The ‘Pua Kumbu’ Ikat Weavers of Rumah Garie Longhouse in Sarawak, Malaysian Borneo

Edric Ong

President, Society Atelier Sarawak (Arts and Crafts Society of Sarawak, Malaysia)

Legends and myths abound in the oral history of the indigenous peoples of Sarawak, Sabah and Kalimantan Indonesia, Borneo related to textiles, dress and ornaments.  They are not merely a matter of attire, but are part and parcel of their whole philosophy and custom spelling out proper conduct, their moral life, mythological truth, and ritual tradition.

Perhaps the most elaborate of the Dayak dress and ornamentation involves the Iban people since they traditionally weave their own warp-ikat textiles.  The most numerous of the Sarawak people, they form 30 percent of the

State’s 2.5 million population.  They are related to the Dayak of Kalimantan Indonesia, from where they migrated 40 generations ago.

The fine art of Iban Pua Kumbu weaving is defined by how well the weaver is able to tie the “curl” or the “hook” that is so characteristic of the Pua Kumbu weaving.  It is related in a “julok” or poetic language to me by master weaver Bangie Ak Embol:

The curl must not be larger than a lady’s thumb,

It must be “tight and close”,

It is like your nail sticking to your flesh,

It is like the tadpole sticking to the leaf,

Fallen into the swift flowing stream,

It is like true friendship,

Never betraying one another.

To most scholars and collectors of Iban textiles, the “finest” Pua Kumbu were made in the Saribas river basin.

With the finer cotton yarn, and with the prosperity of the community, the women master weavers could spare the time to develop their skills and artistry to such a high level that they reputably established a recognizable distinction of placing an outermost white border for master pieces of Pua Kumbu.

However, with affluence and education, and therefore the draw of their longhouse folks to live and work in towns, came a decline in the knowledge and art of weaving in these traditional renown weaving areas.

At present, the acknowledged top weaving group is from Rumah Garie Longhouse (formerly known as Rumah Atong) along the banks of the Sungai Kain (literally meaning River of Cloth).  It is from this community that the Winners of the 1998 UNESCO CRAFTS PRIZE FOR NATURAL DYE WEAVING, Karama Ak Dampa and her daughter, Bangie Ak Embol come from.

It is also this particular group of weavers who took up the challenge of using silk yarn instead of the traditional cotton yarn in 1988 at the WEAVING CULTURAL LINKS – International Weaving Seminar organized by Society Atelier Sarawak.  They went back to experiment with it and mastered weaving in silk with excellent results.  To quote a Textile Museum curator friend, they became the only floor-loom, back-strap, warp-ikat silk weavers in the world!

Karama, Bangie and her group of weavers became evangelical Christians 20 years ago.

Today, they have discarded the traditional taboos of old, and have found in their faith a new liberty and a new spirit!  Instead of making the traditional sacrifices to the weaving goddess like Kumang during the “Ngar” mordant bath ceremony, special Christian prayers and blessings are made.

It is through this new liberty that has allowed them now to rediscover and repeat the old patterns that were previously associated with the former headhunting rites.  They have also discovered that in their mastering the silk yarn on their back-strap looms, they are able to tie the fine patterns, as well as achieve beautiful natural dye colours quite quickly because silk yarn did not require a mordant bath, unlike cotton yarn!  The doors were open to new discoveries and new frontiers of expression of the IBAN SILK IKAT WEAVING.

Bangie Ak Embol is now the acknowledged leader among her community of weavers, having inherited the mantle from her late mother, Karama Ak Dampa, who passed away 5 years ago at the age of 85 years.  In a traditional sense amongst the weaving community of women particularly in the Kapit District, the status of the master weaver/dye master is still highly regarded.  However, this is only so amongst the Iban people knowledgeable about the Art of Pua Kumbu weaving.

Outside this circle, in the Iban society at large, (what more to say, amongst other people groups), such traditional high status and role is little appreciated or recognized.  The new generation of Iban girls would aspire more to be lawyers, teachers, nurses, and secretaries, anything but a weaver!

The honours won by Bangie and Karama in the UNESCO CRAFTS PRIZE COMPETITION FOR NATURAL DYE WEAVING (ASIA PACIFIC) in 1998, and their works being accredited with the UNESCO Award of Excellence for Crafts since 2001, plus the publicity that is being accorded to them, with invitations to exhibit their textile art in overseas galleries and museums, have contributed to a current high esteem appreciated by the weavers.  This has given the weavers a boost in the recognition of their art.

It is heartening to know, and to see, that at least in one family, that of Karama and Bangie, that the tradition of Iban textile art will continue from generation to generation.  Her daughters-in-law, Regina, Milin and Anna are now accomplished weavers, and her grand- daughters are already assisting in tye-ing, and learning through observation what her grandmother and great-grandmother are doing in the “Ngar” mordant bath for cotton yarn, and the natural dye process.

There is therefore a continuity in the handing down of skills and tradition through the weaving art at Rumah Garie.

Teresa Sawin, 34 years old, won the top prize for ikat textiles at the World Crafts Council Young Weavers’ Competition held in Hangzhou, China in 2008.

Another master weaver, Mula Ak. Jama, won 1st Prize for her silk Pua Kumbu at the Asean compeitition in Bangkok in 2009.

Bangie Embol has also been conferred the ‘Adiguru Kraf Negara’ by the Malaysian Handicraft Development Board.  She is invited to teach the art of Iban ‘Pua Kumbu’ weaving throughout Malaysia; in the Asian region and travels to exhibit and promote the works of the weavers internationally eg in  USA, Britain, Europe, Japan, Australia and Asia.

As the master painter uses his brush strokes in all confidence, so does the Iban Pua Kumbu weaver tie her threads; a curl here, a curl there, none bigger than her thumb, moving across the warp by the light of her oil lamp.

Not till the loom is silent

And the shuttles cease to fly

Shall God unroll the canvas

And reveal the reason why.

The dark threads are as needful

In the Weaver’s skillful hand

As the threads of gold and silver

In the pattern He has planned.