TRANSFIXED, I watch the butterflies flit gaily from one bush to another, their little wings fluttering like a rotor as they descend on a pretty bloom. Save for the forlorn barking of a dog from somewhere in the distance, these fluttering creatures seem to be the only sign of life in this tranquil village of Kampung Lintang in Petrajaya, Kuching.
“Over here!” someone hisses loudly, motioning impatiently for me to re-join the rest of my little entourage who’s already huddled in front of a modest house. Gravel crunch noisily under my shoes as I amble over to where they’re stood in front of an open door. “Masuk, masuk (come in, come in)!” The sound of a female voice wafting welcomingly from inside elicits a sigh of relief.
“We got the right house,” mumbles my friend and one by one, we troop in, extending happy handshakes to a beaming, tudung-clad host and a serene-looking elderly lady sitting in a wheelchair. She must be the matriarch, I think silently to myself before making a beeline for the sofa in the living room area of the spacious house.
As pleasantries erupt between our Sarawakian guide and the host, Keringkam artisan Norinda Krang Suut, I take the opportunity to scan my surrounds, noting the presence of a deep red piece of cloth stretched over a wooden frame in one corner, with parts of it glittering from a brilliant shaft of sunlight bursting through one of the windows.
On a side table lie a number of tools — funny-looking needles, finely-cut gold threads, a pair of scissors and some transparent materials. Meanwhile, on a clothing rail standing near the dining area are lines of exquisite-looking shawls and veils draped on hangers.
Tearing my gaze away from the rail, I find myself looking into the kindly eyes of the matriarch, seated just across from me, who’d obviously been observing my curiosity with interest. The knowing smile she throws at me is gentle, and I return it, albeit sheepishly.
Our search for local artisans driving the preservation of Sarawak’s disappearing handicrafts has led us to the family home of Norinda Krang, a multi-talented artisan whose mother, Hajjah Mastura Haji Sidek, 74, was recently awarded the title, Sarawak Living Legend for Keringkam Embroidery, a gold thread embroidery commonly done on veils (selayah keringkam) and worn by Sarawak Malays for weddings, special occasions and cultural festivals.
Keringkam is a threading work that’s done to produce motifs used to make the lacy edging decorating the borders of the selayah. Today, the tradition as well as interest in the selayah keringkam veil is diminishing, with most of the younger generation being unaware of its significance. Meanwhile, the number of selayah keringkam-makers in Sarawak who are still practising the art is also on the decline.
“It’s very time-consuming, this craft,” concedes Norinda, wheeling her mother nearer to our group before eventually settling herself on the sofa. “It requires precision and care. And it can take weeks and months to complete a piece. Just counting the weft and warp of the fabric for the initial process so that the motifs can be woven in a straight line or sit nicely on the veil can take hours.”
The bubbly Norinda, whose father worked for an audit firm, and mother, a housewife, confides that she inherited her skills from her late grandmother and mother. “Mum still helps with this sometimes, especially when there are urgent orders. Her eyesight is still pretty good!”
Smiling, the 51-year-old adds that the art of Keringkam is somewhat of tradition with all the women in their big family. “When my grandmother was around, we all lived together in a traditional kampung house near the river. Five families lived in that large house. And all the womenfolk, from my grandmother to my mother, and my aunties, would be involved in this.”
Her eyes dance as she recalls an idyllic childhood spent observing the women of the house bent over their work. “I was nine when my interest was truly piqued. It was a familiar sight every morning to see the womenfolk setting up their wooden frame and being so engrossed in what they were doing,” shares this mother of eight (three girls and five boys), adding: “I’d sit with them, and of course, I’d be asking what they were doing. It was my grandmother who’d patiently explain and sometimes she’d let me try my hand at a small piece.”
Chuckling, she remembers how she’d lie on the floor, looking up to the base of the wooden frame as her grandmother worked. “I observed, I asked, I sometimes helped out by finishing what the others started and I slowly learnt the basics,” says Norinda, smiling at the recollection.
The process of embroidery, she elaborates, would entail beginning with the water canal motifs first (motif tali air), which serve as the border of the embroidery. “This was the first thing my grandmother taught me to do,” confides Norinda.
Once that’s completed, the edges of the fabric would then be “tidied” with motifs such as mountain ranges (gunung) and bamboo shoots (pucuk rebung). Once the border is done, the embroiderer would proceed to work on the main body of the selayah, using either flower motifs, for example blooming rose, climbing rose, Cananga and such likes, or fruits, for example, mangosteen.
The remaining spaces on the selayah would not be left empty. The embroider might add in some scattered flower motifs, scattered insertion motifs, leaf insertion motifs, scattered light motifs and clam insertion motifs for the finishing touches.
“Personally for me, the toughest part to do when doing flowers is the stalk,” shares Norinda, the elder of two girls out of six siblings. “My mother was, and continues to be, really good at it. Her stalk always looks “alive” while mine looks rather stiff. To this day I still can’t get mine to be as good as mum’s!”
Glancing fondly at her mother, whose face is sporting the slightest trace of a teasing smirk, Norinda shares that her mum’s forte is definitely her needlework. “It’s just so fine and her embroidery is simply exquisite. Everything she does looks “alive”!”
NUTS AND BOLTS
As Norinda continues with her animated recollection to the rest of the group, my attention wanders to the sight of the copper needle lying on the table. “It’s a special needle,” mumbles the matriarch, as she observes me lifting it up for closer inspection.
