Categories: Culture

Through the Threads of Time

Malaysia is strategically located at an important crossroad, and over many centuries it has been a destination for visitors and traders from distant lands. With each wave of arrivals, came new ethnic groups—each leaving an indelible print on the culture of Malaysia, especially in the realm of fabric arts. Known as tenun (derived from the Malay verb menenun ‘to weave’), the country’s textiles share similarities with that of its Indonesian counterpart: both are woven from silk or cotton, and feature beautifully checquered patterns accented by harmonious colours. Indeed, Malay artisans attribute their skills to Bugis settlers and merchants from Sulawesi, with most textiles notably produced in Pahang, Kelantan and Terengganu.

Following the 1669 Dutch capture of Makassar, the Buginese found sanctuary in the Malay Peninsula and had since influenced textiles and clothing styles within the region. Such is the case for Keraing Aji, a Bugis dignitary and master weaver credited to have improved the handloom craft in Pahang. A former royal himself, he and his men were believed to have initially sailed to Kota Tinggi in Johor. Not long after, his clansmen aided Raja Sulaiman to reclaim the state’s throne from Raja Kecil on 4th October 1722. Having resided in Johor for a brief period, Keraing Aji later left for Teluk Kandang, Pahang, and it was there where he was warmly welcomed by its residents. Here, Kampung Mengkasar was formed (a nod to his birthplace no less), and a new chapter of tenun was born.

A sea-faring Buginese whose pinisi (schooners) once carried ceremonial textiles, it came as no surprise that Keraing Aji himself knew a thing or two about the art of tenun. Of those, the technique known as calendering was imparted to his newfound settlement of Kampung Mengkasar: by polishing starched fabric with smooth cowry shells and beeswax, cotton threads not only shine like silk but are also waterproof. This particular method is specific to the people of Bugis and is locally known as gerus (from the Buginese word garusu). In addition, the process makes for an ideal base for the exquisite kain telepok, which is punctuated with glue-work gold leaf floral motifs. Often worn by high society, the cloth is also considered a luxurious gift as well as a dowry amongst nobility and royalty.

Singapore Port, early 19th century

Given the innovations exalting the traditional kain sarung (sarong), it’s easy to see how the state’s finery has grown to amass interest far and wide. This fascination was propelled even further by the opening of Singapore as a trading port in 1819, which saw imported raw materials such as cotton yarn from England and silk thread from China being brought into the region. And as demand grew, so did the handloom industry—many nearby villages from Kampung Mengkasar, including the famed Pulau Keladi, had already learned the art of tenun passed down by Keraing Aji. In fact, almost every home at this time had looms for weaving. Due to its popularity as both a skill and industry, the region’s textiles were being traded and formed an important part of Pahang’s state revenue. In his book Kisah Pelayaran (Tales of Voyages), historian Munsyi Abdullah who visited the state of Pahang in 1838 recorded: “… The goods were brought out of Pahang: the largest in quantity being gold and tin. Some woven silk and yellow wood were also brought out, as well as some resin and rattan.”

It’s worth noting that even despite political upheavals and the Industrial Revolution, tenun endured. Between 1857 and 1865, almost all economic activities in Pahang came to a near standstill due to civil war, and the British colonial government that was then establishing its power in Malaya focused its attention on other materials to fuel the expansion of manufacturing in Britain. Indeed, competition was rife as western industrialisation allowed for the development of cheap, mass- produced, factory-made textiles in the 19th-century. As a result, there was an aversion to cheaply made foreign fabrics with many Malays—especially aristocrats—seeking out more finely- made textiles. However, its demand was not near enough to sustain the artform’s continued growth, and thus, enthusiasm dwindled. Nevertheless, fortune favours the brave and there are those who still believed in the craft. Accounts and annual reports from the 20th century written by British colonial officers serving in Pahang detailed attempts made to revive the weaving industry in Pahang. In 1903, British resident Cecil Gray wrote: “… a programme to encourage weaving and embroidery enterprise for Malay women was launched in Pekan …’

Initially met with backlash, Gray was conscious that the local people’s antipathy to British rule was an obstacle and realised that any success in re- establishing the tradition of weaving in Pahang depended on the support from the royal family. With the help of Her Royal Highness Tengku Ampuan Besar Tunku Meriam, consort to Sultan Mahmud of Pahang, Tenun Pahang was revived to not only become the ceremonial attire amongst nobility and dignitaries but also as the gift of choice to be presented to guests of the palace whether they were locals or hailed from abroad. As a result, the state’s weaving industry continued to receive support from the Government of Pahang, having evolved from stately regalia to a symbol of pride. Eventually, by 1916, Gray was delighted to include in his report: “Several pieces of fabric with beautiful patterns were produced during the year. The cloth had a good market. It is hoped that the production of the fabric will be increased when the rules and regulations are ready to be implemented so as to get more silk from China …”

Her Royal Highness, Tengku Ampuan Besar Tunku Meriam photographed with His Majesty Sultan Mahmud in Tenun Pahang

