The earliest evidence of textiles in Sarawak, located in the west of the island of Borneo, are fragments associated with burials recovered from the Niah Great Cave where prehistoric man lived 40,000 years ago.
The earliest material used for clothing was tree bark. Of the more than 28 indigenous communities in Sarawak, the peoples of the interior and highlands, such as the Bidayuh, Lun Bawang and Kelabit, made loincloths, skirts and sleeveless jackets/vests of beaten bark fibre from the Tekalong or wild breadfruit tree (Artocarpus elasticus), which they decorated with painted, stencilled or appliqué designs in cotton or with shells, glass beads and feathers. Bark jackets are still worn during periods of mourning or for ritual or special purposes.
The subsequent introduction of the backstrap loom, probably from India via maritime trade, and the cultivation of native cotton called taya (Gossypium spp.), had a major impact on the creation of distinctive indigenous hand woven textiles for clothing as well as ceremonial and ritual purposes. Iban women are Sarawak’s finest weavers on the backstrap loom.
Sarawak’s most distinctive textile is the Iban pua kumbu, a warp ikat textile using natural dyed threads to create patterns, to produce cloth for clothing (short tube skirts, loin cloths and jackets) and as ceremonial textile hangings. Besides the warp ikat technique, the Iban also use discontinuous and continuous supplementary weft techniques, tapestry weave, embroidery and embellishment with glass seed beads.
Sarawak Malays weave kain songket on a frame loom using gold or silver coated supplementary threads over silk or cotton threads to form decorative motifs, specially for wedding and festival attire. A special technique called keringkam, employing silver or gold plated thread to embroider fine voile cotton, is also used in head scarves for the women.
Since the 1970s, when batik began to gain importance as a mark of Malaysian identity, several workshops have been set up in Sarawak, mostly in Kuching, the capital. Sarawak’s hand drawn batik infused with the native designs of the Orang Ulu (Kenyah, Kayan, etc.) and the Iban pua kumbu have become popular fashion items.
Textiles and costumes made by the main ethnic communities of Sarawak as well as weaving techniques and motifs can be seen at the Textile Museum Sarawak in Kuching. The Tun Jugah Museum also houses a superb collection of antique and modern Iban pua kumbu. Weaving remains a highly respected skill, and handwoven cloth continues to be produced for indigenous costumes for ceremonial and other occasions and for sale.