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TRADITIONAL HANDICRAFTS OF BRUNEI DARUSSALAM: TENUNAN (CLOTH WEAVING)
The Handicraft Series:
PART II - WEAVING - AN ART INTO A TRADITION
Southeast Asia is justifiably famous for its woven fabrics. Intricate designs made with fine and expensive threads are the hallmark of an industry that has been carried out in this region for many centuries.
Brunei Darussalam in particular is proud of her tradition in this ancient craft and produces some of the finest examples of woven material to be seen anywhere in the world.
Perhaps it is the skill that is passed through generation to generation; maybe it is the inherent patience and love of fine workmanship which Bruneians possess to produce such examples of exquisite beauty. Whatever the reason there s no doubt that to be owner of such gown or sarung is to be treasured and savoured for life.
This is well examplified. If a King is to be crowned what will he be wearing? If a man and woman decide to marry what will they both wear on this most important occassion? Both royalty and commoner alike will be proud to adorn their very best for such an occassion. Naturally the silver and golden thread - man's most expensive materials - will constitute a large part of looking and feeling good for these auspicious events.
Increased mechanisation has reduced many of the world's ancient crafts into a production line of inferior products. It is reassuring to know that Brunei's woven fabrics, one of the arts central to Brunei culture, are not likely to suffer such a fate. Weaving today is carried out much the same way as it has always been - that is with pride, patience and learning, which can only come about with years of experience and dedication to this art.
The earliest recorded mention of cloth-weaving in Brunei Darussalam can be traced to Sultan Bolkiah's reign from 1485 to 1524. Magellan visited Brunei sometime during this period and his official chronicler, Antonia Pigafetta, reported seeing beautiful examples of Brunei handicrafts in particular the woven cloth.
It was common cottage industry even in those days so it is clear that woven cloth can be dated earlier than the 16th century. Like most proud traditions the art has been preserved through the centuries by the age-old system of father teaching son - only in this case, mother teaching daughter. The technology is much the same today as it was then. You will see no expensive sophisticated automatic weaving machinery; only a hand loom operated by highly skilled, artistic and patient women.
The designs too have also survived many centuries. The most well-known and famous is the Jongsarat. It is generally acknowledged to be the design that above all others reflects the skill, artistic beauty and fine workmanship in which a quality cloth possesses.
It is well-known in this region because more people see Jongsarat being used than any other design. It is worn on royal and state occassions, worn by brides and grooms for marriage ceremonies and is also sometimes used as elaborate and decorative wall coverings. Such is the high regard people in this region hold for the Jongsarat that is also given to visiting foreign dignitaries as souvenirs. Of course there are many other designs. The Kain Bertabur, Sipugut, Sukmaindera, Silubang Bangsi and Arab Gagati are but a few of the many examples of patterned cloth available today in Brunei Darussalam.
Cloth-weaving in Brunei Darussalam undoubtedly originated within the confines of Kampung Ayer. Apart from the indigenous Borneo tribes and nomadic hunters, the majority of Brunei's population lived on the waterfront. It was in their homes that the women - perhaps many of them living closely together - perfected their skills. They probably exchanged patters and equipment, helped each other when difficulties arose and generally operated within a tightly knit cooperative. It was from this beginning that the art flourished and it is not difficult to see where the inspiration for the designs came from. Living in harmony with their natural beautiful surroundings and their deep faith in Islam inspired many of the designs, which have survived to this day. Thus the popular creations of yesteryears, incorporating nature's abundant source of idea such as leaves, local flowers as well as Islamic patterns, make up the majority of designs one can see today.
Before cloth can be produced obviously the thread has to be prepared first. Nowadays much of the thread comes from Japan. After selecting the base colour of the cotton, the weaver prepares ten bamboo spools of thread and then sorts it to a required length, depending upon how many pieces of cloth she intends to weave at one time - it could be one or even four. Once this has been completed she calculates the number of strands of thread she intends to use but this is usually dependent on the size of cloth to be woven. It can number anywhere between 1200 and 1500. The process of weaving starts as soon as the thread has been affixed to the loom and the pattern or design selected.
It is in fact the gold and silver thread that makes up the design so a good deal of attention is paid to this detail. The actual job of weaving thread into cloth is a complicated one and would be difficult to describe step by step. It is generally considered however that a good coordination between hands, arms and feet is necessary, coupled with inordinate amounts of skill, patience and, of course, craftsmanship learnt over many years of practise. The finished standard piece of cloth measures about 2.2 meters by 0.8 meters and can take anything from 10 to 15 days and sometimes even months to finish depending on the intricacy of the design and the speed at which the woman works.
One of the sadder aspects of modernisation and development is the inevitable loss of interest in the labour-intensive craft industries in preference to working in better remunirative office jobs in the capital. This has also been the case in Brunei Darussalam and had the government not taken steps to preserve the traditional arts and handicraft industry there is no doubt that very little would remain of it today. Prior to 1975, skill in weaving was certainly on the decline and the government, recognising that this most important aspect of the country's heritage was in danger of dying out, took active steps to preserve and promote it.
In September 1975, the Brunei Arts and Handicrafts Training Centre (BAHTC) was opened and took in its first batch of 24 trainees, including eight in cloth-weaving. Designed as a temporary facility, it moved in 1984 to a purpose-built edifice that is situated on a prominent site overlooking the Brunei River and Kampong Ayer. The centre is now the premier teaching facility for Bruneian arts and handicrafts.
At present there are 86 students at the BAHTC, who are taught the whole range of local handicrafts. Of these, 70 students are attached to the cloth-weaving section and are supervised by nine instructresses under the leadership of the chief instructress, Hajah Kadariah binti Begawan Pehin Udana Khatib Haji Umar. Since 1975, more than 364 students have been trained in the art of cloth-weaving, and it is hoped that if as many students enrol at the BAHTC in subsequent years then cloth-weaving will once again flourish in Brunei Darussalam.
Source: Brunei Today published by Information Department, 1994
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