The Batik Block Artisan

 

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We often hear of batiks in Malaysia and imagine them to be hand drawn through the canting technique. In Malaysia, hand made batik designs are drawn on the fabric with hot liquid wax by using a metal object called “canting” – it is like a small receptacle that pours out hot wax in small lines instead of paint.

When the wax outlines are done, artists use brushes to paint the dyes within the outlines. The use of brush allows for the creation of shaded and multi-hued designs.

Batik block printing however requires a different skill even though it is still hand made batik. The rhythmic patterns of a batik block can create outstanding batiks – and the art of making a batik block is a skill on its own. Batik block makers are artisans themselves, and often specialize in making batik blocks and not the same artisans who design and make batik textiles.

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A batik block maker, Abdul Ghani Mat was awarded a title of Master Artisan by Kraftangan Malaysia for his creative and highly skilful work in hand tooling copper batik blocks. In our previous blog, we had mentioned that the owner of Ayu Batik in Kelantan has a collection of over 5000 batik blocks dating over several decades, which form an important archive of the creative history of Malaysian batik patterns.

In a block print batik, the canting tool is replaced by a hand tooled copper block that is designed with the patterns or motifs that will be repeated on the cloth to create a piece of batik. Sometimes a wooden stamp is used that has a carved patterned bottom.

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The block is dipped into the wax and printed onto the fabric, which is then dip-dyed. Then the wax will be removed and batik with single color is produced. To create multi-colors and complex batik, waxing with different blocks, dying and de-waxing have to be done many times.

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In Kelantan, the heart of the Malaysian batik industry, we visited a batik block workshop. We were pleasantly surprised to see three industrious young men including the owner, creating intricate copper batik blocks for batik artists and designers in Malaysia. The owner started his own batik block making business after being trained as a block batik artisan himself. The workshop was strategically located in an area with clusters of batik workshops and ateliers including Ruzz Gahara.

According to the enterprising young man, he noticed a constant demand for batik blocks from batik artisans and designers. He decided to open a small workshop of his own and started training batik block makers amongst the youths in the village who were interested. His workshop is a simple hut shaded under a few trees, next to a narrow dirt lane that was a bit too small for a car to go through. The hut was nestled in a small village, tucked away from the main road, the idyllic silence around them only broken once in a while with the sounds of children playing in the neighborhood or stray chickens looking for food.

 

The making of batik blocks requires as much concentration as making the batiks themselves. Using blow torches and a myriad of hand tools, the batik block “boys” painstakingly cut, bend and meld small parts of copper that gradually expand to resemble the full picture of patterns and motifs provided by artists for customized block prints.PHOTO-2020-07-16-16-25-25

Depending on the intricacy of the motifs, one batik block can take up a few days to a few weeks to make and the cost will also depend on the motifs. The batik block young artisans looked up briefly from their work when we went in before focusing once again on bits of copper on their tables. They looked like any teenagers on the streets, wearing sneakers, jeans and t-shirts – we would not have guessed that they were traditional artisans if we had bumped into them outside the workshop. We asked one of them when he had started making batik blocks, he told us he was 16 when he started. For them, continuing the tradition was a way of life in the village.

 

Suryani Senja

Re-thinking Crafts

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How do we re-think crafts? Do we need to? There are many debates amongst the craft community on how craft should evolve, be perceived or supported in light of rapid changes in our society. Advances in technology, disruption of supply of natural materials, declining demand, low-level appreciation, fewer skilled artisans and the dying heritage of making things by hand are just some challenges highlighted by craft communities.

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The British Council held a Re-thinking Crafts Conference on 6-8 March 2020 in Cebu, Philippines. I had the opportunity to speak on craft in Malaysia, how craft should be integrated into the Malaysian creative industry and why. I share here some highlights from my presentation as well as valuable insights from the craft industry experts who attended the conference.

