The Iban tribe of Sarawak in Borneo is best known for their longhouses, headhunting history and rich repertoire of nature-inspired designs and crafts.
Their Pua Kumbu — meaning “blanket” and “to cover” — is a handwoven textile with tie-dye patterns similar to “ikat” but with much more imaginative motifs.
It has been collected by enthusiasts since the British colonial days in the 1800s.
Today, beyond Iban tribal ceremonies, the Pua Kumbu has also been made into shawls, clothes and decorative items.
Nature as inspiration
During George Town Festival 2017 on the island of Penang, Malaysia, I was able to see a small but well presented exhibition called “Textile Tales of Pua Kumbu – The Sacred Journey”.
Here’s a quick tour. It’s quite a feast for the eyes.
The standard Pua Kumbu is about 4 x 8 feet.
The Pua Kumbu woven on the loom is long, and can be joined on the side to make wider pieces.
Master at work
Master weaver Bangie, an Iban tribeswoman recognised by Malaysia’s National Craft Council as “Adiguru Tenunan Pua” (Pua Master Weaver) was on hand to demonstrate the process.
I was told she is 74, but she seems much younger and is a picture of serenity, perhaps the result of the calming process of weaving textiles by hand.
There were many Pua Kumbu on display, some with backlighting that allows viewers to appreciate their subtle shades.
I learned that the indigo blue, red and yellow hues are derived from plant: Marsdenia tinctoria, Mirinda citrifolia and Fibraurea tinctorial.
Locally, they are known as “Rengat”, “Akar mengkudu” and “Akar Penawar Landak”. (Akar means root).
There were also short, informative films that showed how the Pua Kumbu is made.
Thanks to the Pua Explorer app, viewers can now scan and identify specific motifs on the Pua Kumbu, such as pheasant and hornbill.
A beautiful production
I was impressed by how thoughtfully the exhibition was conceived — a fine balance of scholarship and aesthetic delight!
It gives the casual visitor an easy way to appreciate the value of this traditional craft.
“Textile Tales of Pua Kumbu” is conceptualised by Dr Welyne Jeffrey Jehom and Prof Harold Thwaites and is a collaboration with the Rainforest Fringe Festival in Kuching and George Tow Festival in Penang.