“Our needles are made by my uncle,” I suddenly hear Norinda’s voice chipping in. I turn to her and she elaborates: “He uses copper and his needles are smaller compared to those you buy outside, which are often made of silver and are longer. The silver version tends to snap easily and when the needle is longer, it means you’ll be using more of the thread, which can be quite wasteful.”
The needle used for keringkam-making is normally ordered from goldsmiths due to its unique design. Unlike normal sewing needles, the keringkam needle is flat, made of copper and has two large holes where the foil thread would be attached to.
Meanwhile, the threads used are also special. They’re actually finely cut silver or gold foil. And they’re expensive! An embroiderer will need many rolls just to complete the keringkam embroidery on a small piece of selayah. Hence, this is one of the reasons why the growth of keringkam-making is so slow these days.
“The threads have gone up in price,” laments Norinda, pursing her lips despondently. “I get my stock from a guy called Salleh Ahmad; he’s the only one supplying in Kuching. We’ve also started importing from Turkey. It’s cheaper.”
Fabrics used for making the selayah keringkam are of transparent materials like voile, gauze and gossamer fine, another type of voile. As for the size? It all depends on the customer, but generally the standard measurement is said to be around 55cm by 95cm and the shape, rectangular.
For the Sarawak Malays, the selayah keringkam truly is a luxury textile. Eyes sparkling, Norinda reaches out for what appears to be a roll of fabric before proceeding to gingerly unfurl the content on the table.
Gasps of surprise abound at the sight of the most exquisite piece of keringkam scarf, of rich red, complete with a smattering of design motifs — scattered flowers, mountain ranges, and flower buds — that seem to dance like sparkling diamonds under the light. “It looks so old!” I couldn’t help blurting out. “But in amazing condition,” I hasten to add.
Norinda, an editor at Universiti Malaysia Sarawak (UNIMAS), chuckles good-naturedly before proclaiming: “It’s more than a hundred years old!” She looks on with mirth as we all swoop in for a closer look.
“See how every warp and weft of the fabric can be clearly seen? The motifs too are balanced, which means that the embroiderer would have carefully counted the thread vein before commencing with the embroidery process,” points out Norinda.
This beautiful scarf, which Norinda reveals is today worth more than RM100,000, originally belonged to her great-grandmother. It was subsequently passed down to her grandmother, her mother and finally, Norinda herself. It’s a family heirloom.
Gently fingering the material, Norinda muses: “The delicate fabric used back then wasn’t so suitable especially when the embroidery was so heavy. But it did look nice when worn on the head because it would cascade down so nicely.”
To ensure that the material doesn’t “disintegrate” and that the “shine” of the keringkam remains, the scarf has to be carefully handled and stored. The way it’s kept is important to ensure its longevity. “I keep this shawl rolled in acid-free paper,” shares Norinda, before adding: “It’s a useful tip I got from the museum.”
As we tuck into some delicious local kek lapis (layered cakes) made by the talented artisan (she’s also a whizz at cake and biscuit-making), Norinda, who tends to work on her embroidering at night, after returning home from work, mentions that in addition to herself, there are still a few keringkam artisans who continue to produce the craft.
The people of Kampung Lintang, Kampung Tanjung and Kampung Sungai Bedil, villages which are located near to each other, used to “house” many skilled artisans, shares Norinda. Unfortunately, most of them have passed on and the young ones living there haven’t quite embraced the craft of their forefathers.
Looking pensive, she muses: “For us, the Malay community, this is our heritage craft. And this heritage must be preserved. The right techniques must be learnt and quality materials must continue to be used. A piece of work can last for generations. It’s a proud family heirloom.”
She acknowledges that not many people are able to own this intricate work of art due to the rather high price. Rising material costs have done much to push prices up. “The selling price of a piece of work would normally be double the cost price of making it. The bigger the size of the scarf, the more expensive it will be.”
Also, with the advent of modernisation and development, it’s become a huge challenge to attract people to these labour-intensive craft industries. Sighing, Norinda shares: “The young ones prefer to work in the office in the city rather than spending hours doing this kind of work. I’ve even offered to train people in this craft and subsidise their stint, but no, not many have shown interest.”
In order to make it a little more accessible and cater to the range of tastes in the market, Norinda says that she has started to explore and re-look at design and form. “In the past, we focused mainly on producing scarves. These days, we’ve become more creative and are producing the keringkam on clutches, as a framed piece of art, and so on. Mum has been experimenting with making coasters, table runners, cushion covers and bookmarks. In fact, you can turn this into a lot of things. We just need to refine the end technique.
Pointing to the simple black scarf on her head with some elements of keringkam embroidery around the edges, Norinda points out: “See, I made this scarf — a tudung bawal in two days. This type of headscarf can be worn daily or for special occasions. It’s not too fancy but still looks nice. There’s no need to keep it stored in the cupboard. You can use it!”
Chuckling sheepishly, she confides: “That said, it may look simple but still costs RM1,000 to buy! It’s not that the material is expensive, it’s actually the keringkam motifs that determine the price.”
Noting the time on my watch, I realise that we’ve made ourselves quite at home here for a little too long. Taking a last sip of my tea, I ask Norinda what she wants to see going forward. A pause ensues as she contemplates the question.
Her brows furrow when she eventually replies: “I’d like to see more of the younger generation having this knowledge. For each household to at least have one person who’s skilled at this. There are training centres set up for keringkam but mostly it’s the older ones who are coming forward and showing interest. Perhaps we need to look at having more exhibitions and learning workshops to create awareness. We can’t afford to lose this — one of the oldest traditional crafts in Sarawak.”
Norinda’s business is located at No 215, Lorong Merdeka 2, Jalan Merdeka, Kampung Lintang, Petrajaya, Kuching.