Malaysia’s craft industry – a snapshot

Malaysia’s craft industry generates estimated USD170 million revenue annually (from recent Kraftangan Malaysia data). Craft is a part of Malaysia’s growing creative industry, which was estimated to be USD6 billion in 2015 (UNCTAD’s Creative Economy Report 2018). Kraftangan Malaysia keeps track of registered artisans and craft businesses in Malaysia. As a snapshot on our craft industry, we estimate that there are 11,296 craft workers, 5817 craft businesses, 56 master artisans (Adiguru) and 6 national craft icons (Tokoh Kraf Negara).

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A policy and structural gap in Malaysia’s creative industry

Craft is part of Malaysia’s creative industry and the national creative industry policy (the last one dated 2008) applies to craft. However, there is a gap in the way the ministries are structured in Malaysia for the creative industry. Inexplicably, several important Malaysian creative industries including craft, visual art, fashion, music and performing arts are under the authority of Ministry of Tourism, Art, Culture and Heritage.

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The creative economy policy on the other hand, is crafted by another Ministry – the Ministry of Communications and Multimedia, which is in charge of other different parts of the Malaysian creative industry: telecommunications, film, publishing, advertising, design and creative digital industry.

As a result of this separation, craft is in danger of being linked to low value tourism merchandise or as a byproduct of tourism, or narrowly perceived as a cultural heritage for preservation that is separated from design. UNCTAD Creative Economy Report 2018 cites Malaysia’s highest creative exports as design items – and creative exports have increased from USD1.9 billion in 2004 to USD 6 billion in 2008. Tellingly, craft is not deemed in the report as design items although more and more, categories of Malaysian crafts can certainly qualify as design items, especially in the area of fashion and interiors.

 

The Malaysian creative economy policy interventions and incentives have been criticized to refer narrowly to the creative digital industry, linking it to technology and e-commerce. This is inevitable when the Ministry in charge of creative policy is not in charge of the other substantial parts of the creative industry. There appears to be minimal coordination to integrate all the creative industries including craft under one umbrella body to enable a strong, integrated approach to grow the Malaysian creative industry (see “Making Creative Industries Policy: The Malaysian Case by Thomas Barker and Lee Yuen Beng). This gap means Malaysia has not adequately or at all addressed wider structural issues for the creative industry that could optimize and energize the creative industry including craft as a whole. This holistic approach includes strengthening the ecosystem and upgrading cultural infrastructure, integrating creative education and raising public awareness.

My presentation in Cebu highlighted that the Malaysian craft industry will benefit greatly from a disruption of innovation, creativity and sustainability. This is why our creative industry is important enough to be developed under a single Ministry for Creative Industry or a focused, integrated body to harness Malaysia’s creative industry to its full potential.

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Craft when engaged with visual arts, architecture, design, film and creative technology will increase the value of craft and expand its audience. Brands like Fern, Bikin Studio, Dapo, Bendang Studio, Batik Tektura and Ruzz Gaharaare some of the Malaysian made brands based on traditional craftsmanship but are design or architecture led.

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The creative industry on the other hand, will be enriched by craft through adding character, depth, authenticity and diversity. These are some recent examples: Malaysia’s short animated film based on traditional batik drawing “The Batik Girl” won international awards in 2018 in Japan and in 2019 in Chile. Google Arts & Culture Project has uploaded the first 100 Malaysian crafts on its online Museum this year in 2020 in collaboration with Kraftangan Malaysia, signaling the first global footprint of Malaysian crafts to the world. Malaysia’s architecture pavilion “Woven Matness” in Hong Kong’s Urban Design Biennale in December 2019 was highlighted for its creativity using traditional woven mats and QR code technology woven into the mats to tell the story of Malaysian weavers, also in collaboration with Kraftangan Malaysia.

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Contemporary art has shown resurgence in utilizing craft as a medium for contemporary expression of art – Yee Ii-Lann, a Malaysian artist from Sabah undertook to create an artwork in the form of a huge mural woven like a traditional mat commissioned by the Singapore’s National Art Gallery, in collaboration with Sabahan traditional weavers from the Bajau community.

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As has been shown above, craft can drive innovation, influencing amongst others, the aesthetic and structural approach to film, architecture and visual arts.

