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Culture Keepers: 8 Heroes Saving Malaysia’s Traditional Textiles 

In an era dominated by fast fashion, Malaysia’s rich textile heritage has often been overlooked. However, influential figures such as the late Datin Seri Endon Mahmood played a pivotal role in bringing batik into the mainstream. Similarly, the revival of songket, once the exclusive attire of royalty, owes much to the concerted efforts of individuals like the royals of Pahang and Terengganu. In recent years, organisations such as Yayasan Hasanah have been at the forefront of highlighting and supporting the artisans who have kept these traditional crafts alive.

Even so, it is also a race against time, as the artisans holding the key to these dying arts are at an advanced age. Some have successfully passed down their crafts, preserving traditions that are inextricably linked to their community’s culture. However, many others are at risk of becoming mere relics of the past. Meet eight artisans in Malaysia who have dedicated their lives to these traditional crafts, making their work all the more precious and urgent to preserve.

#1: Hajah Azizah, Embroidering Tekat From Royal Courts to Modern Art

There was a time when only the royal family had access to the luxurious embroidery known as tekat benang emas (gold thread embroidery).

This art form can be traced back to the 15th century during the reign of the Malay Sultanate of Melaka [1]. Initially exclusive to royalty, the intricate embroidery adorns the clothes and equipment of the palace. Tekat has also been seen in the embellishment of Baba Nyonya’s traditional attire. In Perak, the tekat once was designated as the official dress for the 20th Sultan of Perak [1]

Today, tekat is still actively being produced in Perak and Negeri Sembilan, and at the heart of its preservation is Hajah Azizah Mohammad Yusuf. Azizah, the fourth generation in her family to practise this delicate craft, assumed the mantle from her mother and grandmother, who embroidered for the Perak royal family in the 1920s and 1930s [2].

Azizah, who embarked on her journey with tekat at the tender age of 12 remains steadfast to preserve the traditional aesthetic by adhering to time-honoured techniques passed down through generations rather than relying on modern technology. 

However, in terms of tekatan, I still like to use my hands to maintain the authenticity of traditional art. That’s why many people argue why the price is so expensive that it reaches tens of thousands, but when I’m always invited to hold demonstrations everywhere, only then people know how to make it complicated and time-consuming in addition to using very high quality materials. – Hajah Azizah Mohd Yusof[2]

Azizah’s lifelong dedication to her craft has garnered her commissions from Malaysian royalty and international clients alike. Her expertise extends to designing gold-threaded flowers for Princess Diana’s shoes, a collaboration facilitated by none other than Datuk Jimmy Choo [2]. Over her illustrious six-decade career, Azizah has been honoured with numerous awards, including the prestigious Adiguru Kraf Tekatan by Kraftangan Malaysia, a recognition she has held since 1995.

To ensure the enduring legacy of tekat, Azizah operates a workshop and exhibition space in Kuala Kangsar, Perak. Here, she not only continues to create exquisite pieces but also imparts her knowledge to future generations. Her commitment to passing down the art of tekat is evident in the involvement of two of her nine children and several grandchildren, all of whom have inherited her passion and dedication.

I have also passed down this knowledge to my children and grandchildren. Even though they are educated and hold high positions, they have been inculcated in the art of tekat since childhood because I don’t want this heritage to just die. Even though I am getting older, this art is inseparable from me. As long as there is life in the body, as long as that I will pour my strength in defending this art.  – Hajah Azizah Mohd Yusof, tekat artisan [2]

#2: Amirul And Nik Marhammah, Lifting The Veil From Keringkam

Kelingkan or Keringkam is currently only being embroidered actively in three States, namely, Sarawak, Selangor and Kelantan.

Keringkam, a form of embroidery that originated in India, found its home in Sarawak during the Rajah Brooke era. Initially centred in Kampung Lintang, this intricate craft quickly spread, becoming a household skill. Made from thin, soft gold or silver threads embroidered onto fabrics like kasa rubia or chiffon, Keringkam holds a rich historical significance. In the past, it was exclusively reserved for royalty or noble Malay women, symbolising their status and readiness for marriage.

Breaking the mould of traditional female embroiderers, Amirul Shazlie Yusuf stands out as one of the few men in the art of keringkam. His journey began with a deep fascination for the selayah keringkam (veil) and selendang keringkam (shawl) that his mother, a bridal makeup artist, introduced him to. The exquisite veils and shawls adorned with intricate gold and silver thread embroidery captivated him from a young age[3].