Initially met with backlash, Gray was conscious that the local people’s antipathy to British rule was an obstacle and realised that any success in re- establishing the tradition of weaving in Pahang depended on the support from the royal family. With the help of Her Royal Highness Tengku Ampuan Besar Tunku Meriam, consort to Sultan Mahmud of Pahang, Tenun Pahang was revived to not only become the ceremonial attire amongst nobility and dignitaries but also as the gift of choice to be presented to guests of the palace whether they were locals or hailed from abroad. As a result, the state’s weaving industry continued to receive support from the Government of Pahang, having evolved from stately regalia to a symbol of pride. Eventually, by 1916, Gray was delighted to include in his report: “Several pieces of fabric with beautiful patterns were produced during the year. The cloth had a good market. It is hoped that the production of the fabric will be increased when the rules and regulations are ready to be implemented so as to get more silk from China …”

The same year also saw a weaving instructor appointed to teach at a Girls’ School in Pekan. In an effort to encourage awareness, five units of looms were donated to the school. Meanwhile, the state required government personnel to wear the Tenun Pahang with black and white horizontal stripes (the colours of the state flag) as a samping (sarong), democratising the handspun accoutrement beyond the confines of formalwear. Here, the symbiotic relationship between royalty and rakyat(the people) is profoundly illustrated; the expression of the native weavers who, because of their unconditional love and loyalty to their ruler, dedicated their lives to the art.

Living In A Material World

Such devotion is testament to the craft’s longevity, prevalent even throughout the darkest days of history. But this isn’t to say it isn’t without its challenges: during the Japanese occupation of the Malay states in 1942, major setbacks emerged due to artisan’s heavy dependence on imported raw materials. With shortages abound, new orders could no longer be fulfilled. Once again, weaving in Pahang suffered and faced a decline.

Much like his predecessor Cecil Gray, Pekan District Officer, M.J.T. McCann endeavoured to revive the industry post-war. Along with an endorsement from the Chief Minister of Pahang, Datuk Mahmud bin Mat, the state government provided assistance in the form of training programmes for new weavers, raw materials, and the maintenance of weaving equipment to sustain the industry.

It took less than a decade for the industry to bloom anew, and in the early 1950s, Tenun Pahang Diraja set a new course of direction—international acclaim. During this time, Selama binti Sulaiman (d. 1958), a direct descendant of Tok Tuan, was invited to London to showcase her woven masterpieces. Despite her absence due to poor health, the British Government recognised her skills by awarding her the title “Tenun Pahang Exemplary Weaver”.

Such achievement on a global scale had no doubt paved the way for a new generation of weavers, later inspiring the development of a silk weaving centre. Located in Kampung Pulau Keladi, Pekan, the facility was originally initiated by the then Rural and Industrial Development Authority (RIDA) in 1964 and soon became an important tourist destination as well as a training hub. Given the talent spillover from Kampung Mengkasar, Kampung Pulau Keladi is now considered as the beating heart of tenun and has since taken on the role of gatekeepers of the craft. Today, the village not only serves as a cultural centre, but also houses a gallery and boutique.

Her Majesty Queen Azizah overseeing a group of trainee weavers in Pulau Keladi, Pekan

Several more approaches were designed to further boost this time-honoured craft. However, there is one that set itself apart from the rest. As if to come full circle, Her Majesty, Queen Azizah established The Tengku Ampuan Besar Meriam Tenun Pahang Diraja Institute in honour of her great-grandaunt, who was instrumental in developing the industry with British officials in 1903. Also situated within the Kampung Pulau Keladi Cultural Complex, the institute provides education to those interested to learn and master the art of weaving following a proper syllabus, with a curriculum drafted by Her Royal Highness herself. In addition, the academy also provides rehabilitation courses for prison inmates in the state. Through this, detainees are given a second chance at life.

For more than 12 years, Malaysia’s ‘Queen of Hearts’ has sought to propel the state’s beloved expertise through various platforms; as fashion-forward pieces on the runway at London Fashion Week designed by Bernard Chandran; official apparel for heads of state during the 2015 ASEAN Conference; and preserving the spirit of tenun through the Tenun Pahang Diraja Foundation.

Now a fashion statement, the demand for tenun amongst consumers increased dramatically. In order to keep up with demand, Her Majesty The Queen founded the social enterprise, cheminahsayang, in Pekan. With the foresight of making the state’s symbol readily accessible, the entity now doubles up as a label and offers employment to released inmates as well as professional weavers. Launched in 2016, the company sees a collaborative effort between Her Majesty The Queen and the state’s prized weavers; from design to production, Her Majesty is involved in every step of the way, often engaging in conversation with weavers on new motifs, new techniques and stock distribution.

Why The Queen of Malaysia is Promoting Prisoners at London Craft Week

These remarkable initiatives have not only protected a major textile craft par excellence but also brought the Tenun Pahang Diraja into the limelight, subsequently promoting a unique heritage that continues to be a hallmark of Malaysia’s national arts and culture. Recounting the threads of the past, there have been close calls where the craft almost vanished several times. Today, however, it has been restored, and its true value recognised. Its cultural, historical and artistic significance—immeasurable.

This article is based on the book ‘Tenun Pahang Diraja. A Fashion Tradition’, published by Muzium Pahang. More on Muzium Pahang here.

Frank Nelwan

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Frank Nelwan

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