Weaving with Hope. A series of articles on Tenun Pahang Diraja in celebration of its exhibition at the London Craft Week 2022 (May 9 – 15)
In a busy hall filled with looms, more than 80 pairs of hands get to work on the season’s tenun masterpieces. Some, in technicolor magentas and blues, others in royal shades of yellow and gold. The sound of weaving floats through the air, as warp yarns set upon beams meet heddles and wefts. But unlike any other ateliers, weavers are dressed in colour-coded jumpsuits, with only identity numbers in lieu of a nametag. It’s almost hard to believe that this is a common scene at Penor Prison, and yet here in the confines of this 200-acre enclosure in Kuantan, Pahang, is where second chances are made reality.
The brainchild of Dato Mustafa bin Osman, Director General of Malaysian Prisons, an initiative was conceived in 2006 to preserve the hand-looming tradition of Pahang. This idea was envisioned as a result of industrialisation and fast fashion, which caused less demand and even fewer artisans specialising in the art. It certainly didn’t take long for authorities to realise the potential prisoners had, and with good reason: according to research by RAND Corporation in the United States, inmates who participate in correctional programs have 43 percent lower odds of returning to prison than those who do not.
The rates are much higher in Malaysia. According to Prisons Department Director General, Datuk Ibrasam Abdul Rahman, “the parole system introduced since 2008 has seen 98 per cent of parolees joining the workforce,” he said in a recent interview with The Star. With this in mind, the state branch of Malaysian Handicraft Corporation and Weaving Centre in Pulau Keladi, Pekan, launched the Penor Prison Weaving Workshop. At that time, only five inmates were selected to pilot the program, and it is only through their success did this endeavour flourish to include 200 detainees more.
It’s worth noting that while Penor Prison itself had already been established as a correctional centre, the introduction of tenun as a vocational skill took the facility to the next level— especially given its patronage by Her Majesty Queen Azizah. Driven by her passion for the métier, The Queen has become the project’s key advocate, often visiting Penor Prison to personally evaluate and examine work produced by its inmates. For most, this may seem like quite a daunting task, but Her Majesty has taken it with stride; with a “hands-on” approach, participants are able to not only collaborate with the country’s ‘Queen of Hearts’ but also find a new lease on life.
Unbeknownst to most, the program’s royal conferment has successfully rehabilitated convicts back into regular society. In fact, this skill set is what allowed them a fresh start. According to customs, handloom weaving often requires weavers to observe certain practices such as fasting and purity of heart, recalibrating an individual’s behaviour. Paired with Her Majesty’s assistance, detainees who have completed their course are subsequently employed at the famed Pulau Keladi Weaving Centre, exploring new opportunities from designing The King and Queen’s coronation regalia to fitting state officials on an international stage.
Indeed, Her Majesty’s involvement is exactly what is needed to spark hope amongst Penor’s inhabitants. By inspiring this novel generation of tenun weavers, prospects are lifted, and their iron bars finally raised.