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Pua Kumbu - The Legends Of Weaving

The pua kumbu, the hand-woven warp ikat textile of the Iban, represents the quintessence of Iban culture. It is, depending on the design, historical archive, a mythological or religious story or a personal tale. It is a statement about the soul of the weaver and her relationship with the spirits.

Throughout history, women have been inextricably associated with textile arts. No matter what materials are used, no matter what form of culture is referenced, their participation has remained constant in influencing, shaping and evolving numerous varied techniques. When one reviews historical and anthropological literature, this fact is seldom recognised or is relegated to rather insignificant cultural importance. Thus it is not suprising that although much has been written on Iban culture, emphasis has been on male dominated activities. As a result, very little research has been made into women's contribution on the technical aspects of weaving, there has been little study of the pua kumbu in a cultural and social context. Discussion and ensuing interpretation of the symbolism has been limited to the study of individual motifs rather than examining the pua composition as a whole.

The first objective of this article is to appreciate the application of the technical, creative and artistic skills of the women, who are weavers and dyers, that signify the social values of Iban traditional society, the second is to examine the evaluation of a hierarchy of women's status, identified through attainment of weaving skills and the third is to examine the traditions and related functions of the symbolic language of the textile design in the pua kumbu. Such information is important for a greater cultural understanding of Iban textile weaving.

As there is no written documentation of Iban cultural history, it is impossible to trace an accurate record of the origin and development of this textile tradition. History is best remembered through oral traditions passed from generation to generation in the form of pengap, timang, pantun, sabak and renong by the bards (lemambang) and belian by shamans.


According to legend, some twenty-four generations ago, Singalang Burong, the God of War, taught his grandson; Surong Gunting the use of the most sacred of all the pua, the lebor api, after a period of warfare. The tradition was established that heads captured in war should be received ceremonially on this cloth, which has to be dyed a deep red colour, and was often woven using a special supplementary weft technique (sungkit). This pua was woven at Batu Gelong the longhouse abode of the goddesses of weaving, Kumang, Indai Abang, and Lullong, Indigo (tarum) and other plants used for dyeing were planted around the longhouse. Beyond the longhouse on the farm, cotton (taya), the most important crop next to padi, was planted.

The following sections of this article will discuss the basic technical skills required to make the pua kumbu.

In the old days before commercial thread was available, the Iban prepared the yarn form a locally grown cotton plant called taya (Gossypium sp). The taya was planted on a farm-fallow soon atter the hill padi was harvested. The taya plot is called empalai kasai.

After the cotton had been picked and the remains of the pericarp removed, it was dried in the sun for a few days. The raw cotton was then put through a gin (pemigi) to separate the seeds from the fibres.

After ginning, the cotton was threshed out on a mat with a cotton-beater (pemalu taya). The threshing of the cotton would always be done outside the longhouse on the shingle beach of the river (kerangan), for fear that this particular process would bring bad luck to the longhouse concerned. The cotton was threshed to form a flat mass ready for spinning.

The fibre was spun on a simple wheel called gasing which was turned by the right hand while the fibre was twisted with the left. The rotation of the spindle supplied the neccesary twist to the drawn out fibre. The process was intermittent since each length of yarn had to be wound onto the spindle before another length was spun. When the spindle was full of thread, it was wound off into a ball or onto a separate piece of wood, ready for dyeing. It has been noted that Iban yarn is strong and the colours wear well.

The Iban have traditionally made use of a large number of plants to produce a wide range of rich beautiful dyes. It is the dyers' ingenuity in making creative use of the different botanical resources available in their environment that has made Iban weavers renowned in this part of the world.

Many types of roots, bark and leaves may be used in addition to the three basic ingredients discussed below, in order to create the shades of colour desired by the individual dyer. Each dyer had her own special recipes, the details of which were a closely guarded secret. However, with natural dyes no two shades are exactly the same, and the results are sometimes not always to the dyer's satisfaction. For my ancestors, who were I am told among the great weavers of the past, the dyeing process was laden with pitfalls, but little did they know that the chemical content vary depending on the chemicals in the soil and the condition of the dye producing plants. This unpredictability has created a whole folklore of beliefs and taboos which have enolved around the art of dyeing.