Driven by a passion for the craft, Amirul immersed himself in learning the techniques, and attending workshops and classes with veteran weavers. Though he initially had no intention of turning his interest into a business, his growing expertise led him to take on orders. By 2014, Amirul had established himself as a professional keringkam weaver[3].

Back then, I could not figure out why it was expensive. Only after seeing how it was made, did I understand how much effort and care were put into producing just one selayah or selendang keringkam.– Amirul Shazlie Yusuf, keringkam embroider[3]

 A keringkam piece, whether it is a selayah or a selendang can take between 1-6 months depending on its complexity. The intricate work requires precision and patience, as each keringkam is woven with imported silver or gold threads from Turkey –  lending to the high price range from RM3,000 to RM30,000[3].

Source: Sinar Harian

However, in Kelantan, kelingkan embroidery faces the threat of extinction. One of the state’s last remaining embroiderers, Nik Marhammah Nik Megat, learned the craft from her grandaunt, Nik Rahimah Nik Idris, a former royal tailor for Istana Balai Besar. Nik Marhammah is on a mission to revive and preserve this dying art form [4].

Nik Marhammah stumbled on kelingkan embroidery in 2006 when her grandaunt invited her to learn the family craft. Initially reluctant, she quickly mastered the skill and has since become dedicated to its preservation.

I always see my grandmother and cousins embroidering kelingkan but I don’t feel like learning how to make them. After trying, only then did the feeling of fun and interest in embroidering kelingkan arise. – Nik Marhammah, kelingkan embroider [4]

As part of her preservation efforts, Nik Marhammah has trained 15 women in kelingkan, among her successful pupils is Siti Nurul Liyana, who successfully completed her 6-months training. However, many others have been deterred by the craft’s complexity and the cost of materials[5].

#3: Ngot Binti Bi, Preserving A Woven Tradition 

With patterns ranging from symbolic patterns such as ‘buah mempelam’ (mango fruit), ‘biji bunut’ (kernel), ‘motif pedang‘ (sword motif), ‘motif katak’ (frog motif), and ‘motif jambatan’ (bridge motif), telling a story of the natural and cultural heritage of the region. The Anyaman Tikar Pandan Bergerang is more than just a weaving technique. The guardian of this cultural legacy is none other than a nonagenarian, Ngot Binti Bi, who started pandan weaving in 1999[5]

From selecting and preparing the pandan leaves to weaving intricate patterns, each mat can take up to three months to complete, showcasing Ngot Binti Bi‘s dedication to quality and authenticity. The process begins with carefully selecting the leaves, followed by flattening, boiling, straightening, soaking, and sun-drying them. Only then are they woven into beautiful, functional pieces of art[6].

These woven mats serve various purposes within the community. They are used for prayers, as gifts during weddings, to welcome newborns, and even in funerary rites. Despite the physical toll that weaving takes on her ageing body, Ngot continues to weave, driven by a deep love for her craft and a desire to preserve this cultural heritage.

I continue to weave because my heart tells me to weave. But I’m old and I tire easily. It’s a difficult process to weave these mats. Often, my body aches after hours of weaving. But I continue to do it as I enjoy weaving. Slowly but surely, I can finish my handcrafted mats. – Ngot Binti Bi[7]

Ngot’s artistry has earned her numerous accolades. In 2005, she was awarded the prestigious ‘Seal of Excellence for Handicraft Products in Southeast Asia’ by UNESCO, highlighting the international recognition of her skills. In 2014, she was honoured with the title of Adiguru Kraf Anyaman by Kraftangan Malaysia, recognising her as a master craftswoman. Most recently, she received the Best Traditional Weaving (Plaiting) award at Yayasan Hasanah’s Hasanah Gold Thread awards, celebrating her excellence and innovation in Malaysian heritage textiles[7].

A cultural custodian, Ngot has tirelessly worked to pass down her skills to her children and grandchildren, hoping to inspire a new generation of weavers. 

#4: Norhaiza Noordin, Carving A Better Future For Telepuk

With patterns inspired by various blooming fruits such as jackfruit, durian, and coffee flower, telepuk patterns are crafted on wooden blocks made from jackfruit and jelutong wood. At the forefront of its revival is a distinguished master craftsman and Tokoh Kraf Negara recipient, Norhaiza Noordin. Famed for his wood carving expertise, Norhaiza’s journey into telepuk began in 2014 when he was approached to create a floral motif wooden stamp for this technique[8].

