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Meet These Legendary Craftswomen Preserving the Art of Plaiting and Songket Weaving

In the heart of Borneo’s wild beauty, Sarawak, the Malaysian state, not only boasts lush rainforests, rugged mountains, and meandering rivers but also a vibrant culture forged over centuries by indigenous communities. 

Among the tapestry of its rich heritage, Ngot, 91, and Ramtiniwaiti, 37, stand as passionate artisans, resolute in their mission to revive fading art forms—plaiting and supplementary weft weaving.

The Keeper Of Plaiting Tradition

In a rural settlement deep in the jungles of Asajaya, nonagenarian Ngot Binti Bi’s fingers may be marked by age, but they nimbly craft intricate mats and bags. 

Ngot remains one of the few in her village who plaits pandan leaves into an art, a labour that she does from start to finish, with the help of her children.

I plant the pandan leaves in the garden. It takes two days to harvest, wielding it into shape, boiling it over fire and soaking it. I’m glad that I have my children to help me with these processes. Plaiting itself is hard enough. – Ngot Binti Bi 

Ngot’s exquisite craft is in the form of Pandan Bergerang, a unique and intricate style of mat weaving deeply rooted in the Sarawak Malay community’s heritage.

Her unparalleled mastery of this art has garnered her well-deserved recognition. She proudly carries the esteemed title of “Adiguru Kraf Negara,” bestowed upon her by Kraftangan Malaysia. 

In 2019, the Ministry of Tourism, Arts, and Culture honoured her as a “Sarawak Living Legend of Crafts.” Today, her talent continues to shine as she receives a steady stream of orders every month, a testament to her enduring legacy.

Each meticulously crafted mat is a labour of love, demanding anywhere from two months to a year to complete. Ngot’s journey with this intricate plaiting technique began in her youth, and her commitment to it has never wavered.  Her steadfast hope is that her art will endure and be lovingly passed down to the next generation.

My grandchildren aren’t interested, and even in the village, it is hard to teach others. Maybe one day, there will be young ones who take it up. – Ngot Binti Bi 

Putting Sarawak Songket On The Map 

Not far from Asajaya, Ramtiniwaiti Ramlee, 37, didn’t immediately fall in love with the art of songket weaving when she was introduced to it in her early 20s. 

However, after learning about its rich artisanal heritage and tedious techniques, Ramtiniwaiti felt compelled to keep the songket weaving tradition alive. She set up Seri Gedong Songket in 2016 and has since been the driving force behind the craft form. 

Most people would say these things start from interest or passion. For me, it all began with a short-term course because I wanted to learn something new for fun. The more I learned about the craft and history, the more I fell in love with it. – Ramtiniwaiti Ramlee 

Source: Sinar Harian

As the demand for her exquisite songket creations continued to pour in, Ramtiniwaiti, who weaved alone for a year, decided to enlist the talents of several local women from her village. 

She gathered a team of seven weavers from the local community and trained them to weave. The opportunity provided weavers with additional income and skill sets to grow and develop. 

As the demand continued to surge, so did the size of her team. Today, Seri Gedong boasts a team of 15 skilled weavers, each contributing their unique touch to the time-honoured craft.

Ramtiniwaiti (second from left) and her team at Seri Gedong Songket.

With the legacy of Seri Gedong Songket now secure in the hands of her team, Ramtiniwaiti’s mission has evolved. As an avid songket collector, she diligently uncovers antique patterns from bygone eras. 

With each newly discovered pattern, she masters innovative weaving techniques, breathing fresh life into her craft, ensuring the timeless art form continues to evolve and flourish under her attentive guidance. In her words,

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

As an integral part of her mission to elevate this art form, she dedicates herself to nurturing a new generation of weavers through engaging talks and comprehensive training sessions.

Preserving Art By Empowering Artisans

Ngot’s plaiting and Ramtiniwaiti’s dedication to preserving Sarawak’s songket carry a rich history, yet these art forms face the risk of fading away. 

The Hasanah Gold Threads Awards have emerged to celebrate and preserve Malaysia’s cultural heritage, especially the art of textile craftsmanship. This collaborative effort between Yayasan Hasanah, the Ministry of Finance (MOF), Tanoti, and AHPADA shines the spotlight on artisans who are living custodians of Malaysia’s cultural treasures.

The awards recognize innovation and tradition, empowering artisans to explore alternative materials and enhance their craftsmanship.

Today, our journey has birthed The Hasanah Gold Threads  Awards, our recent brainchild where preservation meets innovation. These will empower local textile producers across Malaysia to innovate and push the boundaries in their crafts, from using alternative materials to elevating their production capabilities. – Dato’ Shahira Ahmad Bazari, Trustee and Managing Director of Yayasan Hasanah

In a recent celebration at the Borneo Museum Sarawak, both Ngot and Ramtiniwati were honoured with the Hasanah Gold Threads Awards for their commitment to preserving plaiting and supplementary weft weaving. 

On the left is Ngot Binti Bi’s open lattice plaited pandanus mat, which earned her the ‘Plaiting: Best Traditional Award.’ On the right is Ramtiniwaiti’s sampin, showcasing the songket Sarawak technique and winning the ‘Supplementary Weft, Best Traditional Award.’

Ngot’s submission featured an intricately woven pandanus mat with a turtle motif, symbolizing Sarawak’s cultural longevity. Ramtiniwaiti’s sampin, a reversible songket creation, showcased exceptional craftsmanship.

Sustaining The Local Creative Economy 

Through initiatives such as the Hasanah Gold Threads Awards, Ngot and Ramtiniwaiti no longer find themselves on a solitary mission to preserve these treasured traditions. They are now joined by numerous organisations and dedicated institutions committed to safeguarding cultural heritage.

NGOs have been promoting my work and craftsmanship, and I’m genuinely delighted when people purchase my crafts. – Ngot Binti Bi

Both artisans have discovered valuable partnerships with organisations devoted to traditional craft preservation. These entities provide crucial support through funding, workshops, and programs that not only enhance skills but also offer platforms for artisans to share their work with a broader audience.

Agencies have approached me for knowledge-sharing sessions. Recently, Pustaka Sarawak reached out to me to document my findings in a book on Sarawak songket. – Ramtiniwati Ramlee

These collective efforts demonstrate the nation’s dedication to ensuring that Malaysia’s rich cultural heritage is not lost but perpetuated. With this support, the future appears more promising than ever for these dedicated artisans and the traditions they ardently uphold.

Dato’ Shahira Ahmad Bazari, Trustee and Managing Director of Yayasan Hasanah, encapsulates it: 

Together, through meaningful initiatives like this, we can preserve our precious arts, heritage, and culture that risk being forgotten, while also sustainably boosting the local creative economy.

Dato’ Shahira Ahmad Bazari, Trustee and Managing Director of Yayasan Hasanah speaking at the award ceremony.

The Hasanah Gold Threads Awards represent a unique opportunity to support and showcase Malaysia’s heritage textiles, while fostering innovation and sustainable development in this vital sector. The award is dedicated to the conservation and revitalisation of Malaysia’s rich cultural heritage in textiles. Curious? Find out more here.

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