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PostPosted: Wed Feb 26, 2014 11:48 am 

Joined: Mon Jul 27, 2009 6:05 pm
Posts: 132
Location: Kuching, Malaysia
The purpose of this thread is to have an avenue where I can share my thoughts and put on record bits and bobs of information swirling in my head, and invite comments and response from the reader.

I do not pretend to be an authority, nor do I insist on being right; but I do have the credentials of being an Iban born into a family of weavers, and who has also spent time in the field learning from and interacting with weavers.

In order to truly understand Iban weaving, one must first truly understand the weaver and how she thinks and why she thinks the way she does. The Iban weaver’s mind is a complex place and the first challenge of any student or researcher of Iban weaving is to access this complex mind without being intrusive or invasive.

First, let us agree on a loose classification (and I frown at using the term because it is never a good thing to be rigid with categories) of the types of weavers:

1. The career weaver.
2. The wife-mother weaver.
3. The peer-pressured weaver.

The career weaver, for want of a better term, is someone who embarks on a journey to become the archetypal Iban woman. She is versed in oral literature and history, deft with the thread, nimble with the rattan strips, guardian of the old wisdom of all things feminine (including being a midwife), leads rituals and ceremonies, and in essence, the ‘go-to’ woman of her community or longhouse. Almost always, she comes from an affluent family and has the luxury of time to spend her days and nights weaving. She will have others to care for her household and children. She would be an acknowledged master-weaver when she reaches her forties – at the prime and pinnacle of her career, well before menopause, and would have woven entire repertoires of designs. She would command great respect from the entire community and her fame would travel far and wide. Such a career weaver is rare. Out of ten weavers, perhaps only one or two would match this description.

The wife-mother weaver, unlike the career weaver, is a full-time housekeeper, farmer, mother and wife. Weaving is a luxury, but being an industrious Iban woman who does not want to bring disrepute to her family, will insist on making time to weave. Only after she has returned from the farm, cleaned the children and the home, and cooked the evening meal would she then retire to her space, often the cloistered attic or sometimes the airy spaciousness of the open communal gallery to weave, with whatever daylight is left of the setting sun. An hour would pass and then she would light her lamp and weave by lamp-light till it is time to set up the mosquito nets and tuck the children into bed. Her weavings would include baskets, mats, textiles for ceremonial wear and the great pua kumbu – her very own statement as a woman of substance. Only after the children are grown and she is post-menopause would she then embark on refining her craft and attempt the more demanding designs which would appear on cloths of larger sizes. Still, she would not be acknowledged as a master-weaver but respected as a good weaver. Out of ten weavers, about five to six would be wife-mother weavers; industrious, respectable and have some repute as accomplished weavers.

The peer-pressured weaver is essentially someone who comes from an affluent family, or a family of weavers, and is expected to weave because it is the norm. She would begin her weaving career as in No.1 and after marriage, would retrogress to No.2 and after completing at least five great pua kumbu, would quietly retire. Out of ten weavers, three to four would fall into this category. There is no shame in being a peer-pressured weaver as she has proven that she can weave and has woven the pre-requisite textiles for her household. She has simply chosen not to make weaving the focus of her life.

Then there is the non-weaver. Either she is too poor to afford bought threads or find time to cultivate, harvest, process and spin her own yarns besides farming the land, or conversely, she is burdened as being the wife of a man of some standing in the community whom would have to entertain visitors regularly and at the same time she would have to care for her many children and guests. She would still know how to weave baskets and mats but her skill would end there. She would make a name for herself by being a good hostess, a fine cook and raise well-mannered children, and have a plentiful harvest of rice every season. She would also be invited by relatives and friends to share her skills in preparing feasts and in divulging her secret recipe for the best rice wine. Such a woman, however, is not deemed spiritually mature to participate in rituals or have an opinion on such matters. She is the silent observer who only supports with the attending feast that follows rituals.

Now that we have identified more or less three types of weavers, we look at how these weavers operate within the framework of their daily lives, taking the example of creating the great pua kumbu.

