A Kelantanese cleaner's journey into kelingkan stitching


Nik Marhammah (right) is happy to share her knowledge in kelingkan to craft enthusiasts like Siti. Photos: The Star/Sheela Chandran

Siti Nurul Liyana Mohamud, 22, was in a jovial mood after receiving her certificate in kelingkan, a traditional Malay embroidery, under The Silver Lining Project (TSLP), organised by the Malaysian Craft Council and co-funded by Khazanah Nasional’s Yayasan Hasanah and the Finance Ministry in Kuala Lumpur recently.

Together with her four workshop coursemates, Siti eagerly posed for selfies and wefies with their teacher, Nik Marhammah Nik Megat, 50.

Nik Marhammah and her grandaunt Nik Rahimah Nik Idris, 82, a former royal tailor for Istana Balai Besar in Kota Baru, are Kelantan’s last remaining kelingkan embroiderers.

Siti, from Kubang Pasu in Kelantan, went for the six-month kelingkan training course at Nik Marhammah’s home in Kampung Taman Uda Murni, Kota Baru.

Siti (second from left) and her workshop coursemates pose with their teacher, kelingkan crafter Nik Marhammah. Photo: Amirul Muhammad Siti (second from left) and her workshop coursemates pose with their teacher, kelingkan crafter Nik Marhammah. Photo: Amirul Muhammad

Earning the certificate means a lot to her.

“I’m so happy that I have managed to complete this course. After finishing my Form Five, I had many jobs... as a cleaner, a helper in a biscuit factory, and doing odd jobs around my village. I could only earn between RM500 and RM1,000 each month.

“Now that I have learnt this craft, I can increase my income. But more importantly, I can uphold a tradition that is slowly fading,” says Siti after her graduation ceremony in KL.

Nik Marhammah eagerly welcomes anyone interested in learning kelingkan. Nik Marhammah eagerly welcomes anyone interested in learning kelingkan.One of the aims of TSLP is to preserve heritage crafts in Kelantan, particularly kelingkan and songket weaving.

Siti knows learning a new skill is important because it could lead to her running her own home business some day. By learning kelingkan skills, she hopes to be able to make life better for herself and her loved ones.

“I worried about my future,” she says. “And I used to often wonder how I could improve my finances. I have always been interested in crafting, especially sewing and embroidery and so, when I was offered a chance to join TSLP, I grabbed the opportunity to acquire this new skill. Now, I can see a better future for myself,” explains Siti, the youngest of two siblings.

Nik Marhammah is happy with Siti’s progress, praising her talent and passion for kelingkan.

“Siti is dedicated, hardworking and creative. And, she’s a fast-learner. Her stitches are neat too. If she maintains this passion, she will be among the handful of crafters of our ancient heritage craft.”

Kelingkan adorned with golden metallic threads, has deep roots in Malay heritage, holding a place among palace women and nobility.Kelingkan adorned with golden metallic threads, has deep roots in Malay heritage, holding a place among palace women and nobility.

A matter of survival

Kelingkan is a type of embroidery where metallic strips of ribbons are stitched on fabrics like silk, voile, and satin.

The fabric is first stretched onto an embroidery frame before the artisan carefully threads a fine metallic ribbon – with a gold or silver finish – through a flat, double-eyed needle, making sure that it stays flat and doesn’t get twisted.

The needle is then pierced through the surface of the fabric, the metallic strips forming intricate patterns or designs in a technique known as “tikam timbus” (pierce and bury).

Kelingkan is also known as keringkam in Sarawak. In the past, these hand-stitched embroidery pieces were worn by Malay royalty and nobility.

Kelingkan, made with  golden metallic threads, has deep roots in Malay heritage, holding a place among royalty and nobility.Kelingkan, made with golden metallic threads, has deep roots in Malay heritage, holding a place among royalty and nobility.Typically, the borders are painstakingly stitched before the central pattern.

However, kelingkan is an endangered craft today due to a lack of skilled embroiderers, high production costs, and limited demand. The scarcity of reference materials and documentation about this art further contributes to its fading recognition among the younger generation.

