Weaving > Malaysian Textiles


Batik is the textile technique of choice in Malaysia. Every man owns one long-sleeved shirt in batik (silk or cotton) for 'best'. Members of the government wear them at functions. On the 1st and 15th of the month, all civil servants should wear one to work. The result is racks of them for sale in markets and in specialist shops. One is shown in Figure 3, although this is a 'low class one' of cotton and it is short sleeved. The best ones are of silk. Note that the design is asymmetric. This is typical and, because Malaysia is a Muslim country, the designs are of flowers and leaves or abstract. Many colours are used and some shirts are quite flamboyant. The best ones have a motif on the back as well as the front.

The technique is to draw on fabric with wax (Figure 1) and, when the wax has hardened, paint within the lines with different colours. When the painting is finished, the wax is removed by ironing. The wax is applied by using a tjanting (Figure 2) which is made of brass. There is a holder for the hot wax and a thin tube which is used for applying a fine line of wax as in Figure 1. There are artists who make batiks and an 'art' batik of heliconia flowers is shown in Figure 4. This is by an artist in Kuala Lumpur (KL) called Jon Bagul who specialises is large scale works up to several feet across. There are many such artists in KL and examples by two other artists are shown in Figures 5 and 6.

Back Strap Loom

The back strap loom is still used extensively in Sarawak. Figure 7 shows a diagram of a simple backstrap loom. The warp is wound between two rods, the warp beam and the breast beam. The warp beam is tied to another stout rod which is held in place by two upright posts in the ground. The breast beam is tied to a backstrap round the weaver's body who can alter the tension by bending back and forward. Figure 8 shows a backstrap model in the Kompleks Kraf in KL. The warp is not under tension. Figure 9 is a close-up of the back strap and shows how the breast beam is attached. The backstrap is made of some thick fibre; it looks more like coconut matting than anything else. The weaving is plain weave and, in the photographs shown, the warp has been tie-dyed in various natural colours (ikat) and the weft is a plain colour. The distance between the warp and breast beams is about five feet and the length of warp ikat dyed is about three feet. The width of this piece is about two feet. Although not shown in the photographs here, the woven material is rolled on to the breast beam as it is completed so that the weaver can reach the next piece of warp. Figure 10 shows the heddle rod with the strings attached to every second thread. When the heddle rod is lifted, a shed is formed and the weft inserted. When the heddle rod is relaxed, a flat piece of wood, called a sword, is turned on edge to form the other shed for plain weave. Figure 11 shows the way the warp beam is fixed and Figure 12 shows another general view. The fabric created this way can be of silk or of cotton and it is called pua. Examples are shown in Figure 13 and 14

A website showing photos of a Sarawak longhouse where this kind of weaving is still done is Rumah Garie Longhouse

Simple Loom

A simple frame loom with four shafts and four treadles is shown in Figure 15 and 16. It was tied up to only two treadles to weave plain cloth. This is used for striped and checked fabric called 'Tenon Pahang' (Figure 17) most of which seems to be cotton although there was one length of silk on display. Natural dyes are used to produce blue, red and yellow colours. Star fruit is used as the dye fixative. I was quite taken with the built in seat (Figure 18). The loom had an overslung beater and a fly shuttle. Overall dimensions of the loom frame were 7 ft long by 6 ft high by 5 ft wide. The cloth width was at least 3 ft 6 inches and a fly shuttle would be a great boon.

Draw Loom

A rather different loom was also on show at the Kompleks Kraf in KL. This is a two shaft loom with a very crude treadle system (Figure 19 and 20) but it was a type of drawloom and is used to produce patterned fabrics. Figure 20 shows the heddles for pulling up specific threads to make the woven pattern. The wooden holder for the reed can be seen suspended on strings and is just in front of the two shafts. There seemed to be no mechanism for operating the pattern heddles from the weaver's seat and I wonder if this is a two-person operation as are Chinese drawlooms. Figure 21 shows the interesting arrangement for the warp beam and its fixing. The warp beam is a plank of wood, eight inches wide and an inch thick. This is held in two slots in wooden posts which are suspended from the top of the frame. The frame loom has overall dimensions of 10 ft long by 6 foot high by 6 foot wide.

Examples of fabric woven on this type of loom are shown in Figure 22.

Woven Dreams - Textiles from Sarawak

In May 2009, an exhibition of 'pua kumbu' or sacred textiles was held in London. These particular textiles came from the Rumah Garie Longhouse. Originally locally grown cotton was used but silk has been introduced over the last few decades and very fine fabric is produced. This is very skilled weaving and a backstrap weaver was present (Figure WD1) demonstrating on a silk length of fabric. The weave was plain weave and the method of winding the woven cloth can be clearly seen (Figure WD2). The breast beam consists of two half cylinders. The warp is placed round one half at the start and the other half tied to it firmly. As the fabric is woven, it can be wound the complete cylinder. She had a single heddle stick where every second thread could be pulled up clear of its neighbours and a weaving sword inserted to maintain a good shed for that weft. Weaving swords were on display (Figure WD3) and were works of art made of a dark close-grained wood. The handles were intricately carved (Figure WD4).

Each piece has a plain border down each selvedge and some very wide pieces had clearly been woven as a single piece. On inquiry, this proved to be a double cloth. The pattern is symmetric about the centre line and it would have required three heddle sticks rather than the single one the demonstrator was using.

The ikat warps are tied in very complex patterns (Figure WD5) and then dyed up to three times using natural dyes based on local plant materials. The main colours are indigo (marsdenia tinctoria), yellow (fibraurea tinctoria) and red (morinder citrifolia) (Figure WD6). A mordant is used and all the yarn skeins to be used in the next year are mordanted at the same time in an annual ceremony. The ingredients of the mordant were not revealed but it did contain ginger root and honey.

The patterns are derived from ancient patterns and from interpreted dreams (Figures WD6 to 8). The outstanding and notable feature of the patterns is that they contain a large number of spirals. They were and are sacred textiles and are used in many ceremonies connected with birth and death.