The career weaver who cultivates, harvests, processes and spins her own threads would take about one cycle of moon (a month) to prepare her yarns to the stage of being ready for knotting, working night and day. The career weaver who buys her threads would take half the time to prepare her yarn to the same stage. After the yarn has been treated and taken the dew and the sun, which is another 14 days, the career weaver then begins the process of laying out the warp on the weaving loom and measuring the width of the eventual cloth, which takes just under six hours. Then, the consolidated warps would then be taken off the weaving loom and stretched taut on the knotting loom. The following day, she would begin the vital process of knotting and creating the design of her great pua kumbu. This is the most important stage in the entire process – both mentally (designing the cloth from memory or from sheer thought) and spiritually as she enters unknown territory. Ergo, she must be on her extreme guard not to transgress any strictures, conventions or cause offence in any way. This is the reason why this stage of the weaving process is often done in solitude in an attic or a separate space in the apartment of the longhouse. Working night and day and depending on the design she is creating, this process may take another cycle of the moon. If the career weaver is to encounter a bad omen during this stage, she will have to unknot her warps and start all over again, or unknot the offending motif and rest for a week whilst making the appropriate propitiations. Once completed, the warp threads receive their first dye. Dyeing and drying is repeated until the desired colour has been accomplished – normally three to four days. Then the second knotting begins. This technically easy stage is fraught with pitfalls for the novice. Knot the very tight but wrong spaces in between the first knots and you mar the design. Most career weavers take about two weeks to finish this stage before the fully knotted warp threads receive their second dye. Once this is done, the career weaver then immediately begins the ‘fun’ process of putting the weft to warp on the weaving loom. (I use the term ‘fun’ because much of the engagement with the spiritual has been accomplished, and all that is left is for the cloth to be woven. In the next posting, I will show an example of how this stage can be extremely ‘fun’!) Career weavers take between one to two weeks to complete this process, working night and day, depending on the size of the cloth. The entire process would take about 80 to 90 days. Assuming the career weaver works twelve hours a day (or more), the total amount of man hours invested into a cloth would exceed one thousand hours.

The crux of my point thus far is that a career weaver, working night and day without disruption, who has invested over a thousand hours into a very physically laborious, mentally challenging and spiritually (ergo, psychologically) formidable activity would not create designs of innocuous flora, harmless fauna and other bits and bobs she sees around her.

Commentators have argued, at times rather convincingly, like Haddon and Start did, that weavers create designs based on their world-view. I do not disagree. However, I would like to invite the reader to consider the proposal that besides a weaver’s world-view, there is also the weaver’s spirit-view. Surely an intelligent mind that can grasp the technology of measuring out complex warp calculations, negotiate intricate principles of positive and negative knotting and then mix the various shades of dyes to arrive at the perfect blend would also be able to comprehend, create and memorise a plethora of motifs, symbols and designs that would embody, reflect and represent the weaver’s spirit-view? To deny such a suggestion would be akin to applauding the weaver’s technical skill yet rendering her a primitive artist without so much as a thought to what she weaves and why she weaves it.

As for the wife-mother weaver, the time she would invest in a great pua kumbu would be almost triple that of the career weaver, having probably only four to five hours a day to work on her threads. Would such a weaver, spending thousands of hours on one piece of cloth – most likely an entire year, waste her energies, both physical and spiritual, on doodles, cartoons and meaningless curves and lines during the pivotal stage of knotting the design? Some commentators have suggested so.

Nevertheless, the logical mind of the Iban weaver operates on a different level altogether. It is this complex yet quite logical mind that I wish to explore and share, and I hope this thread will be helpful for the reader who wishes to understand the logic of the Iban weaver.

(May I request that no part of my writing or the information contained in this thread be published without my expressed permission. All rights reserved. Thank you.)

PostPosted: Wed Feb 26, 2014 11:56 am 

Joined: Mon Jul 27, 2009 6:05 pm
Posts: 132
Location: Kuching, Malaysia
Here are three examples of weavings produced by a career weaver, a wife-mother weaver and a peer-pressured weaver respectively, from the same region in Sarawak.

File comment: A Career weaver's work before she achieves master-weaver status pre menopause.
Career weaver.JPG
Career weaver.JPG [ 270.77 KiB | Viewed 7660 times ]
File comment: A Wife-mother weaver's work, post-menopause.
Wife-mother weaver.JPG
Wife-mother weaver.JPG [ 215.76 KiB | Viewed 7660 times ]
File comment: A Peer-pressured weaver's work, at the height of her career.
Peer-pressured weaver.JPG
Peer-pressured weaver.JPG [ 160.93 KiB | Viewed 7660 times ]
PostPosted: Wed Feb 26, 2014 12:24 pm 

Joined: Mon Jul 27, 2009 6:05 pm
Posts: 132
Location: Kuching, Malaysia
Following on from the previous post, here is a case in point of how ‘fun’ is also part of the process of weaving. Siblings, or close female relatives, would often indulge in ‘contests’ once they arrive at the stage of weaving weft to warp on the weaving loom.

Weavers would showcase their prowess at the weaving loom by first downing copious amounts of rice wine just after lunch. Then once fully inebriated, the contestants would assemble their respective looms on the communal gallery of the longhouse in full view of their audience and then commence to weave weft to warp. Weavers would throw their shuttle of wefts in between warps, and beat the cloth, and many would stumble, to the laughter of their audience.

