The Sarawakian handicrafts — layered beads, colourful patterns


SARAWAKIAN handicrafts and accessories are often synonymous with traditional tribal designs with small beads and four signature colours: Black, white, red and yellow.

Although marketable for their rich heritage and distinguishable designs, handicraft designers in the Borneo state are not without their gripes on the industry.

Lucille says the main ongoing issue in the handicraft industry is the tight competition caused by the lack of quality control

Pungu Borneo Sdn Bhd MD and jewellery designer Lucille Awen Jon said the main ongoing issue in the handicraft industry is the tight competition caused by the lack of quality control.

“We put a lot of effort into our works to source our beads, and while they’re not all from Sarawak, we still design our products individually. Meanwhile, some people buy from us and then resell the products.

“There are also those who mass produce and then sell, which also means lesser quality beads, thus turning away customers from the born and bred craft masters,” she told The Malaysian Reserve at the Asean Lifestyle Week at Kuala Lumpur (KL) Convention Centre, KL, last Friday.

She said the designs from the major ethnic groups in Sarawak, such as the Bidayuh, Melanau and Iban, possess their unique qualities which are understandably both marketable and not.

“It depends, some people like them, and some people don’t. I see that our works are mostly marketable, however, we just lack the quality control that can help maintain the industry,” she said.

Lucille added that there has been a lack of support towards handicrafts that is caused by other industries like herbs.

“You cannot export herbs to certain countries because they may be banned. Herbs are also consumed, while accessories and crafts can be permanent mementos,” she said.

Lucille is an expert in Bidayuh traditional necklaces, calling her line the “Pangieh Ranee”, which is inspired by the Pangiah, a spiritual necklace worn by priestesses.

It was believed that the Pangiah could gather spirits to provide guidance to a sick person, whereby during the healing process, each patient would bring forth a gift to the priestess in the form of brass bells, coils, ancient coins, bear claws, tusks or beads to be hung on the necklace to protect the priestess.

The modern-day pangiah is designed to look like its ancestors — minus the gifts — while also featuring beads and colours which are not originally used.

The most distinctive feature of the Bidayuh necklace is its layered and multi- strand designs with colourful beads.

Meanwhile, the Melanau necklace is often single-strand in design but has a larger centrepiece. The rest of the necklace is decorated with small, common polychrome beads.

It was written by Heidi Munan, in a report titled “Melanau Bead Culture: A Vanishing World?” that the ethnic group specifically prefers more dainty and smaller items than flashy decorations.

The Iban necklace is similar to the Bidayuh in a way that they often utilise the multi-strand designs and intricate small beads, however, the Marek Empang is worn to decorate the shoulders.

The top that Nabilah designs requires a lot less energy or strength to spin

To further modernise the handicrafts, the Sarawak Craft Council’s ceramic clay young master Nabilah Abdullah has handcrafted her special brand of beads.

She handcrafts her beads which are called the “mocha diffusion beads”, a method more often seen in pottery than jewellery.

“They are made from sago fibre as well as ceramic clay, which is reduced to lighten its mass,” she said.

Each clay is painted on differently, making each sizeable and somewhat heavy bead on a necklace or earring distinctly unique from each other, although they may share similar patterns.

Nabilah has taught other women in the community on how to design their gasing (top) that would work with the rope method of spinning the toy, which requires a lot less energy or strength to spin.

“Now even we can play. I grew up watching the boys play among themselves, but knowing how to make one now, we can have our fun, too,” she said.