Malay Woven Textiles: The Beauty of a Classic Art Form is a long study on woven textiles in Nusantara (the Malay world), intended to supplement the work of foreign scholars and earlier commentators. More recently, a number of local studies have appeared, including Norwani Mohd. Nawawi’s Songket Malaysia (1989) and Grace Silvanayagam’s Songket (1990). The author, too, has published analysis of songket, batik and tekat in her book Reka Bentuk Kraf Tangan Melayu Tradisi (1986). Each of these works is, however, limited to the description of textiles from the Malay Penisula.
In Malay Woven Textiles: The Beauty of a Classic Art Form, the author is concerned with a variety of forms of textiles and with the Malay world as a whole. The author’s understanding of the term “the Malay world” is not constrained by current political boundaries. Rather, the author seeks to work within an anthropological framework and incorporate the additional data provided by literary texts and ethnography. In the author’s opinion, similarities in form and materials employed are sufficient to create a unified culture area. Koentjara-ningrat suggests that the existence of a related group of cultural traits is the fundamental criterion for the establishment of a culture area or region.
Malay woven textiles are categorized as arts and crafts produced by men to fulfil their lives. The art of textiles has long evolved through culture, concurrent with the cultural development of a certain group in this Malay world. Textiles are refined art and intriguing especially where the design and weave structure are concerned. Its beauty has been used numerous times in Malay poems and proverbs. And most of these poems have elevated the image of textiles as beauty bore from emotions and thoughts through the weaving metaphor.
Textiles are one of the handicrafts which we human beings have invented to enrich our lives. Historically, textiles have developed in parallel to the other facets of human culture. Woven textiles are an integral part of Malay culture and one indication of the sophistication of our people.
In the study of the development of textiles, we shall learn of the many similarities to be found between the various types of cloth produced in the Malay world. We shall sometimes see, too, that the same term, for example, kain Bugis is used from one end of the region to the other. The weaving of cotton into cloth has been practiced since the Dongson bronze era. The same techniques spread from the mainland of Southeast Asia throughout the archipelago and led to a single ikat style which is found to this day among the Iban and Bajau of Borneo, the Batak and Gayo of Sumatra, the Torajans of the Celebes, and the peoples of Sumba and Flores.
Cultural diffusion has also introduced strikingly different types of cloth from India, China and the Arab and Persian regions. These innovations spread through the coastal areas once ruled by the great empire of Sri Vijaya, including the Malay kingdoms of Palembang and Jambi, the Minangkabau region, Patani, Kelantan and Terengganu, as well as Pahang. The joint processes of historical evolution and cultural diffusion have created forms of cloth which are both attractive and distinctive parts of the Malay identity.
There is great beauty in these works, and many have been created for this purpose. Many of our traditional verse forms, such as the pantun and gurindam; describe the beauty of indigenous forms of textile. In this way, too, textiles contribute to the elegance of the Malay aesthetic sense.
Malay Woven Textiles: The Beauty of a Classic Art Form is divided into four chapters. Chapter 1 presents an introduction to textiles in general, to the methods of studying textiles, and to some previous studies of textiles from this region. Chapter 2 discusses the various types of cloth through reference to the materials used, techniques employed, and indigenous categories of classification. This chapter will make extensive use of literary texts and ethnographic data. Chapter 3 is more concerned with the processes of history and cultural diffusion. The chapter focuses on a range of practices including basic weaving, ikat, double ikat, kain songket, kain pelangi and kain telepuk. The aesthetics and functions of textiles form the focus of Chapter 4. Textiles are often worn as clothing, so it is impossible to avoid these pragmatic aspects of their use.
Through the brief exposure to woven textiles and a little of what has been written about them, it is the author’s sincere wish that all Malaysians might be encouraged to consider how best to balance the richness of our tradition against the urgency of the demands with which we are all faced.