airport, but for those who knew the island in the 70's, it's a step back in time. A gateway to the less-visited eastern part of the island, the nearby town of Candi Dasa retains the charm of 'the old Bali' : streets not choked by traffic, (no-one wearing face masks against the pollution experienced in Kuta or Seminyak these days ), no high rise development, and just enough smart restaurants and bars to keep it interesting. It's Slow-Living, and it's why we love it. A perfect place to retreat, and just one of the reasons I've called my Creative Living Retreats retreats, and not workshops … the other reason is the yoga.
Yoga has been a 'refuge' for me throughout my adult life … a place, a feeling, a practice to drop into with more-or-less regularity … often, when life is busy, it's' less', so to offer twice-daily yoga sessions as part of the art retreats seems like one of life's ultimate luxuries. Our participants turn up at 9am for a 30-minute stretch, and lay down tools at 5 pm to start the 90-minute practice which varies each afternoon, according to the energy of the group
This year we've all been completely charmed by Angelina (above, at Villa Nilaya). Her guided practices gently coaxed limbs and ligaments into alignment, surprising us with small challenges along the week's yoga journey - "just give it a go", she'd say, and indeed we did ! - and when the day's activities had been intense, our time 'on the mat' became restorative, with supported poses of deep rest and rejuvenation, her poetry bringing peaceful imagery to our mind's eye as the endless ebb and flow of the sea below lulled us towards the close of the day. Even those who didn't participate in the yoga found it recuperative to simply lie on the mat and listen. Yoga's like that.
What bliss to arise in the dimming evening light from a 25-minute shavasana (a restful pose lying on the mat), and tread downstairs to find candles flickering on dark teak, and delicious Balinese cuisine prepared by Ketut and Nengah awaiting our hungry arrival.
My vision of yoga being the 'vessel' holding each retreat has been beautifully realised by Angelina, and I'm delighted that she will be joining us here for all 5 retreats in 2020.
And Roberta Leary is returning too!
Roberta is something of a textile guru in Western Australia, and to enjoy her undivided attention and sheer love of teaching for a whole six days was a dream come true - I've been cooking up textile retreat ideas ever since I visited the island of Flores 6 years ago, and this year it became a joyful reality.
Our retreat began at 9 am on Day 1 with a traditional Balinese Welcome Blessing of each participant at Villa Nilaya, the home I built by the sea here 8 years ago. It's the 'retreat hub' - the place where all the art and yoga happens for the next 6 days, punctuated at regular intervals by breaks for fragrant Bali coffee, gingered tea, healthy buffet lunches and every alternate night, dinners drawing on the zesty flavours of east Bali, where life remains more authentically traditional than most other parts of the island.
Retreatants walk the 4-8 minutes from their choice of various beachside bungalows and hotels in the village which I've booked for them many months in advance (it's high season here during Southern hemisphere winter), along a quiet village track, arriving just in time to head upstairs to the yoga room overlooking the sea, for some breathing practice, dynamic movement and a 5-minute shavasana before heading downstairs to the outdoor workspace. This happens each day - yoga sets the scene.
Our first day was spent learning the first seven of many complex techniques developed in Japan, to create both subtle and dramatic patterns on fabric by pleating the fabric and binding it in different ways to create a 'resist' in the dye bath.
Roberta is a patient teacher. Everyone gets to try everything on a silk scarf or a rayon sarong before deciding what they want to do for their garment - a silky kaftan or a linen shrug - and the dyeing itself is an afternoon of 'bucket chemistry' with local sea salt mordanting the dyes and soda ash to fix them. Once the rinsing water runs clear it's time to untie the binds and see what happened!
Shibori dyeing is an elegant 'resist' technique, the predictability of the outcome imperfect, so unwrapping the dyed fabric is always an exciting surprise. Some chose jewel colours as bright as tropical blooms, but perhaps it was no surprise that sapphire blue, indigo and sea green were most popular, given that we were working beneath towering coconut palms and jungle-y foliage just 20 metres away from the shoreline of the beach at the bottom of the garden.
After our staff have ironed the fabrics, each garment is cut by Roberta and sent to our local tailors to make up...
Meanwhile, there's more to do, and the next technique to master is that of stencilling fabric. We've chosen elegant arabesques this year, with a hint of Morocco in the background, and learning to align or register the stencil on the fabric, to repeat the design is a good grounding for creating one's own designs, which we'll offer on the Advanced Textiles Retreat in 2020.
Roberta has thoughtfully chosen designs to include shapes which can be embroidered into, and lines which can be stitched along, so the possibilities for embellishment are myriad, and the likelihood of pleasing outcomes high … and so they were:
European cushion covers or long-eastern style bolsters in dyed or natural linen, printed all over by hand in a contrasting or tonal shades providing the base for the following days when Roberta introduced a repertoire of easy-to-learn stitches to make a swift start.
At every turn, colour and design are considered and discussed. what makes something 'exciting' , and 'pop' ? How could one take a chance and make the safe choice 'sing' ? Here Karen Sabitay came to the fore with her artists's eye turning to a palette of silken threads rather than paint.
Throughout the week surprises abound, one of our most popular events is a hands-on cooking lesson with our executive chef, Dewa Ardika. We cook a Balinese heritage menu before enjoying our efforts over dinner and cocktails.
June and July are temperate times in Bali, with only occasional rain, so it was on such a day that we decided to head for the hills to visit a batik studio specialising in the use of natural indigo and pomegranate skin dyes, whose use was explained in some detail before our textile passions were unleashed in the boutique over morning tea.
With shopping desires quenched, a visit to an ancient temple site preceded a leisurely lunch overlooking verdant rice paddies, before the meandering drive home, via Sideman's famously picturesque terraces. Yoga at 5pm, as usual, and dinner at home brought to a close a perfect penultimate day.
Our final day, day 6, was dedicated to concentrated completion of various works, or at least enough headway made to be able to continue, most participants taking away skeins of thread and tiny tassels brought by Anna from Morocco, to complete their works at home. There will be a finishing day with Roberta at her studio in Perth for sewing up the cushion covers and making sure that everyone has achieved their goal of completing 3 pieces during this 6-day retreat.
And the final night ? Instead of hanging works of art on the wall, each garment was worn to dinner at a jazz club in town, after a fashion parade and drinks at Villa Nilaya - who could have imagined that those bolts of white cloth 6 days ago could have become the jewels of wafty silk modelled by each artist? AMAZING results !!
Who came to this retreat ? This first textile retreat has been a revelation, attracting professional women who love the meditative peace that decorative stitching brings, a mother and her three 20-something daughters, all of whom have become 'sewing converts', textile collectors, and others who having experienced the painting retreats here decided to turn their hand to other creative endeavours. As diverse as the group was, the love of fabulous textiles and the urge to make things was the common ground from which we began, and by the end of the retreat, friendships have been forged which will last long after the retreat finishes - this lovely outcome so often the result of spending dedicated time together.
Whilst many had practiced yoga before to some extent, others who were less able never the less found the yoga environment conducive to wellbeing, and our yoga teacher is more than capable of creating alternative sequences and poses for those at different levels, and a wide array of dietary preferences were catered for.
The aim of this retreat, as it is for all of my Creative Living Retreats, is to provide a supported environment where participants can float from one activity to another without wondering how it's all going to happen. Activities, meals, materials, trips and transport … it's all taken care of for 6 splendid days by the sea.
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