Fascinated by the rich history of telepuk that was once reserved for royalty and involves decorating fabrics with gold leaf or powder using intricately carved wooden blocks, Norhaiza engaged with various stakeholders including Kraftangan Malaysia, and Tunku Azizah Aminah Maimunah Iskandariah lending to the resurgence of the art form that has laid dormant for nearly 50 years.

This art is extinct because there is no demand. When a practitioner of the art of telepuk dies and becomes extinct, no one inherits this skill, causing it to die out over time.– Norhaiza Noordin, wood carver[9]

Norhaiza who is also the Adjunct Professor at Universiti Malaysia Kelantan has conducted extensive research, visited museums, and held seminars and exhibitions including Malaysia’s heritage Crafts exhibition during London Craft Week (LCW)[8] and the 8th ASEAN Traditional Textiles Symposium in Kuala Lumpur to put telepuk back on the map[9].

With over 50 wooden tools, Norhaiza was also behind the creation of a special wood carving inscribed with “ King Charles III, Coronation 6th May 2023,” displayed at the Malaysian Pavilion at LCW and presented to the King of England as a coronation gift. 

#5: Bangai Embol, Keeping Dreams Alive Through Pua Kumbu

The pua kumbu is a ceremonial textile of the Iban tribe in Sarawak, exclusively woven by a select few Iban women. Traditionally used in sacred ceremonies and rites of passage, the pua kumbu has now found a place in the commercial market, available as tailored clothing. Despite its commercial success, the true essence of pua kumbu remains rooted in its ceremonial origins. It continues to be a symbol of identity for the Iban community, ensuring that their stories and traditions are cherished for generations to come. 

The textile is currently made by a small group of weavers and within is Bangie Embol, familiarly known as Indai. Hailing from Rumah Gare, she is part of a seven-generation lineage of master weavers. Bangie’s journey as a master weaver began at the age of ten. Initially reluctant, Bangie, who received persistent dreams from spirits insisting she continue the family legacy, embraced her role as a dream weaver after she was spiritually chosen as the Master Dyer or “Indu Ngar’[10]

They came into my dream three times, telling me I had to perform my duty. In my last dream, the spirits told me that if I continued to refuse, I would be cursed to lose in weaving competitions. And I did, for three years continuously.– Bangie anak Embol, Master Dyer[10]

Spiritual guidance through her dreams is central to her work as the stories and designs are then turned into a fabric. The mystical aspect of her work was evident from her first dream, where a spirit instructed her on preparing the yarn, an experience that profoundly influenced her weaving process.

When I have these dreams to create patterns for my next pua kumbu, they appear as shadows tying threads on the loom, showing me signs of what I should do. – Bangie anak Embol, Master Dyer[10]

As one of the last dream weavers, Bangie is determined to pass on her knowledge. She mentors over 20 weavers including her family members in Rumah Gare and teaches traditional techniques of the sacred pua kumbu[11]. Despite her age and declining vision, Bangie continues to weave daily guided by her mata hati  (“eyes of the heart)” [12]

Bangai’s expertise and commitment have been recognised globally. With the help of Malaysian designer, Edric Ong, her work has travelled the world, earning accolades including prizes from UNESCO. Her work has garnered international recognition, including awards such as the UNESCO Crafts Prize for Natural Dye Weaving in 1998, Sarawak Living Legend of Ikat Weaving in 2019, The Hasanah Gold Thread Award for Best Traditional Ikat and National Craft Icon in 2024[13]

The spiritual mantle of “Indu Ngai” can only be passed down through a dream, and Bangie, who is currently 78 awaits the vision that will reveal her successor. 

#6: Pok Him, Devoted To Designing Batik, Block By Block

In 2023, Malaysian Batik attire was gazetted to be worn by civil servants on Thursdays to revive the nation’s batik industry. Previously, the late Datin Seri Endon Mahmood played an instrumental role in popularising batik and integrating it into modern fashion, sparking a renewed interest in the craft. Batik making has been practised in Malaysia since the 15th century, with significant development in Kelantan and Terengganu. The three main types of batik in Malaysia are batik lukis (hand-drawn batik), batik blok (block-printed batik), and batik skrin (screen-printed batik).

One craftsman who remains devoted to ensuring this textile has a fighting chance is Mahadi @ Ibrahim Bin Deraman, better known as Pok Him.

