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Three dedicated male artisans preserve and revitalise the rich traditions of Malaysia’s textile heritage

Prisons, which have long been hubs of vocational training, are reviving the country’s rich textile heritage.

Shah Nor Ramin receiving the Ikat, Best Innovative award at last year's Hasanah Gold Awards (Photo: Hasanah Gold Awards)

In Malaysia, prisons have long been hubs of vocational training, equipping inmates with valuable skills in carpentry, tailoring and furniture-making, among others.

In recent times, these institutions have taken on an even more significant role: reviving the country’s rich textile heritage. At the Penor and Bentong prisons in Pahang, inmates are breathing new life into traditional tenun weaving techniques. Meanwhile, Marang Prison in Terengganu has become a centre for the creation of exquisite songket (traditional brocade textile from Southeast Asia) and batik (textile made with a wax-resist dyeing technique). Batik clothing is also crafted by prisoners at Kajang Women’s Prison in Selangor, Pengkalan Chepa Prison in Kelantan and Pokok Sena Prison in Kedah, ensuring that these timeless crafts continue to thrive.

Shah Nor Ramin’s interest in Tenun Pahang Diraja (Royal Pahang woven fabric) was piqued in 2021 when he was working as a warden at Penor Prison. “Initially, I was very interested in the designs and techniques used in producing classic and contemporary woven fabrics, which led me to want to create a combination of the two. In any field, we must have an interest in learning new things that can further develop our skills,” says the winner of last year’s Hasanah Gold Threads Awards for the Ikat, Best Innovative category.

He still considers himself new to the craft and has much to learn. “I picked up a lot from the instructors there [Penor Prison]. The patron of Tenun DiRaja Pahang, Tunku Azizah Aminah Maimunah Iskandariah Sultan Iskandar, has provided exposure by bringing the teaching force to several countries to gain an understanding of traditional and contemporary techniques abroad, and we try to adapt foreign designs to Malaysian culture.”

The winning kain songket limar he created demonstrates a remarkable quality of design and technique. “There are several quite complicated processes involved in producing the ikat limar fabric. One of them is tying the weft itself; it must be tied tightly so that during the dyeing process, the colour does not seep into the tied areas. Colour selection is also important because it must match the weft pattern design. When weaving, it is quite challenging to arrange the weft and determine the right place to add floral motifs to the fabric.”

Shah emphasises the need to attract young people to the field of songket weaving. To remain relevant, he believes the designs must meet customer demand by combining traditional and contemporary techniques. “Tengku Ampuan Pahang has done many great things for the art form. She brought Tenun DiRaja Pahang to the London Craft Week in 2002. For me, that’s already a great achievement and I am certain this prized fabric can captivate wearers globally.”

Shah has also been earmarked by Yayasan Hasanah for Khazanah’s textile fellowship programme which will likely be held in Turkey. “I hope to learn more from the country’s rich heritage and apply their knowledge of textile industry development here,” he concludes hopefully.

Danny Zulkifli, owner of D’Keringkam boutique in Kuching, is one of only two remaining male embroiderers in Sarawak. His journey began in 2009 when he sought keringkam (traditional scarves or shawls from Sarawak) pieces for his dance group and discovered their soaring prices. This prompted him to learn the craft himself. “At that time, male embroiderers were already rare and this heritage craft was on the brink of extinction, particularly among the younger generation,” he recalls.

Danny Zulkifli is one of two practising male embroiderers left in Sarawak

Like songket, Sarawak’s keringkam is distinguished by the numerous motifs it holds, making it truly special. “These include various types of water canals, such as Tali Air Biasa, Tali Air Lada Tumpah, Tali Air Kaki Lipan and Tali Air. Among the many motifs, known as Bunga Tabur, are Bunga Melor, Bunga Manggis, Bunga Pelayang, Cengkih, Bintang, Kerang and more.”

For the chilli-red selayah he submitted to the Hasanah Gold Thread Awards 2023, Danny intentionally embroidered many motifs to showcase the best of Sarawak’s heritage craft. “One of them was Bunga Kenanga (ylang-ylang), a fragrant flower that grows abundantly in Sarawak and is a popular choice among our embroiderers. I also included many Tabur Bintang (scattered stars), a signature pattern in keringkam.

“There are also many Kaki Itik (duck feet) motifs, which later form the Telok Berantai (chained bays) design. Each pattern is meticulously counted, planned and placed on the loom, resulting in a full-motif keringkam piece known as tudung belatak,” explains the winner of the Embroidery and Embellishment, Best Traditional category.

He is delighted and proud to see more young people being trained in keringkam embroidery, a crucial effort to sustain and preserve this valuable heritage craft. One of these initiatives is the Aspire Programme under Brooke Museums, funded by Yayasan Hasanah, where he serves as the head trainer.

“Through this wonderful initiative, we are able to safeguard this heritage craft slowly but surely. With my skills and expertise, I am committed to preserving keringkam for years to come. I promote it through social media, share my work with the next generation and actively engage in its promotion, education, documentation and demonstrations of the art.”

Dr Muhammad Hilmi Muhammad Hafni’s tekat (traditional embroidery art) heritage dates back to his great-grandmother, a tekat embroiderer, and was passed down through the generations. Growing up in a Perakian family, this art form became a part of his daily life. Despite his family’s emphasis on education, which led him to earn a degree in medicine and work as a doctor, he remains dedicated to embroidery and spends about two to three hours a day on it.

Dr Muhammad Hilmi Muhammad Hafni is determined to continue his family’s artistic legacy

He believes precision, attention to detail and speed are crucial. This commitment and skill have allowed him to continue his family’s legacy while pursuing his medical career. Last year, he won the Embroidery and Embellishment, Best Innovative category for his work, Flow From Heaven. Tekat is a technique of decorating textile panels such as velvet with thick gold thread embroidery.

“I got the idea for the piece while visiting the Mecca Museum, where I saw Quranic calligraphy from the Zam Zam well area. The verses from Surah Al-Insan (17–18) describe a heavenly spring called Salsabil. After finishing, my mother named it Flow From Heaven. I also remembered an old tekat made by my great-grandmother, featuring a rattan border and glass beads. The calligraphy embroidery incorporates a rare technique and is finished off with rattan as mempulur (stencil) and beadwork.”

Rather than an innovation, Hilmi says Flow from Heaven revives Malay arts and crafts. It combines local tekat techniques with Islamic text, resembling the Kiswah, the black cloth that covers the Kaaba. “I hope it can attract Muslims from all over the world.”

This article first appeared on May 27, 2024 in The Edge Malaysia.

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