Living on Traditional Skills

Sarawak handicrafts are justly famous. Crafts like ikat weaving to mat-making and basketry, from woodcarving to beadwork, these exquisite products give our State a good name in the world of arts, crafts and material culture.

Preparing the basketry materials is time-consuming

Iban ladies working at basketry in a longhouse

There was a time when ‘Sarawak Crafts’ automatically meant ‘longhouse’. Collectors had a mental picture of happy simple Dayak living in a primitive reed-thatched dwelling … or something along those lines.

If this ever was correct, a lot has changed in the last 30 or 40 years. For one thing, Sarawak’s population follows the world trend; we’re moving to town.  Thanks to enlightened policies, young people have a much better education than their parents did. Padi-farming no longer appeals to many of them; they look for employment in the towns.

Many older people follow their sons and daughters. It is this ‘rural-urban drift’ that has, surprisingly, moved many skilled and gifted craft-workers from an idyllic longhouse by a babbling brook to a terrace house by a busy road.

Some of these urban artisans work quietly on their own, others get together in small groups, partly for company. The common complaint is, of course, that handicraft materials – rattan, reeds, woods and bamboos suitable for carving – are hard to find in town.

handicraft production today is for the tourist market

Sarawak’s craftspeople are nothing if not ingenious! Cousins back in the longhouse can be persuaded to bring a bundle of rattan on their next visit to the town. Some materials can be purchased from suppliers and craft agencies.

In many urban centres, there are informal crafts classes, usually organized by community associations, where those who grew up in town can learn ‘longhouse skills’. The tutors are older women, the student’s young women and girls. The problem? Where to find enough raw materials to teach a dozen or so people at once.

But hey, this is the 21st century! Baskets can be made of rolled-up newspaper strips, baskets can be plaited of plastic packaging bands. The latter are bright and colourful, too, very pretty, it makes a bit of change from the browny-yellow of yesteryear.

‘Not traditional’ the purist mutters when faced with these plastic-strip and newspaper baskets.

basket made of rolled-up newspaper strips, then sprayed with varnish

baskets can be plaited of plastic packaging bands

‘Eco-friendly!’ the producers reply with glee. ‘We are recycling stuff that usually gets thrown away!’ And so they are. Apply age-old skills to new material and see what you get.

As Kuching grows…and grows…and GROWS, the urban spread is absorbing Iban and Bidayuh villages which used to lie among fruit groves and rubber gardens near town.

One of these ‘urban kampung’ is Semeba, within reach of Sarawak River which used to be the traffic route in the old days. Most villagers work in town though they still tend padi fields; most of the womenfolk still have the handicraft skills of their forbears. Most make the occasional basket for home use, but one enterprising lady saw the bigger picture.

With or without machinery, the Centre provided a useful focus for handicraft production and marketing. This is the important thing, of course: that the craftswomen learn how to produce items that are acceptable to modern trends and tastes, and that they earn more than just a little pocket money by their work.

Making bark cloth is man’s work

Bark cloth vests for Bidayuh traditional costume

Bark cloth purses with colourful bark cloth appliqué and a few beads


Where to see Sarawak Craftwork being done: Sarawak Cuture Village and Sarawak Craft Council.

By Heidi Munan

This article from BorneoTalk Vol.25 (page 8). Click here for DOWNLOAD


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