Sarawak is a multi-racial community that is made up of Melanau, Orang Ulu, Malay, Iban, Bidayuh and Chinese. Each ethnicity contributes to the local craft that you see in Sarawak today. Learn more about the handicrafts from the various ethnicities below.
The Melanaus are coastal indigenous people originating from the Rejang Estuary and the town of Bintulu. Mainly fishermen and Sago cultivators, the Melanau’s are skilled in carving wooden figurines that were used in traditional “liko” healing rituals among other effigies. The Melanau women are also known to weave various kinds of products from bemban, bamboo, sago leaves and other jungle plants, and are most well known for their sunhats or “terendak”. These conical hats are extremely colorful and lend a festive air. Other modern weavings from this community includes food covers as well as unorthodox lampshades.
Among the racial categories, the Orang Ulu is the most diverse group comprising more than a dozen sub-categories with their own unique culture, language, lifestyle and handicraft. They live in small pockets in the hinterland, hence Orang Ulu means “upriver people”.
The Orang Ulu comprises of only 5% of the population and are widely acknowledged as the finest craftsmen in Sarawak. The Orang Ulu are famous for their beadwork that decorates their costumes, baby carriers, ladies bags and sunhats with ornately traced design picked out in primary colors. Women’s dance costumes have colorful artistic impressions of dogs and dragons embroidered in beads onto a background of black or red velvet.
Their bead necklaces are also famous and include rare antique beads from China, Venice and Middle East pointing to a trading culture that goes back centuries. The Lun Bawang of Long Tuma are reviving this ancient artwork now and make their own ceramic beads. Aside from beads, the Orang Ulu are famous for weaving baskets and mats. Made from rattan vines collected from the jungle, stripped, dried and then woven into the “ajat”, this practical basket is a popular tourist souvenir. The black and white basket has found its way into mainstream use and are fashioned into bags, pencil holders, folders and other practical items.
Another jungle product that the Orang Ulus use is the beaten tree bark or “kumut”, once used to make male jackets and twine for hardy rope. The material has now been put to innovative creations of hats, bags, art canvas, purses and key chains for the tourist market.
The Orang Ulu also produce a heavy sword-like knife called the “Malat”, used for Jungle clearing. The ceremonial and ancient knifes have hilts made of dear antler and decorated sheaths that are collected by discerning antique collectors.
The Ibans are the most numerous of Sarawak’s people and the majority of rural Ibans still live in longhouses with their way of life focused on growing paddy on hills. Iban women are superb weavers using the backstrap loom, while Iban men are excellent silversmiths.
The Pua Kumpu is one of the most unique forms of loom weaving, not only in technique but in the way motifs are formed. The weavers are inspired through dreams and patterns that emerge as a cross between the real and mythical world. Nature is reinterpreted by these weavers who ensure each piece is unique in itself. The manufacturing of tie and dye materials is known as “kayau indu”, or women’s war.
Ibans are also expert basket weavers and the shapes and sizes depend on its use whether it’s for collecting wood, fish and fruit, or larger sizes for harvesting and storing rice. Among women, the ability to plait baskets enhance her standing in the community.
The Bidayuhs are a gentle, mild-mannered tribe found in the first division of Sarawak. They are famous for their colorful bamboo carvings.
The hollow bamboo stems are dried, designs etched on the outside and fashioned into coin holders, pen holders and other practical items. They also make beautifully decorated bamboo flutes.
The Bidayuhs also weave split rattan stems to make intricately plaited baskets and colorful mats. Other than rattan, wild pandan and “bemban” are also used for mats. All kinds of goods are carried in baskets such as firewood or bamboo water pipes. Smaller sized baskets are used for holding seeds or offerings during the famous harvesting festivals known as Gawai celebrated all across Sarawak.
The “Kesah” mats made from rattan and beaten tree bark are also famous among the Bidayuhs. They are woven together to produce a hardy floor covering with a unique texture. These are used to dry their crops such as paddy and cocoa.
The Malay’s are heavily influenced by the Islam culture famous for their textiles, embroidery, wood carving and woven mats and in much crafts, religious motifs can be discerned. Malay women are famous for their “songket”, a finely woven cloth shot through with varying amounts of gold thread, and is used to make ceremonial costumes. The loom is wooden and the process of weaving is a tedious one that requires concentration and a fine sense of aesthetic. The same is required for embroidery like the “keringkam”, the “selayah” and the “tekat”. The designs are generally floral in nature.
The Malay women also weave mats and baskets out of mengkuang, bemban, nipah, bamboo and rattan. Malay men are renowned carvers, and traditional Malay houses have finely wrought designs on balustrades, verandas and partition screens.
The Chinese traders first came to trade in Sarawak thousands of years ago. Bringing with them jars, plates, bowls and water vessels to trade for Borneo Jungle products, the Chinese thrive in the ceramic industry in Sarawak. The ethnic Chinese of Kuching, Sarawak’s capital are renowned potters and operate dozens of kilns that have supplied Sarawakians with pots and jars for generations.
Combining the Chinese talent for earthenware and ceramics, assimilated with Sarwakian art, the items produced incorporate local motifs into standard-shaped vases. A trip to Kuching must include a visit to these kilns where the innovative potters have created ceramic lamps, ashtrays, pots and vases with a uniquely Sarawakian look.