Where should craft be? Craft as a philosophy of life

Although craft should benefit from being in the creative industry, its policy and incentives, craft should not necessarily be expected to be a mass industry. A presentation from Adi Nugraha, a professor and designer from Bandung Institute of Technology, Indonesia rightly spoke of craft first and foremost as a life philosophy that bestows satisfaction, happiness and contentment to the maker. Craft also connects us to nature. Craft is highly relevant in our contemporary modern life because it provides the antidote to the fast paced, materialistic, modern lifestyle’s bad side effects – stress, greed, unsustainable use of nature.

Craft industry can present an alternative model for an industry – as its value is not purely economic but in addition, it improves our quality of life and the way we think and live, and place importance on preserving local communities.

Instead of the conventional economic push to “scale up” for small and medium industries, craft can remain slow and small, yet open and connected through linking craft communities via global communication and logistical networks. The “Slow, Local, Open and Connected (SLOC)” model (Manzini, 2011)The “Slow, Local, Open and Connected (SLOC)” model (Manzini, 2011)is worth studying as a way forward for craft. By being connected, craft need not be confined to “low value, conventional crafts” where artisans are paid very little for each handmade item despite the creativity involved, time spent and skills used.

How can craft assert its value? Crafts led by or interpreted through art and design should readily be acknowledged as categories of crafts of high value – design crafts. Craft interpreted through visual art is already presented as high value art using the medium of craft. Art and design have become the dominant new language for expression in current times, so should craft.

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Works created by skilled craftsmen and craftswomen when explained with the contemporary medium could add value. Through high quality storytelling via video and writing made viral through social media, craft can acquire a bigger audience, higher appreciation, and subsequently, attain higher value without having to necessarily scale up production.

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Isn’t it time we re-think and re-present crafts as a vital way of living a community based, ecologically sustainable life but communicated globally to remain relevant?

Born with a Silver Spoon – The Story of the Silver Collection of Senijari

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I had always wanted to create a Senijari collection of luxury crafts from my home state, Kelantan, in the north of Malaysia. Kelantan silver is renowned for its intricacy of design and superior workmanship. Silversmiths use two kinds of techniques – filigree and repousse. Kelantan silversmithing is getting more rare as its use of machinery is limited – the craft is still done mainly by hand.

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Remember our earlier encounter with a silver artisan, “Pok Wi” who has been a silversmith for 40 years? When we finally met Pok Wi ( link to our earlier post) earlier this year, it was to create Senijari’s first prototype for a collection of bespoke silver jewellery.

I first thought up of jewellery in the shape of a spoon and other implements because of a necklace I have. The necklace was from the legendary Collette. Colette was a lifestyle, design store of curated fashion and accessories in Paris. It was a fashion favourite that unfortunately has closed down recently. They had a wonderful section that featured jewellery designers. I was particularly taken by two necklaces I saw there – one had a spoon as a pendant and the other a fork. Both had large stones stuck on them that were made to look like each had scooped up a large diamond. They were witty, fun and cool. I had thought to myself, these pendants would look great done in Malaysian silver, with a local twist.

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Pok Wi turned an idea that crossed my mind several years ago into reality today. The initial Senijari collection has two pendants, Born With a Silver Spoon and Ukir Bulan (Crafted Moon) – Both are beautifully hand carved with traditional motifs from Kelantan by Pok Wi and his artisans. In addition, the collection has a series of small silver charms for pendants or bracelets that reflect Kelantan iconic culture – the Keris, the Wau Bulan and the Wayang Kulit.

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The idea of a silver spoon is historically interesting in Kelantan royal history – royal Malay families and at times, non-royal ones have a tradition of spooning with a silver spoon a bit of salt and then honey to a new born after 40 days – to initiate the baby into the world – and perhaps its first taste of its ups and downs symbolized by the salty and the sweet taste of life!

 

 

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This collection will be the beginning of unearthing designs and motifs based on the unique Kelantanese culture and history, and the start of collaboration with talented Kelantanese artisans. We hope to tell many more Kelantan stories through our crafts. This is only the first chapter of the Kelantan story.

The Future of Craft – the Young Artisans of National Craft Institute (Institut Kraf Negara), Kuala Lumpur.