But the real test is the marked control of the tension of the back-strap loom. Too loose a tension and the cloth will be ‘warped’ and too tight a tension and the warp threads would be skewed, throwing the entire design off balance. The last woman standing, or sitting at her loom, in this case, wins. Those who fall asleep are carried off to their rooms in great merriment. Then again, despite being the last woman ‘standing’, if her cloth is ‘warped’ or the design is skewed, she would be deemed to have been ‘bettered’ by the one who snoozed but managed to maintain good control of the tension.

These two cloths demonstrate a famous contest between my great-grandmother Sendi and her mother Mengan. Sendi remained awake but her design was skewed while Mengan dozed off but her design remained perfect.

MENGAN.JPG [ 154.72 KiB | Viewed 7659 times ]
SENDI.JPG [ 135.73 KiB | Viewed 7659 times ]
PostPosted: Wed Feb 26, 2014 10:26 pm 
Site Admin

Joined: Sun Jun 29, 2003 1:42 pm
Posts: 2001
Location: Canterbury, UK

I hate to interrupt a fascinating train of explanation but I just wanted to say 'Thank you' for sharing these insights, memories and the passed down information of your Iban culture with us.

I would also like to strongly endorse your request "... that no part of my writing or the information contained in this thread be published without my expressed permission..."

I have this wonderful vision of the weaving contest between Mengan and her daughter, Sendi! I will never look at a warped pua kumbu in the same light again!!!

on-line tribal textiles resource

PostPosted: Thu Feb 27, 2014 4:05 am 

Joined: Mon Jul 27, 2009 6:05 pm
Posts: 132
Location: Kuching, Malaysia
Dear Pamela,

Thank you very much for endorsing my request. It is with a view to eventual publication that this thread has been started, but I suspect you already had a sense of where I am going with this thread. As such, it would be best that I caveat my writings in advance.

I welcome all 'interruptions' as these would certainly be valuable feedback. The whole idea of a public thread is to invite open discourse and debate and Iban pua kumbu is a field of research that has, by no means, been exhausted yet. So please everyone, feel free to tear my arguments apart :-)

Talking of 'warped' pua kumbu, here's a supreme example of one where the tension is loose in the middle, hence the 'bulging' of the warp in the centre.

Honestly, good 'masterpieces' with the odd 'obvious flaw' always seem to attract me more as the 'obvious flaw' lends the piece more character and makes it more 'human', and it is always fascinating to try to understand how the 'flaw' came about. More often than not, stories of how the 'flaw' came to be accompanies a piece.

IMG_7019.JPG [ 280.92 KiB | Viewed 7651 times ]
PostPosted: Fri Feb 28, 2014 5:24 pm 

Joined: Mon May 24, 2004 7:35 pm
Posts: 177
Location: east coast
Vernon - Regarding protecting your materials I found this on the web.
How do I protect my copyright?

Copyright protection is automatic as soon as there is a record in any form of what has been created (there is no official registration). However, steps can be taken by the creator of a work to provide evidence that he or she had the work at a particular time. For example, a copy could be deposited with a bank or solicitor. Alternatively, a creator could send himself or herself a copy by special delivery post (which gives a clear date stamp on the envelope), leaving the envelope unopened on its return. A number of private companies operate unofficial registers, but it would be sensible to check carefully what you will be paying for before choosing this route.

It is important to note, that this does not prove that a work is original or created by you. But it may be useful to be able to show that the work was in your possession at a particular date, for example where someone else claims that you have copied something of theirs that was only created at a later date.

Another useful step for a copyright owner to take when copyright material is published is to mark it with the international copyright symbol © followed by the name of the copyright owner and year of creation. You might consider putting a similar marking on the material on your website. This is not essential in the UK, but may assist you in infringement proceedings, and will be needed in certain foreign countries.

And regarding the slanting patterns:

I watched a novice weaving at the Tun Jugah gallery in Kuching several years ago. I noticed that she started to put her shuttle only about half way across the warp, beat the weft down, made the new shed and returned the shuttle back. She did this several times and then put the shuttle all the way across and continued as usual. I asked the instructor (Forgot her name. Shame on me. It might have been Janet.) why she was doing that half way across weaving. She told me to look at the design as it passed over the breast beam and I would see that it was starting to slant. She said that was because the weaver was beating down too hard with one arm (her stronger one). But if she caught it early enough she could sort of compensate by building up the wefts on one side and so straighten it out. Otherwise she would have to continue and the result would have a slant.

Have you ever experienced that?

And please keep the information coming. Fascinating! We are all learning much.

I understand that Mike Heppell (Iban Art) is to publish a book soon tracking the history of Iban weaving from (their) ancient times.


