Sarawak’s oldest textiles were recovered in Niah Cave, home to 40,000 year old Niah Man. Mat fragment were recovered in association with burials. The impression of woven ‘winding sheets’ was found in some graves, the earliest dated from c.500 B.C. The practice of burying the dead in their best clothes, with ‘graves gifts’ of jewellery, continues among some native groups. Textiles deteriorate fast in a tropical climate; 19th century pieces are ‘very old’ in Sarawak.
An exotic textile is the Iban pua, often referred to as a blanket but more appropriately simply called a cloth. Technically excellent in comparison to any ikat weaving of other cultures, powerful in its allegorical symbol, the warp-ikat pua kumbu an outstanding material culture of Sarawak.
The uses of pua kumbu are numerous and are of great significance in the traditional life of the Iban. They are used in ceremonies: birth, marriage, funeral and healing, as well as in farming rituals. As soon as the child is cleaned after being delivered, he or she is laid upon a pua kumbu. During the first ceremonial bath in the river, the baby is wrapped and covered with the pua kumbu and taken to the river. During the ceremony, pua kumbu are used to adorn the room where the marriage ceremony is held; the couple are seated on a gong under a pua kumbu canopy to receive blessing from the elderly folk. Pua kumbu also forms part of the dowry. When a relative dies, pua kumbu are hung up as curtains to shelter the body of the dead relative. Pua kumbu are also used to veil structures (pandong) containing charms and offering in farming rituals. In the olden days, pua kumbu were used to receive heads from a party returning from a successful war expedition.
The patterns used in all the weaving are based on the motifs as seen in the many other Sarawak decorative arts. Some common symbols include birds, deer, snakes, leeches, centipedes, squirrels, frog, flower and fruits. The higher symbols are human and spirits.
Other magnificent woven cloth of textile art in Sarawak is kain songket of the malays. They are hand-woven textiles of gold and silver threads combined with fine cotton or silk yarn. It is very similar to the gold threaded kain songket of Kelantan and Indonesia. However, in Sarawak they were regarded as a legacy from the Brunei Sultanate days.
The Songket cloth is made to a size of a two-and half yard sarong or skirt length. Influenced by their religion, Malay weavers chose geometric patterns of flowers, rosettes, stars and stripes for their design.
Kain songket was worn on auspicious occasions and festivals by the aristocrats in the old days. Today, it is proven to be a living fabric used by all sectors of the Malay society and the designs are used in many modern fashions.