Engkudu (Morinda Citrifolia) This plant produces, in combination with other ingredients in a mordant bath, shades varying from vibrant red through to deep maroon and brown, depending on the skills of the dyer in combining and mixing all the ingredients. A skilled dyer will knwo the secret of achieving a deep red colour which will be woven into pua embun. Pua embun is highly prized and is recognized by its deep colour, and the distinctive smell of ginger and oil of the kepayang fruit (Pangium edule) both of which are respectively the most important mordant and presevative used in Iban weaving.

Engkerbai (Psychotria Virdiflora) The leaves of this shrub are mixed with lime. The yarn is soaked in this solution only there is no need to use a mordant bath. The resulting colour is a dull brown and the yarn used in this is made up into pua mata as distinct from the more prized pua embun.

Tarum (Marsdenia Tinctoria, Indigofera) The indigo producing plant used by the Iban grows wild, but may be cultivated near a longhouse. It grows as a shrub to a metre high. It has light feathery leaves which are collected, punded, placed in a wooden trough, and soaked in water. To render the dye soluble in water, slaked lime (Kapur) is added to the solution. The yarn is completely submerged in the dye overnight, and then hung out to dry in the sun the following day. This drying process, after dipping, is necessary to oxidize the dye so as to form the indigo colour on the fibre.

Dyeing in the indigo solution (tarum) will produce black and diffierent shades of blue. The parts of the pattern that are to be dyed blue are untied and exposed to the solution. Shades of blue-black are achieved when yarn that has been previously dyed in engkudu is exposed and dyed in indigo solution. Thus during this stage of dyeing with indigo (narum) two colours may result. A white colour in the pattern is the result of excluding the tied portions from the engkudu and tarum dyes.

The raw yarn is treated with mordant prior to dyeing. The basic utensils required are a wooden trough (dulang), a wooden mortar and pestel (lesong alu), and a small coconut shell cup (tachu).

All the ingredients, which usually include ginger, salt, and oil are finely pounded in a wooden mortar, then are carefully mearued out - one coconut shell each, and put inside a wooden trough, where hot water is added; half-filling the wooden trough. The officiating master dyer (indu nakar indu gaar) and experienced weavers then plunge their hands into the mixture to stir the concoction. This is a test of their competence, and also offers them a chance to find an amulet (Pengaroh), which may miraculously appear in the mixture.

The yarn is dipped into the mixture, trodden with the feet, turned three times and it is then left in the bath for three days. During this time great care is taken to see that the yarn is well saturated. After the three days of soaking, the yarn is taken out and washed thouroghly in clear water, usually in a river. It is then stretched on a mat for twelve hours and afterwards hung on an upright frame and put on the outside platform (tanju) of the longhouse during the day time as well as at night for roughly sixteen days, so that the sun and dew may complete the process. Throughout, great care is taken to ensure that the yarn gets the right amount of sun, and that it does not get wet from the rain. This process of drying the yarn out in the sun during the day, and putting it on the outside platform (tanju) at night to be subjected to dew (ambun) is called ngembun ubong and the pua made from this yarn is called pua embun. The yarn is now ready for dyeing.

The ikat technique is one of the most widespread techiniques of patterning cloth in this region. It is a process by which designs are dyed onto the threads prior to being woven. The ikat technique may be applied to either the warp or weft yarn, but the Iban only employ the warp ikat. The patterns are produced by excluding parts of the web from dye by tying them with a dried fibre from a leaf known as lemba (Curculigo villosa) which grows in great abundance on old cultivated fields or rubber gardens near longhouse. Beeswax is used to coat the lemba strips for strength and waterproofing. This work is highly complex requiring great skill.

Before the tying process is done, the thread is unwound and stretched in the weaving loom to ascertain the length of pua to be woven. This is usually done by two women who sit in front of a weaving frame and continuously pass between them two balls of thread placed in containers made of coconut shells, to prevent the threads from twisting. This process is called ngirit ubong, (literally 'pulling the threads'). The threads are divided into strands of three to make one kayu, using two large rods (lidi). The threads are carefully counted to determine the number of kay used; this in turn would determine the pattern and the width of the pua.

The yarn is then taken out of the loom and fixed to the tying frame (tangga ubong), where another thread of a different colour is inserted into the divided strands (kayu ubong), to tighten them and to keep them in place. The large rods (lidi) are removed. A weaver then begins her tying process to create the desired pattern.