 

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In a green, peaceful oasis just a few kilometres from the KL city centre, there was a big secret that hardly anyone from the creative industry knew about – until now. Institut Kraf Negara (IKN), or the National Craft Institute is a campus of 250 students studying six of Malaysia’s crafts under the patronage of Kraftangan Malaysia – textile weaving, batik making, basketry, wood carving, ceramics and jewellery and metalsmithing.

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For 3 years, these students learn craftsmanship and skills that are vital towards preserving our culture and heritage – they are an important part of Malaysia’s future of crafts.

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The founder of Senijari who is also the current Chairwoman of Kraftangan Malaysia visited the IKN campus recently to chair a roundtable discussion amongst a selection of Malaysian’s creative industry professionals from architecture, fashion, film, interior design and branding agency. The British Council facilitated the discussion as part of their Craft Futures program in the region.

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The creative professionals were surprised to find a craft school in Kuala Lumpur with students from all over Malaysia who showed skills and passion in continuing Malaysia’s craft heritage. They were suitably impressed, and excited at this opportunity to create meaningful collaborations with the young, skilled and creative talents of IKN who are like undiscovered gems.

Amongst others, participants such as Fashion designer Melinda Looi, Lina Tan of Red Films, Lillian Tay, the President of the Malaysian Architecture Association, architects and furniture designer duo Farah and Adela of Bikin Studio and William Harald Wong, owner of WHW Associates, a design agency provided critical feedback on how to integrate the IKN students closer to the creative industry in Malaysia. It is now critical to inject fresh innovation and new life in Malaysian crafts and the other creative industries as well as to provide a clearer career path development for our future artisans.

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The students come from IKN come from all over Malaysia, and we were delighted to speak to young women who were defying gender stereotypes in the departments of metalsmithing and wood carving – a very physically challenging area of crafts. We spoke to a ceramic student from Sabah who spoke of her reason for studying the craft of ceramics – simply a keen interest in the craft.

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Students from Sabah and Sarawak were also doing basketry as they learnt the craft from young and also learnt to love the craft. In the batik department, a third year student was producing an intricate “canting halus” piece of batik with dedication, and was beaming with pride when Melinda Looi admired her work and encouraged her to continue creating beautiful pieces of batik.

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It was refreshing to be among students who look at Malaysian crafts as their future. IKN is doing important work, and now will need even more support from the creative industry, the Ministries and policy makers so that their graduates survive and thrive in the global creative industry.

IKN’s convocation is coming up on the 13th of November, and as we are at the threshold of 2020, we see the unique potential of IKN to be one of the premier creative hubs in Kuala Lumpur and Malaysia with our young artisans leading the way. In an exciting development, IKN is planning to open up the campus to the public with their graduate shows and new short courses. The creative industry is already talking about potential collaborations on internships, creative projects and even a reality TV craft & fashion show. The future of craft suddenly looks brighter.

 

 

 

China, Langkasuka and the textile world in Kelantan

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In researching motifs for textiles and jewellery, I discovered fascinating historical links between the Chinese, the ancient Langkasuka kingdom in Pattani and Kelantan.

Chinese sea trade with the Malay World began as early as the fifth century, stimulated by demand for luxury goods by the Chinese royal courts. It has been reported that spices, turtle eggs, perfumed woods, ivory and tortoise shell are some of the coveted items by the Chinese nobility. The Chinese apparently influenced textiles in the Malay World including Kelantan as Chinese envoys brought silk, which influenced the use of silk by royals in Malay palaces. One prominent Malay kingdom mentioned in Chinese history is “Chi Tu” or the Red Earth Land (Tanah Merah), believed to be interior of Kelantan. Chi Tu guo ji, an account written by Sui Dynasty envoys after a visit to Chi tu in 606-10 CE describes highly organized and wealthy royal court, where the Chinese envoy was offered a gold “hibiscus” crown and camphor. Nearby, the coastal kingdom of Langkasuka, located near Patani (south of Thailand) was a centre for Malay culture due to its proximity to the states of Kelantan and Terengganu in Malaysia, where songket weaving is predominant. The culture of weaving was prevalent in the Langkasuka courts. (Note: this paragraph is extracted from “Songket Revolution”, written by Noor Azlina Yunus, published by Yayasan Tuanku Nur Zahirah, 2008).

