The fabric of a society of Ibans

Saturday March 19, 2011
The fabric of a society

A private museum and gallery in Kuching strives to keep the Iban heritage alive.

Agnes Lia Belon creates an intricate pattern in the textile, weaving one thread at a time. This is the sungkit (supplementary weft) technique, one of the three methods used for making Iban textiles. The other two are ikat (tie and dye) and anyam (supplementary weft-weave).
An example of sungkit.

“I’ve always enjoyed weaving, but when my children were young, I didn’t have the time nor the opportunity to learn,” says the 59-year-old Iban from Saratok, a town about 140km east of Kuching.

But thanks to the Tun Jugah Foundation, women like Belon can take up the Iban tradition of weaving at the Datin Amar Margaret Linggi Pua Gallery in Kuching.

This charitable organisation, founded in 1985, is the legacy of the late Tun Temenggong Jugah Barieng (1903-1981).

Tun Jugah was the first Sarawakian Federal Minister and one of the key players instrumental in bringing Sarawak into the Federation of Malaysia in 1963. The Foundation also runs a museum and the Leka Marik bead gallery.
Melia Linggi Brown is continuing her mother’s work preserving the Iban’s ikat tradition

Aside from showcasing rare, centuries-old pua kumbu, the Margaret Linggi Pua Gallery runs weaving workshops and demonstrations for the public.

A weaving gallery, fashioned after the longhouse ruai (common veranda), holds about 20 looms for tying and weaving. Weavers use the facilities for free and only pay for their yarn. The end products are kept for their own use or sold at the Gallery. Two instructors are on hand to guide the weavers. The Gallery is a godsend for weavers who have left their longhouses to move to Kuching with their families. Currently, there are 15 weavers from various parts of Sarawak.

Founded in 2000, the Gallery is the legacy of the late Datin Margaret Linggi, a passionate advocate of pua weaving preservation. A collector of antique pua, Margaret comes from five generations of weavers, but she only started learning to weave and documenting the tradition in 1990.
Producing a pua kumbu using the oldest method in fabric design, tie and dye.

Through her marriage to prominent Iban leader and former politician, Datuk Amar Leonard Linggi Jugah, the son of Tun Jugah, Margaret’s interest in pua deepened.

In an interview with The Star in 2003, Margaret said, “My sister-in-law is a weaver and well-versed in Iban folklore and rituals. From her, I learned how pua is tied to the Iban’s way of life, which greatly intrigued me.”

Noting the tradition was losing its appeal amongst the younger generation, Margaret was inspired to introduce weaving classes to keep the tradition alive.

In 2001, she wrote an extensive book on Iban weaving called The Ties That Bind: Iban Ikat Weaving.

Since 2000, the Gallery has been organising talks, visits to longhouses, pua competitions, joint research projects with universities and run workshops like the Indigo Dye Workshop to share dyeing techniques with Indonesian textile experts.
Research assistant and weaving coordinator at the Pua Gallery with an Iban sungkit jacket

Today, one of Margaret’s daughters, Melia Linggi Brown, has taken over her mother’s role as the director of textiles.

“Since my mum passed away (in 2006), we have dedicated professionals to run the gallery,” explains Brown. “We’re keen on preserving traditional patterns and using all-natural dyes.”

Over time, some traditional pua patterns are slowly vanishing. Heirloom pieces are usually handed down within families. Many antique pua in the market have been snapped up by foreign or private collectors. One of Margaret’s works was to get traditional patterns replicated so they would not become extinct. Now Brown carries on her mother’s work by getting the Kapit weavers to replicate the old patterns.
Agnes Lia Belon is one of the 15 weavers who regularly come to the Weaving Gallery to use the free looms.

“The point is to preserve the Iban material culture — nowadays, I don’t know of any ladies my age who know how to weave a pua,” admits Brown, 40. “Not only is it time-consuming and tedious, natural dyes are hard to come by and it’s difficult to make a living from weaving.”

The story of pua

For centuries, pua has been an intrinsic part of Iban life. Most Ibans — the largest indigenous group in Sarawak — still live in longhouse settlements along main rivers and tributaries.

In the headhunting days, the woven cloth was used to honour the heads of slain enemies on the longhouse ruai. In the egalitarian Iban society, the highest prestige in the village went to the men who were the best headhunters and to women who were master weavers.