Using trips of 'lemba' coated with beeswax, the threads which are to remain white, or become black or blue, are tied, leaving the background part of the pattern exposed.

A set of weaving equipment (preka tenun) consists of the following a warp beam (tendai), breast beam (rakup), beater-in (belia), heddle road (karap), shed stick (blabungan), two pairs of laze rods (lidi), back strap (sengkabit), spool and spool case (jengkuan).

Men, in the old days, would make the weaving equipment for the women in the family. Bamboo spool cases were lovingly carved with intricate designs, and the head of the beater (belia) might be carved with a special design. The weaving equipment would be a source of great pride to the men in the family.

The back strap loom has no rigid framework so that the warp beam can be set up in any part of the longhouse, wherever there are two convenient posts. The breast beam is attached to a back strap that goes round the weaver's waist and so by a slight movement of her body she can manipulate the tension on the web. The warp is wrapped continuously round the warp and breast beams and the threads are prevented from becoming entangled by laze rods. When the odd numbered threads are first lifted, one rod is passed through, and then the evenly numbered threads are lifted and another rod is passed through the shed. The ends of each pair of laze rods are usually tied together by a cord. Rods are used at the beginning of the weaving to keep the warps evenly stretched. The raising of alternate warps or of groups of warps is effected by a shed stick and the single heddle to which one set of warp threads is fastened by loops or lashes. A sword-shaped beater is used to press home each pick of the weft, which is carried on a spool.

On removal from the loom, the unwoven warp threads are cut at each end between the upper and lower webs which have been tied together during dyeing. The upper and lower webs are identical pieces of cloth that are joined together along a selvedge with a lacing stich to form a large blanket-sized textile called pua. There are generally one or two rows of coarse twining to give firmness and good weaving quality to the edges of the pua.

The sercrets of making a pua kumbu are passed on from mother to daughter. In adolescene a young girl will begin to accumulate the knowledge and expertise in a process that will continue throughout her life. She will be guided through each stage from the preparation of the cotton yarn, the tying of threads, the dyeing process and the selection of a design. Each stage is circumscribed by ritual to appease the spirits. Her progress and ultimate success is dependent on a acceptance from the world of the sprits. As she develops her skills, she learns a larger lesson, that of establishing a relationship with the spirits through her art. If she fails in this relationship, by attempting a skill which she is not ready for, she will fall into a state of lifelessness (layu). This is because she has transgressed the boundaries of a naturally sequenced order sanctioned by the spirit world. Every woman fears and dreads such a fate as in such a condition she may fall physically or mentally ill, the only release being death.

Weaving is a means of evaluating status for women in the Iban community. A woman, depending on her use of dye, design and skill, will fit into a certain rank within the community. In order to be a master weaver, a women has to move up from rank to rank. To be successful, a woman has to have a tacit acceptance as an individual of a variety of spiritual agents as well as a creative understanding of the art of weaving. A good pua kumbu is not only a demonstration of her relative success in terms of knowledge and expertise but also the state of her soul. Even though Iban society has moved ahead and new ideas are replacing old beliefs and traditions in many respects, a pua kumbu is still valued by criteria of the important ritual and technical processes which determine the way it has been woven. The criteria for evaluating the status of weavers is discussed below.

The first category is for women who do not weave. They are ordinary housewives, who may not come from weaving families, and thus have not had the opportunity to learn. It may be difficult for them to accumulate wealth to pay for the services of a dyer, or to obtain designs. They may have scarce food resources, and all their time is taken up making sure there is enough food to eat.

This category is for women who are good hostesses. An indu temua indu lawai may be a headman's wife; she has enough rice to entertain guest, and she has enough time to weave. She is able to accomplish a basic pattern such as a creeper or bamboo design, perhaps with the help of another woman.

A beginner will always start by weaving a simple design buah randau takong randau, on a small piece of cloth. She is only allowed to start weaving a piece that is fifty kay wide. A kayu refers to the warp in groups of three single threads. By the time she is ready to weave her tenth pua she will be weaving a piece that is a hundred and nine kayu in width. These restrictions are rigidly adhreed to, as they are prescribed by the spirits.

