For the love of Pua Kumbu

 By Jude Toyat



THE PUA KUMBU, traditionally hand-woven in Iban longhouses in the interior of Sarawak, is gaining international attention, thanks to the efforts of weaver Rorna Lidam who recently did an exhibition in London showing off this unique Iban cultural heritage.


Rorna showing her weaving skills to people of London in Tobacco Dock London in 2013.

Rorna showing her weaving skills to people of London in Tobacco Dock London in 2013.


Rorna is a 28-year-old Iban woman born at Sungai Melinau, Mujong, Kapit where she still resides today.


In 2009, she graduated from Universiti Malaysia Sabah (UMS) with a Bachelor of Education (Honours) (Science), and now works as a teacher at SMK Kapit. She has been weaving the Pua Kumbu since she was just a little girl.


Weaving the Pua Kumbu is typically handed down from mother to daughter.


And so it seems natural that Rorna’s own interest in weaving Pua Kumbu was started from a young age as she inherited the craft from her mother who exposed her to it, teaching her step by step until she eventually produced her first Pua Kumbu at 20.


Rorna Lidam with Paren Nyawi hopes to promote our cultures and traditions in the eyes of the world.

Rorna with Paren Nyawi from Warisan Sarawak hope to promote our native culture and traditions to the world.


When asked to explain the significance of Pua Kumbu, Rorna answered, “In the Iban community, the Pua has its significant role from the past up until now. The Pua is not only important for daily use, but is also important in Iban rituals.


“The Pua is treated as a gift from the Petara (Gods) to the Iban community and for that, it is considered something very special and sacred thus regarded as a symbol of a cultural identity for the Iban community in Sarawak.


“Pua is very symbolic to us because it portrays an aspect of Iban cultural identity through its unique motifs and colors, and that the Pua cloth is a reference to our race and ethnicity of the Iban as the creator, weaver and owner of the Pua Kumbu.”



Rorna hard at work weaving the Pua with a diverse array of her work around her.


As for Rorna, she chooses to weave the Pua Kumbu instead of other fabrics because it is a reflection of her artistic soul and a representation of her true self.


In the past, weaving determined the status and ranks of a woman in the Iban community. By relying on the use of color, design and skills, the Pua Kumbu makes a woman visible to the community, helping to raise her rank among society back then. The well-produced Pua Kumbu not only demonstrates her knowledge and skills but also symbolises an aspect of her true self.


Although the Iban community has moved on and have adopted a different lifestyle, Rorna believes that the old beliefs and traditions will still live on.



Besides being completely handmade, Rorna uses traditional dyes for her weavings.


“I am proud that I can help to maintain the culture and tradition of the Iban community,” she added, hoping that one day her work will be recognised as her own contribution to the continuity of her people’s culture.


When asked her thoughts on how people view the Pua Kumbu today, she said that social development has made the Pua Kumbu less appealing especially among the younger generation, due to lack of exposure to Pua Kumbu, not to mention that people have migrated from the longhouse to the city.


When it comes to traditional things such as the Pua Kumbu, she said the interest of the younger generation had visibly changed. “Most of them do not understand the value of Pua Kumbu, making it less appreciated, especially when it comes to the complexity of making the Pua Kumbu.”


However, there are also some positive changes among those who are interested in the Pua Kumbu and have found ways to market it for many purposes in shops or even on-line.


Rorna’s efforts to promote the Pua Kumbu around the world includes marketing it on-line. With this, she proved that Pua Kumbu can help to generate revenue and she hoped that this can be one of the ways for her to encourage more young people to venture into the art of weaving the Pua Kumbu.


Other than that, Rorna also organised exhibitions featuring Pua Kumbu, and one of her proudest is the one she took part in in London last December.


She was encouraged by the reactions of people there as they admired the weaving and production techniques of the Pua Kumbu. This has encouraged her to push other weavers especially the younger generation to get involved in the weaving of the Pua Kumbu.


Although Rorna has never participated in any fashion shows, she is passionate and proud to see that the Pua Kumbu has entered the fashion industry, and hopes that someday she will have her own brand with Pua Kumbu. She also hoped that there will be individuals who will cooperate with her to create one in future.


To stand out, one has to be different. What makes Rorna’s Pua Kumbu different from those produced by other weavers are the complexities of her motifs, and that she uses natural dyes from Engkudu, Engkerebai and tarum leaves.


She also uses quality threads such as silk in her work, adding refinement to her work which is all handmade. Her youth is also an added advantage, making her different from other weavers who are usually of the older generation.


That being said, she admitted that her Pua Kumbu has not yet found a place in the market.


For Rorna, development of Pua Kumbu in Sarawak is still a bit slow. She explained that some weavers only work on a Pua Kumbu when the need is there. This may be caused by the complexity of the process of making the Pua Kumbu, and if there is no market for it, nobody will then do it willingly.


Her plans for the future involve working with more individuals to make the Pua Kumbu a prestigious world-class heritage. She planned to further develop the Pua Kumbu industry by coming up with her own Pua Kumbu product.


She also wants to see more young weavers get active in promotional activities for Pua Kumbu including holding competitions, exhibitions and workshops. Although it seems impossible to achieve, she still believes in it because she does not want to see the craft of Pua Kumbu disappear.


She advises all those interested in promoting the Pua Kumbu or becoming a Pua weaver just like her, to continue keeping the tradition alive. “Do not wait for other people to move, but be independent, and have the guts to move alone. This is the type of challenge that we, especially the younger generation need to go through today,” she said.


Although Rorna’s works are not on display in Sarawak, her work can be seen on-line, and she welcomes anyone who might be interested to come to her house to see how she works on the Pua Kumbu.


For those interested in connecting with her and keeping updated with her progress and activities; she can be contacted through the PUA KUMBU Facebook page.

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