Textile Cultures – An interview with Welyne Jehom (Part 1)

This is part one of a two-part interview conducted by O For Other editors Lay Sheng and Sheau with Welyne Jehom, a senior lecturer of anthropology, on Sunday, 6 October 2019. In this first part, we explore the significance of Pua Kumbu textiles for Iban women and their community, and the changes in the community’s relationship with Pua Kumbu textiles over the decades. In the second part, we explore Welyne’s work of ensuring the successful transmission of intangible knowledge between generations and the ethical stance one holds in heritage and conservation work.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

O: How did your lifelong work with Pua Kumbu textiles began?

WJ: Sarawakians see Pua Kumbu everywhere. When we visit our friends at Iban longhouses, we are so used to seeing it but would not look further. We have always seen it used as a table-runner. I was always so curious about it, but I couldn’t afford it – it was too expensive to buy, so I would just admire it. Then I started collecting another form of cloth called sungkit – not songket – another form of Iban textile with very fine embroidery. I bought my first one in 1997, and I still have it today, framed up because I don’t want it to fade. But for Pua Kumbu, it was 2012, and I was at the British Museum and I saw pua kumbu. It was very original. I asked the curator, and she told me that they had a few pieces of pua kumbu that they received from Dr. Charles Hose in 1905. I was thinking to myself – how many non-Iban know about this? So I said, ok, why don’t we do pua kumbu? I’m curious to know about it. But until today, I still haven’t published any papers from this research, but I have signed a book contract with Palgrave to produce a book instead. This is knowledge that is not share-able. There are a lot of taboos associated with Pua Kumbu. People are protective of this knowledge – they would rather go to the grave with it.

O: There has recently been an increasing amount of attention devoted to textiles. What is the reason behind the omission of these textiles from our understanding of the past? Why is there so much interest being generated at this point in time?

WJ: I was actually asking myself the same question. In 2012, when I first started looking at textiles, no one was looking at heritage the same way I was looking at it. I prioritise community engagement as part of my anthropological research; now, the university encourages every grant to have community engagement, and now it’s one of the key research KPIs. Textiles have always been a fascinating issue for artists and collectives, but few academic researchers have studied it because our attention is less focused on heritage. In fact, I was originally studying women empowerment and the development of pua kumbu as a cottage industry – I wasn’t looking at the textile itself.

O: Let’s hold the thought on gender for now. What you said earlier was interesting – even as the MoE was trying to promote community engagement, these communities are jealously guarding their knowledge. You mentioned how difficult it is to extract knowledge from these communities. Why is this knowledge guarded so jealously and held as sacred?

WJ: Pua Kumbu in particular has a very close relationship with headhunting. Until the 1920s when headhunting was banned, every Iban woman who aspired to be somebody had to learn to weave, and to be good at it, because it is one of the criteria to become a headhunter’s wife. That is the measurement. It’s almost like the dowry in India, but it’s based on skill. During the ritual, the headhunters will bring a fresh head, and the woman will accept the head with the newly woven pua kumbu. Then, she will bring it to the river and clean it, and treat it like a baby and put it on another pua kumbu, then bring it to the long house for the ceremony. So the Pua Kumbu textiles are regarded as sacred objects for the important religious and ceremonial functions they perform.

O: What is the hierarchy like within these community of women weavers?

A very good woman weaver has a high rank in the community. Ibans are generally gender-egalitarian, although the word ‘egalitarian’ is not wholly applicable here because there is a prestige hierarchy based on skill and knowledge. Woman weavers are equal with any man in the Iban community. But among them, there is a master weaver. There are four different levels. They have to start with basic designs and the second rank can only copy design but she is not able to create her own. That’s why we don’t have many master weavers. So far, there are only about three or four, and the master weaver I’m working with was recently certified as Sarawak’s Living Legend of Pua Kumbu weaving, and UNESCO recognised her as a pua kumbu master weaver.

So she creates, innovates and also tells stories – she is a pua kumbu walking dictionary. Once I showed her a design, her fingers started moving like this [Welyne starts imitating weaving movements], and I slow her down “Wait wait wait! Let me record this first.” She always tells me “Faster, faster! If it comes out of my mouth I won’t say it a second time.” I always have to prepare my phone and everything to record.

O: So each textile tells stories…

WJ: Yes – like this one is the playground of leopards. In the past, and now too, weavers don’t want to share their stories because they don’t want their ideas to be known by the spirits. So they keep it to themselves: this is a burden carried by the weavers when they weave. They don’t want spirits to interfere with their weaving so they don’t get sick, they don’t delay their weaving, so their colours are produced as desired. There’s a whole lot in the spirit world. But now, they can’t share the knowledge anymore because they don’t know. They just replicate designs they are familiar with. In fact, when I go to the longhouse, the weavers will start carrying designs to me and asked, “Do you know what this means?” I say “What?!” “You should know because you collect all the information!” So it becomes very interesting – I’m the researcher, and they know I collect information, so they come to me to ask for the symbolic meanings of the design.

O: Can you tell us more about this relationship change between people and the textiles over the years? How did it become a pattern that they could decipher and now they can’t?

WJ: One of the very visible reasons they are unable to read textiles like they have been able to in the past is because these are the generations that have gone to school, the generations who do not live in the longhouse with their grandmothers. A lot of them started to pick up weaving in their 40s and 50s, so they aren’t really exposed to it. With textiles like these, you need to be in that kind of social environment. You need to have a special relationship with the rituals, with the symbols. You really have to live in it to be a good weaver. The master weaver really lives in it. Her own biological mother was a very good weaver, but she died when she was very young. She was adopted by the wife of the head of the longhouse who is a master weaver herself. She did not really teach her, but she was exposed to it: it is learning by demonstration, learning by watching. With new generations, we cannot do that. With the school system, you have to read, to write, but this kind of things you have to pay attention and look, because the weavers will not tell you what it is.

O: In contemporary usages of pua kumbu, do they take on decorative functions more than anything else?

WJ: There is a yes and no to that question. When you have pua kumbu natural dye, you buy it with a story that is known to you and told to you. Most people don’t use it because they think it’s too expensive to wear, to expensive to hang, so they just keep it in their closet. But the ones you see when you go to the Main Bazaar in Kuching, sometimes you see on Facebook that people are selling pua kumbu dresses – those are printed, and some are produced with chemical dye. They don’t know the meaning of the motif, they just saw it somewhere and copied from those who have a bit of weaving skills, especially their old mothers. They always ask their old mothers to weave for them. I know 2 or 3 women entrepreneurs from Sarawak who make small clutches, hairbands and everything from small weaving that they do. But if you ask them to tell you the meaning, they wouldn’t know. It’s something like “Sarawak Batik” – come on, there’s no such thing as Sarawak Batik, it’s just newly invented and created so they have another version of Sarawak pua kumbu. In fact, you can’t call that pua kumbu because it needs to have a measurement of 8’ x 2’. If it’s less than that, you cannot say pua kumbu – it’s not enough to become a blanket because “Pua” means blanket, and “kumbu” means you wrap yourself with it. So how can you wrap yourself with a small thing and call it pua kumbu?

To be continued…

Welyne Jehom is a senior lecturer of anthropology at the University of Malaya, and the head of research at the University Malaya’s Center for Malaysian Indigenous Studies. She is a co-founder of Rumah Gareh Borneo Natural, a Pua Kumbu community project.