Once a woman is recognized as being adept she is considered indu sikat indu kebat. She can weave basic patterns, but she is unable to make up her own. She is dependent on copying the designs of her mother and grandmother. If she needs or wishes to widen her reprtoire, she has to make a ritual payment to obtain a design from a more proficient weaver. If the master weaver, the indu nakar indu gaar does not posses the required design, she might obtain it from the next category down, the indu nenkebang. However, both women will expect ritual payment.

A women of this status can invent her own designs, inspired by the spirits in her dreams. She is an extremely proficient weaver, and will have the power to attempt potentially dangerous patterns. She is widely respected by the community and wears a porcupine quill tied with red thread as a mark of distinction. She is likely to be quite wealthy, being paid well by other weavers for designs.

A woman reaches this position if she is able to judge the correct quantities for the mordant bath and the dyeing solution. She literally knows her salt. She is primarily a chemist able to complete the dyeing process (nakar) successfully throught the application of mordant and natural dyes, which prior to the arrival of imported commercial threads and chemical dyes, was the only way of dyeing the cotton. Although the ingredients of the mixture which comprise the mordant are common knowledge, the completion of the nakar process, which is the application of the mordant to the raw cotton and fixing the dye to the cloth, is a difficult ritual process. It is the acquisition of the knowledge of these various ingredients which determines the essence of the position of indu nakar indu gaar, because without spiritual intervention, the desired colour is not achieved.

To achieve status as a member of this respected class a woman is required to excel in all areas of knowledge, skill and behaviour. In addition, she must win the approval of the spirits in the metaphysical world who will appear to he in dreams to bestow their acceptance and consent to he requests in recognition of her abilities. The appearance of spiritual forces to an Iban woman serves as both an initiation and an important confirmation of her new role. A spiritual visitation in a dream is an event that is eagerly anticipated not only by women but by the community as a whole. It can be also happen that someone else dreams for an indu nakar indu gaar confirming her status.

It is likely that a woman of this position comes from an ancestral line of weavers and dyers, and she will inherit the knowledge of designs and dyes and precious amulets from her ancestors. More often than not the men of the family will be war leaders (tau sarang), having provided extra labour in the form of captives in war to work in the fields. In this way, the indu nakar indu gaar does not have to worry about farming but can devote all her time to her weaving and dyeing skills.

It is also possible for an exceptional woman to work her way up to the position of indu nakar indu gaar. She will need to be courageous and daring to overcome the fear of transgressing the ritual prohibitions and becoming layu.

The indu nakar indu gaar leads the rites for the mixing of the mordant bath. An animal - a pig or a fowl - is sacrificed, offerings are made and prayers are said. The ceremony is referred to as kayu indu which means women's warfare. It is essentially a private ritual, and the officiating expert has to be as courageous and as daring as any warrior, in order to control the unseen and dangerous forces present at the ritual. If she fails, lie a warrior, she faces death, but in her case it is the spiritual lifelessness of being layu.

The indu nakar indu gaar is also recognised as a leader in other public rituals. For example, at the Gawai Burong she is conferred the honour of throwing glutinous rice at the ceremonial kelingkang pole. She will also prepare special garong baskets to commemorate the deceased indu nakar indu gaar of previous generations at the Festival for the Dead (Gawai Antu). At her death, in her funeral eulogy, the highest honours will be bestowed on her as she enters the afterworld. He worth is deemed equivalent to a highly prized jar (satu igi rusa). Her widower also will be conferred high honours.

Thus the weaver of each pua is accorded an important status which is of ritual and economic significance within the community. The pua is valued by the same criteria as its weaver: the complexity of the design, the width of the cloth, the ritual significance of the pattern. It is also important to consider the purpose for which each pua has been woven. It cannot be emphasized enough how important the pua kumbu is to a person who practises Iban traditional religion and culture. The textile is used for the entire gamut of life rituals, and none would be complete without it. The designs of a pua kumbu define the rituals for which it is to be used, and the ritual itself is given a special individual quality by the use of a particular pua kumbu. Thus in the next part of this article we will look at some of the different kinds of pua kumbu, their use, and their designs.

The designs and patterns on each piece of textile represent meanings which have resulted in varied interpretations by collectors. An attempt to individualize and itemize every single design or represented symbol in a given piece often distorts the true meaning, and there is often a danger of misunderstanding. The interpretation of the true spiritual significance of the design on a piece of pua lies in the combination of the symbols and the general layout of the design. The literature to date on the subject pays attention only to the individuals symbols and has missed this most important point.