On a recent trip to Kelantan, a visit to Rumah Gahara, the batik workshop for Ruzz Gahara brand brought these historical links to the fore once again. In the midst of designing batik motifs that would be distinctive to Ruzz Gahara’s Kelantanese roots, they unearthed ancient motifs that came from or influenced by the Langkasuka kingdom and applied these intricate, historical motifs on batik.

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Ruzz Gahara’s batik blocks were very different and unique in their intricacy. When I spoke to a researcher and culture specialist from the University of Kelantan, she spoke about how she felt that the way batik motifs have been developed recently lacked historical reference and grounding, therefore losing their potential to be meaningful and engaging to the customer. The motifs did not have a story. By linking and reminding people about their history to ancient Langkasuka and Kelantan’s history, the Ruzz Gahara motifs have come to life with a colourful, vibrant history.

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The silk, organza silk, cotton silk used by Ruzz Gahara for its collection link it further to the history of silk in this region – China. Innovation does come from history after all, and I thank Ruzz Gahara for being one of the champions of history in preserving our heritage, culture and craft.

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We shall continue unearthing Malaysia’s fascinating historical links through its textile and material culture. Stay with us!

East Coast of Malaysia : The Cultural and Craft Hub

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Malaysians are fortunate that we still live close to our culture, traditions and craft. Our culture has provided us beautiful and useful objects as well as a sense of community and belonging to a distinct and rich culture. The East coast of Malaysia namely the states of Kelantan, Terengganu and Pahang are particularly known for their textile culture. Batik, songket, tenun and telepuk are some of the known textiles that are still made and designed by hand either on the loom or in the case of batik, with the wax resist and dye along with brushing technique.  Other major crafts in the East Coast of Malaysia include wood-carving, silver-smithing, copper and the art of weaving mats from rattan or pandan leaves.

On a trip to the Pesta Kraf Pantai Timur (East Coast Craft Festival) recently, Senijari’s founder and creative director discovered that our artisans remain committed to their craft and that craft culture is alive and well. However, the outside world seems unaware of our heritage, or at least knows little about them. We need to find creative ways to tell our craft and artisan stories better and broadcast them to the wider world so that more know about our wonderful heritage of handicrafts.

One of the highlights of the trip was meeting two artisans who were given the award of “Adiguru 2018”. The Adiguru is an award by Kraftangan Malaysia that recognizes the mastery of craft by master artisans who can also teach their craft. The master artisan who is awarded the Adiguru title receives a cash prize and a monthly stipend for a fixed period of time.

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Pak Non, the Master Wau maker was awarded the Adiguru title in 2018 for creating the unique 5-layer carved motifs for traditional kites based on the Wau Kelantan – most kites are made with only 3 layers of carved motifs on coloured paper. Pak Non, who is passionate about his Wau craft, cites nature, especially the surrounding paddy fields as his inspiration.

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Even though he makes the Wau Kelantan, he actually resides in Kedah and goes for kite flying competitions with his kite creations. He says that the competition for the best traditional kites is based on how the kite looks on the ground and how high the kite can fly – so the Wau is assessed both on its physical beauty on earth as well as its technical prowess in the sky.

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Cik Kalsom, a petite and diminutive mat weaver from Terengganu is passionate about and proud of her masterful skills. She was awarded the Adiguru title in 2018 for her mastery of weaving mats and other products using the intricate and complex “kelerai” technique, with soft pandan leaves.

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This technique according to her is backbreaking and not easy to learn. She laments that the younger generation is not as patient when learning, and usually end up adopting easier techniques of weaving that are not as intricate as the “kelerai” technique.

She continues to weave despite her back aches, as she says that it is reward enough when she sees a piece of mat of complex patterns completed, the sense of accomplishment and pride at her skill motivates to once again continue.

The Pesta Kraf Pantai Timur in Kelantan and Terengganu displayed some of the best artisans and their work in batik, songket, wood carving, silver and copper.

