Here’s all you ever wanted to know about these Magic Little Pearls of Borneo culture.


When were these beads first made and used?

Archaeological finds demonstrate that the indigenous people of Borneo used organic material – bones, teeth, shells – as well as some kinds of stone to make simple beads, a long time ago. When traders first brought small colourful glass beads to our shores, in the 8th or 9th century, these fed into an already existing bead culture.

The earliest glass beads were quite small, about the size of a peppercorn, in plain colours of red, white, yellow, black and turquoise.

The beautiful multi-coloured beads, which are so valuable today came later, after about the 14th or 15th century. The small beads, which we still use in handicrafts, have been a ‘fashion classic’ for over 1000 years!

Wonderful piece of classic beadwork, a circular hat cap top, Orang Ulu, 19th century


Where do people wear beads?

The most obvious use for beads is to string them into a necklace or a bracelet; this was and still is a very common fashion. The small ‘seed beads’ can also be worked into elaborate head-bands, into hat-tops, hat-blazes, and wide arm-bands or belts. Some indigenous communities in Kalimantan make whole jackets entirely of beadwork; in Sarawak we see jacket edgings, loincloth tails, seat mats, sword hangings, or bead-covered baskets for festive use.



How is beadwork made?

There is a technique of bead-weaving, but in Sarawak we don’t use it. Our craftswomen work the beads on a set of descending strings, crossing and re-crossing the string in every second row of beads. The pattern is made by selecting beads of different colours. Usually, a paper pattern is pinned on the working surface, and the beader follows this. In the old days, bead patterns were sometimes carved into wooden tablets.

A skilled bead-worker can make any design under the sun, from traditional to modern, including lettering and motifs. She can shape the article by increasing or decreasing the number of strings – beadwork can be circular, rectangular, trapezoid, triangular, tubular, with zig-zag edge…anything. One very pretty item of beadwork is the black-and-red bobble that ornaments the front of many Orang Ulu bead necklaces.

Miniatures of hats or accessories like this Iban marek empang, are very popular with tourists


Why do people wear beadwork?

The big multi-coloured value beads worn by the Orang Ulu used to be strictly status symbols; so were the elaborate beadwork designs that embellish baby baskets, head-gear and other personal possessions.

Those days are past. Today, you and I and our grandmother can wear beadwork we like. We can wear modern bead necklaces, beaded dresses and blouses, and where would today’s fashion be without elaborately beaded handbags!

Fashion or no, ritual restrictions or no, many people simply like to wear beads because they are pretty, colourful, very durable, and endlessly adaptable. String a necklace to your own special taste, wear it for a few months, then cut the string, combine the beads with others and string something completely new. That’s more than you can do with your diamond ring!


What are the most common articles of beadwork made today?

The traditional items for personal use are still very popular, particularly in the tourist market: headbands, hat tops, hat blazes, baby carriers, parade baskets, necklaces, bracelets, bobbles and tassels to decorate the front of a necklace.

The Lifestyle Market is also queuing into beadwork. There is a ready market for beaded boxes of many sizes,  traditional or modern handbags and purses, beaded wands to enhance dried flower arrangements, the old fashion of beaded curtains is reviving, as are beaded lamp-shades, or parchment lampshades with beaded fringes.

Beaded crafts and souvenirs are not necessarily useful, as long as they are colourful and beautiful. The beaded pencil-covers, for instance, make writing very difficult because the pencil tends to turn round and round inside the smooth casing; a bead-cover around a cigarette lighter suffers from the same problem. Well, if a fellow was trying to give up smoking, maybe a cigarette lighter that spins round and round in his grip but won’t light up is just the right thing…

Outstanding Orang Ulu beadwork, beaded baby carrier panels; 19th century


Who makes and wears beadwork today?

lot of ladies make beadwork for their own family use, at home; young girls who take part in cultural shows make their own costume and accessories (or ask their grandmother to make them…) Festival time is when fine traditional beadwork can be seen; some ladies like to wear a bead necklace or a beadwork cap even at home.

A lot of beadwork is made by handicraft workers, for sale. The tourism market eagerly snatches up such colourful, typical ‘Sarawak Souvenirs’!

A lady fills her spare time by doing beadwork

Beadwork as a cottage industry is promoted by several government and handicraft agencies; this includes classical Borneo beadwork, but also bead-embroidery on textiles, needle-woven bead edgings for shawls and garments, and the like.

Bead-working demands some manual skill, good colour sense, and good eyesight; nearly all of it is done by women. It is ideal for a woman who doesn’t want to go out to work, but stays at home caring for her family. Beadwork can be done at home, in any free moment; it doesn’t need much equipment. Skill and perseverance will provide a good beadworker with a tidy income.

An entirely new line of beads has been pioneered by a group of artisans in Long Tuma, a village near Lawas in East Sarawak. They don’t string and stitch beads – they make beads, out of clay. After a very humble start, the ‘bead factory’ now turns out replicas of traditional Lun Bawang and Kelabit value beads as well as an every-increasing range of newly designed fashion beads.

And who runs the factory? You’re right, the ladies do!


by Heidi Munan

This article from BorneoTalk Vol.21. Click here for DOWNLOAD

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