Only three states, Sarawak, Selangor and Kelantan still have embroiderers who are actively doing kelingkan, according to a 2022 research paper “Artistic Heritage of Kelingkan Embroidery in Malaysia: History and Development” published in the International Journal of Academic Research in Business and Social Sciences.

Siti has started her entrepreneurship journey, having secured a few orders for her meticulously handstitched kelingkan shawls.

She acknowledges that kelingkan can be both exhausting and time-consuming. It takes about a month to complete a shawl which she sells for approximately RM1,000. She also often grapples with shoulder pain and discomfort after prolonged stitching sessions.

“My neck often aches at the end of a day spent stitching. On average, I can only spend up to four to five hours a day stitching kelingkan because it is also a strain on my eyes. But, even though it’s challenging, there’s a deep sense of gratification upon finishing each project. I take pleasure in the entire process of stitching these items.”

Heritage keeper

Nik Marhammah was 33 when she learned kelingkan from her grandaunt. Prior to that, she had no interest in kelingkan, as she found it tedious and time-consuming.

Even though kelingkan may be expensive and time-consuming to learn, Nik Marhammah believes in its cultural and artistic value.Even though kelingkan may be expensive and time-consuming to learn, Nik Marhammah believes in its cultural and artistic value.“I have a diploma in fashion design and I used to own a clothing boutique in Shah Alam for many years.

“In 2007, I travelled to Kota Baru for a short holiday and coincidentally, the Malaysian Handicraft Development Corporation (Kraftangan Malaysia) had organised a kelingkan workshop where my grandaunt was the instructor. Three students signed up for the course, but on the day of the workshop, two students dropped out. My grandaunt coaxed me to sit in as a replacement. Initially, I was reluctant,” Nik Marhammah recalls.

Nik Marhammah never thought she’d be able to learn the skill but, to both her and her grandaunt’s surprise, she picked it up rather quickly.

“Maybe it’s because I have the artistic craftsman blood running in me. Gradually, I started to develop a liking for this craft.”

This newfound love for kelingkan led her to a life-changing decision: Nik Marhammah decided to close her boutique and relocate to Kota Baru to focus on kelingkan and start her sewing business.

She now creates intricate kelingkan products that typically take between three weeks and a month to complete, using metallic ribbons she gets from Sarawak.

Nik Marhammah (left) and her grandaunt Nik Rahimah are Kelantan’s last remaining kelingkan embroiderers. Photo: Amirul Muhammad Nik Marhammah (left) and her grandaunt Nik Rahimah are Kelantan’s last remaining kelingkan embroiderers. Photo: Amirul MuhammadThe craft demands great patience and precision and the materials are costly, she says, as one one roll of 22 gold ribbons costs RM220.

Realising that the craft’s survival depends on the transmission of expertise, Nik Marhammah wants to pass on her knowledge. She says she will “eagerly welcome” anyone interested in learning kelingkan as she wants to ensure that this traditional Malay embroidery technique lives on for generations to come.

“I’m not selective in who I teach. I want to share this skill with as many people as possible.”

In the past 15 years, Nik Marhammah has taught 15 women the skill, although she acknowledges that not everyone is keen to learn the skill.

“Many are deterred by the cost and complexity of kelingkan and many prefer to find better paying jobs.”

Nik Marhammah (right) envisions a future where more students like Siti (left) can embrace kelingkan. Nik Marhammah (right) envisions a future where more students like Siti (left) can embrace kelingkan.Still, she emphasises the importance of preserving this art form, especially since she and her grandaunt can’t continue teaching forever.

Nik Marhammah believes it has cultural and artistic value even in today’s world.

Nik Marhammah envisions a future where more students can embrace kelingkan, creating not only beautiful shawls but also other products, perhaps even commercialising this traditional art.

“It’s about keeping the legacy alive and ensuring that the youth recognise the cultural significance of kelingkan.

“It can also provide women with an opportunity to earn an income from home.”


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