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We visited batik workshops in Kelantan that were highlighted for their authentic and traditional batik block print and wax resist techniques. One workshop, Ayu Batik, was remarkable for their environmentally friendly approach by recycling water used to wash the dye off the batik textiles as well as recycling the wax used for the batik dyeing and colouring process.

 

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Ayu Batik has an incredible collection over 5000 batik block prints dated from the 60’s, some of which are meticulously restored and showcased. Its legacy continues with the owner and his son who continues designing with the authentic block print technique for batik.

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In Terengganu, the wood carving association at Desa Ukiran Kayu in Besut presented their impressive skills in traditional wood carving in a beautiful gallery at the Desa Ukiran Kayu.

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It was eye opening to meet the Master Malay Wood Carver Norhaiza Noordin (norhaizanoordin.wordpress.com). He has used his talents not only for wood carving, but he has created a stunning private art space and a residency for wood carving students that has to be experienced called Bakawali in Kg. Raja, Besut,Terengganu.

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After the visit to the East Coast, we have no doubt that craft and the mastery of craft in Malaysia are alive and well. Now we just need to tell the world about them.  

The Marriage of Crafts – Behind the scenes of Senijari’s Rattan & Songket Clutch Collection

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When Senijari started out, it was with the firm belief that crafts can be enhanced by design innovation. One of the ways we innovate or refresh our crafts is by combining different materials together.Our first bag collection combined Italian leather and Songket, inspired by the fine Italian craftsmanship and our intricate Songket textiles from Kelantan and Terengganu.

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Senijari’s Rattan and Songket Clutch Collection is inspired by what Malaysian artisans in Sarawak could do, coupled with thoughtful research and design. When Senijari was working with Tanoti weavers in Kuching Sarawak, we came across a university project that Tanoti was involved in with UNIMAS in Sarawak. The project explored working with the “souls of the tropical rainforest”, namely the Penan people who weave and dye rattan vines by hand.

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How are the bags made from rattan vines? The process is very time-consuming and requires patience and dedication. The rattan would first be hand harvested and naturally dyed. The black dye is from boiling the splits in the leaves of “Kemawah” (Daun Kemawah) and then buried in mud overnight. The clutch will then be completely plaited by hand.  The artisans are mostly from two villages in Long Kawah and Long Meraan in Ulu Sg.Tutoh situated in the highlands of Sarawak. Once the clutches are ready, they are transported by hand to Kuching.

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In Kuching, the Songket weavers at Tanoti would have prepared the silk and metallic threads to weave the five motifs for the Senijari Rattan & Songket Collection – Lotus, Lawi Ayam, Angel Wings, Blossom and Humming Bird. These motifs were beforehand sketched and designed by Senijari, and the positioning of the motif on the clutches as well as their measurements and colour combinations were determined by Senijari to achieve the distinctive look and style that Senijari’s brand is known for.

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These motifs are woven as Songket on the handloom with a silk background before stitching them on the handmade rattan clutches.

 

The result will be a marriage of two distinctive crafts that are made purely by hand, traditional but infused with a contemporary style and design through the design re-imagination of motifs, colour, measurements and composition as well as finishing. The Rattan & Songket is a true labour of love and a marriage of crafts inspired by our artisans.

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Senijari Signature Collection: Organza Silk Songket Shawls

 

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Senijari presents as its Signature Collection – Senijari Organza Silk Songket.

An exquisite and beautiful way to present songket, Senijari Organza Silk Songket is handwoven in organza silk and metallic threads with intricate, yet contemporary motifs. The minimalist colours of either black or white are chosen to highlight the intricate Songket motifs in silver, gold, antique silver or antique gold metallic threads. Continue reading

The Life of Silk – A visit to Hoi An Silk Village

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The opportunity to visit Hoi An again came again recently with a pleasant surprise. Hoi An, a small, ancient town with UNESCO heritage status in central Vietnam has successfully displayed its various cultural heritage. In my previous blogpost, I mentioned watching artisans making silk lanterns, silver jewellery and porcelain tea sets in Hoi An.

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