A detailed description of the appearance of these symbols alone has little meaning and falls short of why a piece of pua is designed in a particular way. It is important to consider factors such as the purpose for which the pua has been woven, its date and historical context, the life story of the weaver herself, as well as to be aware of a rich repertoire of references to Iban legend, religion and oral history. The pua kumbu is essentially a sacred cloth, which may tell a mythogical story, or a personal tale, or represent a historical archive.

The pua kumbu is used for the many rituals of a person's life from birth to death: to wrap a baby for the ceremony of its first bath (mering anak mandi) and at death to screen a corpse (sapat) while it is laid out in state on the verandah before burial. The latter is an example of the way the pua can be used to define ritual space, or a sacred area, forming a boundary between what is mortal and what is considered transcendent. A pua kumbu can mediate between man and the spirit world, and for this reason, the cloth has spiritual power woven into it with its design. Only a very experienced weaver can make one of these sacred pua and there is a particular type of design which is woven as evidence of a weaver's power in handling the potent forces in a sacred design.

This is a particularly rare type of pua kumbu, as it is considered sacrilegious (mali) for a weaver to undertake it unless she is sufficiently experienced and spiritually mature. Kelikat refers to the abstract zig-zag pattern which is repeated in horizontal rows the length of the pua kumbu. These motifs combine to form a rituallly powerful cloth which is a challenge, even for a master weaver. In all pua kumbu, the potency is in the central panel, and this has to be confined by well-defined vertical borders (anak) and vertical bands (ara) on each side, and horizontal border patterns at the top and the bottom (punggang). On the border (anak) of this pua are half bird motifs, and the stripes on the edge (ara) are in a combination of black, white, red and yellow which denote the proficiency of a master weaver. At the top of this bali kelikut pua kumbu is the sepit api or fire tong motif. This is a metaphor for strength, endurance and the supernatural power to withstand fire, a virtue of Selampandai the supreme spirit who created man with fire tongs at his balcksmith's forge.

This is one of the most sacred of pua also known as pua sungkit. It was woven for a ceremony called encaboh arong, the first stage of the most significant Iban festival, Gawai Burong. During this ritual, it was customary for the wife of a war leader to receive on the lebor api the trophy heads which her husband had brought back from war with the other longhouse warriors. This particular example has been a family heirloom for seven generations. The characteristics of a lebor api are its deep blood-red colour, dyed in a mordant bath using the embun process, and the weaving technique sungkit which involves the use of a supplementary weft, giving the design an embroidered effect similar to tapestry. The motifs woven into the central part of the pua are unique to the time it was woven, and even perhaps to the weaver, they elude comtemporary interpretation and have to be left as secrets of history. On the border (anak) are bird motifs, important in Iban thought, as earthly apparitions of spirits, or augurs of omens, mediating between the mortal world of mankind and the heavenly abode of the spirits. The punggang or horizontal border consists of a design typical of the lebor api, leku sawa, a moving snake. This is a reference to Keling, the archetypal Iban warrior reputed for his strength, bravery and handsome form, who often appears to humans in the shape of a snake.

This is another pua woven for a ritual purpose, for the eighth stage of the Gawai Burong, when a ceremonial pole tiang ranyai is erected. The central part of the pua is woven with decorative patterns bubol aja and gelung paku. Out of these abstract motifs the two vertical poles (tiang ranyai) emerge down the length of the cloth, cluminating in two branches opening out into stylized trophy heads (tangkai leka balang). At the base of each pole (tiang ranyai) is a face with pierced ear lobes representing Nising, a demon giant, who is keeping watch over the trophy heads. This pua kumbu comes from the deep area where there are restrictions on the weaving of human forms, and for this reason the face of Nising is of minimal size. Underneath Nising is the final border design of sepit api, three sets of fire tongs, again the metaphor of the creator god Selampandai known for his supernatural powers to endure fire. At the other end is a border composed of motifs of thetail feathers of the argus pheasant (tugang ruai) which are highly prized as decorations for traditional costume. This piece was woven by Nangku anak Dingat, a master weaver and indu nakar who acquired considerable wealth through her commissions. She would weave out of inspiration and not cease until her task was completed. This piece is typical of her work, as there no side border (anak).

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