PostPosted: Mon Dec 04, 2017 3:33 pm 

Joined: Mon Jul 27, 2009 6:05 pm
Posts: 132
Location: Kuching, Malaysia
Dear friends,

Before I proceed to the matter at hand, allow me to apologise for my long absence from this forum. This forum is where I started writing about and sharing my passion with Iban textiles and I owe it to Pamela and her forum, and all the readers here who have encouraged me to write more, for arriving at this point in my life where I am now in the final process of completing a first draft of THE BOOK.

Unfortunately, when I was writing back then in 2009 here, I was writing mostly from memory, and from memories of stories told to me by my great-aunts I 'recalled' from the early 1990s - a good 17 years ago then!

Writing from memory, as I have learned since starting to write THE BOOK, is never a good thing. Memories fail us no matter how certain we may be in our belief that we think we remember the details vividly, and these 'vivid' memories are sketchy at best. My supervisors have chided me and now I write based on the notes I had scribbled on various notebooks and scraps of paper. These note-pads, exercise books and scribbled scraps have now been properly organised and I was pleasantly surprised to discover, after the 'spring-cleaning' of the boxes under my bed, that I now have a huge pile of important data that I now religiously and constantly refer to as I write THE BOOK. Diligence and accuracy of reporting correct data have been grilled into me by my supervisors of THE BOOK and it has come to my attention that a serious flaw was made in this thread 8 years ago. I refer to the 'contest' between mother and daughter described briefly above, and the photos accompanying the 'contest'; the 'famed' duel between Mengan and Sendi.

While researching an important chapter for THE BOOK, I re-read an account I scribbled in 1992 of a 'duel' between not mother Mengan and daughter Sendi but between Sendi and her in-law Jelawai. The story was told to me by none other than the daughter of one of the 'contestants'. I posted that account on my facebook wall recently, 12th October, 2017 (link: ... 9627841730). I have made the post PUBLIC so you may refer to it. For those who do not have a Facebook account, I append the post below.

One of my supervisors reminded me that this account sounded very similar to the account I posted in this forum in 2009. Upon checking just now, I was very embarrassed to discover that I had mixed up the characters AND worse still, the cloths that were the objects of the contest. This is a very clear example of how memory failed me, and why my scribbled notes from my 'field work' back in the early 1990s are extremely important today as I attempt to convey in writing data collected almost 30 years ago! These notes tell the truth based on recorded data while memory can only tell so much of an account whose details could not be completely accurate. While the account did take place, the characters were mixed up and the cloths they were weaving were not the ones I showed above. It was not Mengan who dozed off but Sendi, and it was Jelawai who had crossed the finishing line, as it were, before Sendi.

I sincerely beg your pardon for this error that has misled you, and append below the correct account as it had happened (and posted on my Facebook wall), with the correct cloths:

12 October · Kuching ·


Same design, two different master weavers who were cousins-in-law and contemporaries. Their apartments were four doors apart in the same longhouse. The daughter of the cloth on the right [MIDDLE PHOTO IN THIS POST] told me the story why her mother's cloth was skewed and bulged in the middle. Her mother, a master weaver, and the master weaver of the cloth on the left [BOTTOM PHOTO IN THIS POST] engaged in a friendly match of who could finish putting weft to warp in one sitting whilst consuming copious amount of tuak (glutinous rice wine) on the ruai (communal gallery) in full view of the public. Both cloths were already a third done at where the pun buah (beginning of the design) was before the duel began, so it was just a matter of finishing up the warp. Both masters sat at their looms and wove away, while other ladies cheered them on and poured bowls of tuak down their throats. They began in the morning and the match ended in the late afternoon. Eventually, the master of the cloth on the right won by crossing the sengkalan (horizontal tri-band) at the punggang (edge motif) first, and completed putting weft to warp till the kelalin (twining at the edge of the cloth). The master on the left, also highly intoxicated, was still a few inches behind. When both cloths were hung for judging by the public, it became obvious the winning cloth was 'warped' in the middle because the tension of the back-strap loom was inconsistent while the master of the losing cloth had maintained consistency of tension. But rules are rules; Jelawai won the contest!

For my Iban cousins who just might not remember the complex genealogies, here's a quick pointer to jog your memory. Mengan beranakka Sendi seduai Esah. Esah belaki ngambi Enau beranak ke Lenguti (Indai Gulang). Jelawai menyadi Enau. Jelawai ngiru Lenguti. Jelawai ipar Sendi.

FB SCREEN-SHOT.png [ 280.12 KiB | Viewed 3442 times ]
CLOTH BY JELAWAI.jpg [ 27.94 KiB | Viewed 3442 times ]
CLOTH BY SENDI.jpg [ 25.56 KiB | Viewed 3442 times ]
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