Pua kumbu is a single warp ikat textile woven on a backstrap floor loom by the Iban women of Sarawak, traditionally to mark their womanhood and worth in the community. The Iban migrated to Sarawak over forty generations ago from the Kapuas basin in Kalimantan Borneo and brought the technique with them. Their ancestors may have inherited the knowledge of ikat weaving through early migration from Indo-China.
Woven in cotton, the blanket size textile, formed of two mirror image panels hand stitched together, is primarily used in sacred ceremonies and in rites of passage and healing rituals. The warp ikat technique (called kebat by the Iban) is also used to weave women’s short tube skirts, men’s loincloths, shaman’s robes, and jackets/vests. Both the dyeing and weaving processes, which are governed by rules and prohibitions, and the general layout and symbolic designs on pua kumbu are inextricably connected to Iban beliefs and the supernatural world.
Natural dyes produced from the roots and stems of Engkudu (Morinda citrifolia) and the leaves of the native indigo plant Tarum (Marsdenia tinctoria) are the most common dyes used, giving the distinctive reddish-brown and black tones of the textiles. The designs and patterns on each textile, including stylized plant, human and animal figures contained in the potent central panel enclosed by vertical stripes, represent meanings that are inspired through dreams passed to master weavers by the Iban weaving goddesses. Fittingly, such designs are known as “woven dreams”. Essentially a sacred cloth, a pua kumbu may tell a weaver’s personal story or a mythological tale or represent the purpose for which it has been woven.
The most accomplished pua kumbu weavers come from the Rumah Garie longhouse community in the Kapit district in central Sarawak. They excel not only in fine weaving using cotton and natural dyes but have mastered pua kumbu weaving in imported silk yarn. Master weaver Bangie anak (daughter of) Embol is a National Craft Artist and has won numerous international awards, including the UNESCO-World Crafts Council Award of Excellence for Handicrafts. The weavers are supported by Society Atelier Sarawak, which promotes and markets the textiles internationally.