Dying tradition of Orang Ulu rattan weaving

By Patricia Hului
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Orang Ulu women with their tattooed hands are known for their artistry skills.


Although the term is not legally listed in the Malaysian Constitution, ‘Orang Ulu’ is still widely used to refer up to 27 ethnic groups in the central part of Sarawak.

The term was first made famous by Orang Ulu National Association (OUNA) in 1969.

Ethnic groups such as Kayan, Kenyah, Kelabit, Kejaman, Punan, Ukit, Lahanan, Lun Bawang are coined together as Orang Ulu which means upriver people.

These groups of people are commonly known for their artistry such as intricate woodcarvings, fine-looking murals, elaborate beading and meticulous tattoos.

They are also known for weaving plaited items such as mats, baskets, baby carriers and headbands.

Thanks to its strength and durability, the Orang Ulu rely on rattan the most in making these items.

As plastic baskets are replacing woven ones, and chairs and beds are used instead of mats and fabric baby carriers as they are easier to carry around than ones made of rattan, the need for these plaited items is slowly diminishing.

Hence, the art of weaving is now considered a rare ability, rather than a livelihood skill it used to be.

Weave instead of write


‘Kawit’ refers to the left and center tools while the right tool is a ‘tuin’.


“These are our pencils,” she said pointing to makeshift tools made of nail and scrap metal driven into wooden handles.

She referred to them as her pencils because instead of learning how to write as a child, Ama Langat from Uma Kelap learned how to weave with these tools.

There are two types of makeshift tools the Orang Ulu use to weave; the flattened head which most of them call ‘kawit’ and pointy ones called ‘tuin’.

Since all of these tools are handmade, each of them are different from the other although the names might differ depending on the various ethnic groups in the Orang Ulu communities.

The 63-year-old Kenyah woman explained ‘kawit’ was used to tighten the plaits of the weaving.

“The weaving work will look sloppy if we do not use kawit to make it tighter,” she said.


‘Kawit’ is used to tighten the plaited rattans.


‘Tuin’, which is basically a nail with wooden handle, is mostly used in mat weaving.

Ama stated, “We use the sharp part of this ‘tuin’ to plait the rattan together especially when we weave the side corners of these mats.”

She said that they could have used a simple nail to tighten the plaits and string the sides of the mats together but since they are going to use the tools for a lifetime, they attached wooden handles for their own convenience.

“For some people,they just pick up any scrap metal and knock or bend it until it takes the form they need to make their own ‘kawit’.”


Ama Langat from Uma Kelap.


According to Ama, watch and learn was the rule of thumb in learning how to weave.

“When we were younger we would sit together with the elders as they weaved. Then we would just observe how they did it.”

She shared that when she was younger she then took the rattan trying to copy her grandmother’s weaving patterns.

“Young people nowadays are not bothered to learn how to weave,” Ama commented. “When they see their grandmothers weave, they do not have the initiative to come over, sit with us and learn. They just mind their own business.”


A weaver folding the rattan and plaiting them together to make the sides of the mat.


While most Kenyah women do not take part in going into the jungle and harvest the rattans, when these natural fibres arrive back at the longhouse, Ama said that they helped process them.

“We strip the rattans first using a knife then we dry them in the sun,” she explained.

The drying process could take up to three days depending on the weather.

“If the rattans are not dry enough, it is hard to cut them open and thin them for weaving.”

They usually use two colours: natural yellow and black.

“We boil the rattan strips in a huge pot with some leaves for two days to dye them black.”

The leaves are natural dyes which are available from the jungle.

Orang Ulu use different types of tree bark, fruits or leaves collected for any dying process but to produce the black dye, they usually used Macaranga, langsat or sugarcane leaves.

After the strips are fully dyed, they would dry them in the sun, which could take up to a week.

According to Ama, this long tedious process of preparing the rattan strips and weaving them were the reasons why plaited items such as mats are expensive in the marketplace.


Ulan Pai from Uma Lahanan.


One of the many weavers who sell plaited items is Ulan Pai from Uma Lahanan.

“I sell them to earn extra income,” she said. She usually makes mats and ‘ajat’, a woven basket used to carry light items on their backs to sell.

Ulan shared that she started to learn how to weave when she was in primary three or four as a pasttime.

Now, she observed that most of women in her community in their 20s do not know how to weave “unlike those who are in their 30s or 40s now; some still know how to weave.”

Woven items such as mat, basket, headbands and handbags, are easily available in handicraft stores throughout Sarawak.

The prices vary; mats could be sell for up to hundreds of ringgit depending on the size where as woven rattan handbags which can cost up to RM80.

‘Come and learn from us’


Udu Bit from Uma Lesung.


Meanwhile, Udu Bit who is in her 60s from Uma Lesung had one piece of simple advice to all the young Orang Ulu women.

“While we are still able, come and learn how to weave from us,” Udu said sharing her thoughts on the lack of young weavers in the community.

Ama, Ulan and Udu were part of the 400 weavers from Bakun, Murum and Baram communities who made it into the Guinness World Book of Records for weaving the world’s longest mat at 1128.27m on May 16.

It took the weavers five months since last January to finish the mat.

The project was organised by Belaga’s women NGO, Peng Doh Belaga and sponsored by Sarawak Energy.

According to project director Livan Tajang, the age range for each group of weavers vary.

“It is interesting to know that most of the weavers from Bakun and Murum areas are 50s and above,” Livan said.

She also pointed out that the weavers from Baram who are Penans, are in their 20s and 30s.

The longhouses which Ama, Ulan and Udu hailed are located in the Bakun resettlement scheme.

Commenting on her participation in making the world’s longest mat, Udu who is a Kayan said “I hope by doing this, I would inspire the young people to take up weaving.”


Ama was one of the 400 record breaking weavers for producing the world’s longest mat.


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