Top 5 handicrafts from Sarawak


It takes several days for Kelabit beader Sinah Rang Lemulun to complete a beaded headpiece. Photo: Ken Zhong Wong

During the pandemic, Sarawak’s crafters are embracing digital technology and making inroads into the global market to promote their products. Sarawak Craft Council (SCC) manager Diweng Bakir says many homegrown crafters are exchanging ideas with craftspeople worldwide as well as turning to social media to learn new skills.

“With the new norm and new way of e-commerce, many of our local crafters are utilising various online and social media platforms to promote and market their handicraft products.

“Sarawak’s handicraft community will come out stronger from the pandemic. Crafters, 80% of whom are womenfolk, will be more resilient coming out of the pandemic and empowered to embrace the changes brought on by the Covid-19 health crisis,” said Diweng in an email interview from Kuching recently.

SCC has continued to introduce training programmes even during the pandemic to enhance thier crafter’s knowledge so that they can increasing their productivity and make their products more marketable.

Colourful handwoven baskets are made from bamboo, rattan and recycled plastic. Photos: The Star/Zulazhar ShebleeColourful handwoven baskets are made from bamboo, rattan and recycled plastic. Photos: The Star/Zulazhar Sheblee

“SCC’s handicraft home training programme is still ongoing during the pandemic. A master crafter is engaged to train between three and five trainees from their village. However, trainers are discouraged from teaching people outside their communities due to the rising number of Covid-19 cases.

“The trainees undergo 12 hours of lessons a week for six months. The objective of these programmes is to create interest among the younger generation on the opportunities in handicraft making as a career,” said Diweng, adding that trainees follow strict adherence to the Covid-19 standard operating producers during the training sessions.

Diweng added it is essential to promote the unique and diversity of Sarawak handicraft to a global market.There are over 30 ethnic groups in the Land of the Hornbills, and each community has handicrafts that are unique to their heritage and culture.The motifs, colours and base materials are as diverse as the ethnic groups in the state, he adds.

“From weaved baskets and mats, made from available local materials such as rattan to the famed Ikat weave of the ceremonial pua kumbu, the variety of traditional handicrafts is huge.”

“And, the interaction among the groups and influence of other cultures have also resulted in creation of a whole different range of products.

Fiorita Sylvester is among a handful of Sarawakian women who are skilled in weaving pua kumbu, a traditional Iban textile. Fiorita Sylvester is among a handful of Sarawakian women who are skilled in weaving pua kumbu, a traditional Iban textile.

"For example, a native motif on a ceramic Chinese-style vase or the Kenyah ‘tree of life’ design on an Iban shield and Penan pihan (basket) are some new handicraft products that have come from the interaction and creativity of different ethnic groups,” he enthuses.

Diweng hopes Sarawak’s younger generation will preserve their traditional handicrafts because they are an important component of culture that should not be lost.

“The pua kumbu is associated with the Iban community and the sape, with the Kenyah community... it is crucial to impart the knowledge and history behind these traditional handicrafts to the younger generation. Hopefully, these will inculcate a sense of identity in them, be a source of creativity and possibly even become a career option for them.

“The increasing demand for traditional costumes, especially among the diasporas, points towards a movement of people re-discovering and identifying with their heritage that they are proud of in this borderless world,” he concludes.

Here are Sarawak’s popular handicrafts.

Pua kumbu This traditional patterned multi-coloured ceremonial cotton cloth is Sarawak’s signature handicraft item. The fabric is weaved from cotton and silk threads, using natural and synthetic dyes. It has made its presence in the international stage and fashion fraternity due to its unique in motifs and history.

Handmade knives The hand-forged parang is used as an agricultural tool as well as in furniture making. The blades are made using spring steel due to their high resistance to bending, snapping and shattering. For the handle, crafters use natural materials like local wood (kayu malam and kayu belian). Accoutrements like flowers and Sarawak’s tribal designs are carved on handles.

Sarawak's machetes, knives and blades come in various shapes and handles, including deer antlers and solid wood. Photo: The Star/Sheela ChandranSarawak's machetes, knives and blades come in various shapes and handles, including deer antlers and solid wood. Photo: The Star/Sheela Chandran

Traditional vases Curvy clay vases, which come in various sizes and have beautiful ethnic motifs carved on them, are among the must-buy items when visiting Sarawak. Sarawak-made pottery are generally made by the Iban, Murut and Kelabit potters and also Chinese potters and the range of products include decorative jars, lamps, candle holders, ashtrays, teapots, mugs and more.

Woven baskets Originally made from rattan, the Sarawak baskets are plaited incorporating creative motifs representing the state's different ethnicities. These days, these woven handicrafts are made from multi-coloured box straps due to the difficulties in obtaining rattan.

Beads Beads are a famous handicraft to many Sarawakian tribes like Kayan, Bidayuh and Kelabit. They are made into traditional headgear, necklaces, sashes and bead caps. These valuable items are used in ceremonial rites and rituals, including naming ceremonies and special thanksgiving festivals.

Notice the intricate beading work on these hats, called tapung bao dahthur. It takes hours to make each masterpiece. Photo: Ken Zhong WongNotice the intricate beading work on these hats, called tapung bao dahthur. It takes hours to make each masterpiece. Photo: Ken Zhong Wong

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