Pua is used as ceremonial cloths to mark milestones — from birth to marriage to funeral and afterlife. A newborn is swaddled in pua for his first bath in the river. When a relative dies, pua is hung up as curtains to shelter the body of the deceased. The textile marks the start of the farming festival, Gawai Batu, and is used to veil the altar (pandong) in farming rituals.

“In Iban language, pua means blanket and kumbu means a cover to wrap over your body,” says Shirley Vilin Ikok, a research assistant and weaving coordinator at the Gallery.

“Traditionally, we weaved textiles mainly for sarong and pua kumbu. Pua is weaved using the ikat (tie and dye) method. The size of pua has to be 1.2m x 2.4m.” What you see in the souvenir shops are basically serpih or pieces of pua.
A traditional wedding outfit. — ZULAZHAR SHEBLEE/The Star

“Some of these rituals are still practised in longhouses especially amongst the animists,” explains Janet Noel Rata, the Tun Jugah Foundation curator. “But some Iban Christians still perform these rites as tradition rather than religious practices.”

“We believe you have to treat the pua kumbu used for ceremonies with respect — you can’t step or sit on it,” adds Ikok, 49.

Mired in taboo

For the Ibans, the woven textile is used to appease the human and spirit worlds — to ward off evil spirits and beckon the gods. Thus the weaving process is not only labour-intensive, but also steeped in superstitions and rituals.

Traditionally, weavers used natural dyes from the engkudu roots, sebangki tree bark, engkerebai and tarum to get shades of maroon, rust or indigo.

“If we use engkudu to make the dye, we have to go through the ngar ritual — a complex process to make colourfast dye for cotton textile,” says Ikok, a weaver for almost 20 years.

Engkudu-dyed pua have gorgeous, deep burgundy hues and is highly valued by the Ibans. This process isn’t required for other natural dyes like sebangki or tarum. And silk can be dyed with engkudu without going through the ngar process.

One of the gallery’s efforts includes replanting engkerebai and tarum trees to promote the use of natural dye.

A master weaver with psychic powers could, through dreams, contact the spirit world and translate those dreams into patterns.

“Not everyone can weave all the patterns, only master weavers can weave bold patterns like the Rang Jugah, Gajai or Sempuyung,” explains Rata, 50.

“The belief is, if you weave some taboo motifs, your soul will become weak and you will fall sick.”

But even among the weavers, there are conflicting opinions about which motifs or patterns are permissible and which aren’t.

The collection

Adjacent to the gallery, the Tun Jugah Museum houses an extensive collection of heirloom jars, urns and ceramics, antique costumes and accessories and ceremonial swords. Displayed amongst these artifacts are rare pieces of pua kumbu and sungkit.

“The oldest pua kumbu on display is 200 years old,” says Rata. “All the pua are part of the late Datin’s collection, including heirloom pieces.”

The gorgeous and bold imagery of the pua is alluring, not least the myths and stories surrounding each piece.

“This particular 100-year-old piece, called the Gajah Meram, has a pattern that is only allowed for the purpose of receiving head trophies,” explains Rata.

Another interesting piece called the Tangga Baji comes with the Iban mythology of a man named Baji who tried to reach the sky.

“The patterns show how he built these ladders to reach the sky but every time he reached a certain height, he fell. Then he went up and fell down again,” Rata adds.

The trading frenzy of antiques from Borneo, whether they are pua, beads, ceramics or ceremonial swords, means many of these rare treasures end up in private collections and museums abroad.

“This is one of the main reasons why we started this museum, to keep the Iban material culture alive,” says Rata.

Keeping the tradition alive

Many pua pieces in today’s market are fashioned as shawls, table runners and household decorations with ordinary patterns and not the taboo motifs, Ikok adds. The market rate for a handwoven pua kumbu is about RM3,000 or more.

But for Belon, the pua she painstakingly crafts, will be handed down to her children and grandchildren.

“My grandchild is 13 years old. I hope one day she will be able to weave just like me,” says Belon whose great grandmother used to weave.

“We still keep the heirloom pieces but we don’t wear them anymore because they’re precious.”

From Monday to Friday, Belon spends hours hunched over the back-strap loom. It took her six months to master the basics. It takes one to two years to complete a pua kumbu. After 11 years of hard work, she has fashioned four pua kumbu and many smaller pieces of sungkit pua.

“The interest and passion keeps me going. If you don’t have the interest, you’ll never finish weaving a pua kumbu,” she says with a smile. “Besides, we’re lucky to have this foundation to help us maintain our culture.”

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