Starting his career in batik manufacturing in 1973, at the age of 15, Pok Him excels in the intricate process of batik blocking. Pok Him who started out dyeing cloth and sewing with a wage of RM 1.20 opened his own enterprise in the 1980s with a daily wage of RM2[14]

With over 40 years of experience in the industry, Mahadi has amassed a collection of more than 4,000 batik blocks. Pok Him, who is also the recipient of the Anugerah Tukang Ulong (block batik) in 2015 highlighted that each block is priced between RM50 and RM500, depending on their size and design, and they are carefully stored to prevent damage. On top of creating batik blocks, Pok Him actively collects relics from the past, storing over 4,000 designs[15]

This work is really complicated and not everyone is able to do it because it requires patience and thoroughness. But I like the challenge. – Pok Him[15]

Today, his son, Mohd Agil, is actively assisting him to ensure that the family tradition continues[15].

#7: Ramtiniwati Ramlee, Weaving a Legacy for Sarawak Songket

Ramtiniwati Ramlee is one of Sarawak’s top songket weavers, helming Seri Gedong Songket in Kuching. Her journey into songket weaving began when she took a course organised by Malaysian Handicraft Development Corporation. After completing the nine-month programme, she worked at Tuanku Nur Zahirah Foundation and social enterprise, Tanoti, to enhance her skills. In 2013, Ramtiniwati returned to her hometown with a vision[16]

She established Seri Gedong to pass on her knowledge and to provide income opportunities to her community. It serves as a training hub where 15 women, including Ramtiniwati’s family members, were nurtured to weave the luxurious fabric.

I have 15 workers of my own, and I also help the community earn wages by making songket. – Ramtiniwati Ramlee, Sarawak songket weaver[17]

What differentiates the Sarawak songket is the unique “Tapok” technique which ensures no thread hangs out at the back of the fabric, making both sides usable. Seri Gedong Songket’s growth has been remarkable, from making RM8,000 a month in the early days to RM20,000, a month from sales[17].

In recent years, Ramtiniwati has taken a step back from the day-to-day operations of her enterprise and shifted her focus to advocating for the promotion and preservation of Sarawak’s songket.

I am an independent researcher for songket weaving in Sarawak. I did my research on songket weaving, and I realised that the Sarawak songket has its uniqueness and distinct intricacies. – Ramtiniwaiti Ramlee, Sarawak songket weaver[19]

Her dedication and skill have earned her numerous accolades, including the Young Craft Entrepreneur Award 2022, the SMART Community Award (Platinum) 2018, and the Young Entrepreneur Award 2018 by the Malaysian Handicraft Development Corporation. Recently, she also represented Malaysia at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona[17].

Explore our sources:

  1. Abdul Kadir, N.I., Ramli, R. Abdul Wahab, N.N., Mohammad Nor, M.R. (2023). Resilient Art Of Malay Traditional Textile. Link 
  2. Abd Malik, M. (2018). Tangan emas Azizah. Harian Metro. Link 
  3. Mohamad Radhi, N.A. (2021). Keringkam weaver keeps unique traditional art alive.  New Straits Times. Link
  4. Wahid, A.S. (2023).Nik Marhammah pejuang kelingkan. Sinar Harian. Link 
  5. Chandran, S. (2023). A Kelantanese cleaner’s journey into kelingkan stitching. The Star. Link
  6. Perbadanan Kemajuan Kraftangan Malaysia. (n.d.). Adiguru Kraf Anyaman Bergerang. Link
  7. Chandran, S. (2024). 91YO Sarawakian great-grandma has been weaving pandanus mats for eight decades. The Star.Link
  8. Chandran, S. (2024). Why this Terengganu master crafter is preserving Malaysia’s woodcraft art. The Star. Link 
  9. Ismail, M.R. (2022). ‘ Beri nafas’ seni telepuk. Harian Metro. Link 
  10. Tawie, P. (2021). Bangie Embol: A master weaver chosen by the gods. New Sarawak Tribune. Link 
  11. Huiying, O. (2017). WHERE DREAMS ARE WOVEN. Parts Unknown. Link 
  12. Asri, S. (2024). Tenunan dari mimpi. Harian Metro. Link 
  13. Jee, N. (2024). Master weaver from Kapit is national craft icon. New Sarawak Tribune. Link 
  14. Berita Harian. (2016). Warisan batik perlu terus dipertahankan. Link
  15. Che Mud, S.N. (2016). Khazanah batik blok. Harian Metro. Link 
  16. Goh, P.P. (2022). Seri Gedong Songket strives to keep tradition alive. New Sarawak Tribune. Link 
  17. Metro News. (2024). From small beginnings in Gedong, songket shines on global stage. The Star. Link
  18. Wiki Impact. (2023). Meet These Legendary Craftswomen Preserving the Art of Plaiting and Songket Weaving. Link 

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