Tenun (Malay)

Country: Malaysia
Examples of striped tenun sarongs made in Pahang. © Malaysian Handicraft Development Corporation

Tenun is a traditional Malay textile that is handwoven from silk or cotton and features striped and plaid or chequered patterns. Traditionally, tenun is woven as sarongs that are worn by both men and women. Today, however, tenun is also woven as yard fabric so that it can be tailored into traditional outfits like baju melayu for men and baju kurung or baju kebaya for women, as well as craft products such as accessories and soft furnishings.

The craft is believed to have been introduced to Pahang in the 16th century by Tok Tuan Keraing Aji, a high official and master weaver of Bugis descent from Sulawesi. Upon settling in Pahang, he established a weaving centre and taught the craft to local women. It spread to other states, with weaving centres being established in Terengganu and Kelantan, and to a lesser extent in Perak, Johor and Selangor.

A tenun weaver working at her loom, Pulau Keladi, Pekan, Pahang. © National Textile Museum, Department of Museums Malaysia

Today, tenun has become synonymous with the state of Pahang, where it has been championed by the royal family for generations. Tengku Puan Pahang Tunku Hajjah Azizah Aminah Maimunah Iskandariah binti Almarhum Sultan Iskandar Al-Haj, consort of the Crown Prince of Pahang, is a passionate patron of tenun weaving. Her efforts in upholding tenun have resulted in the craft being hailed as Tenun Diraja Pahang (Royal Weave of Pahang).

Unlike the floral, foliate and geometric patterns of other traditional Malay textiles, tenun features restrained designs in the form of vertical and horizontal stripes as well as plaid or chequered patterns. The interplay of colours between multicoloured threads lends the cloth its charm. Since the 1990s, tenun weavers have begun incorporating warp ikat patterns and supplementary weft motifs in metallic threads.

While the craft is continued by many tenun weavers today, one of the most celebrated tenun master weavers is Nortipah Abdul Kadir. Accorded the prestigious title of Adiguru Kraf (Craft Master) in 2006, she has been weaving since the age of 13 and is an 11th generation descendant of Tok Tuan Keraing Aji.