Reviving the tenun artform

Johor is keen to develop into a centre for Malay art and culture.  It comes as no surprise then that there is a state initiative to revive Johor’s cultural heritage in tenun or woven cloth and in particular, the weaving industry.
The art of weaving threads into cloth is a
tedious process that involves passing the
spool of thread [Left hand] over and under
the woven section of the cloth
This is in response to a request by Sultan Ibrahim Sultan Iskandar during the Johor Sultan’s visit to Yayasan Warisan Johor (YWJ) or Johor Heritage Foundation, in 2012.

The launch event for the revival of the state’s weaving industry took place recently at the YWJ complex and was officiated by State Executive Councilor for Youth, Sports, Culture and Heritage, Datuk Zulkanain Kamisan. 

Between 2013 and 2015, YWJ worked in cooperation with the National Design Centre and UiTM Shah Alam to research the history of weaving in Johor. 

They also collaborated with Johor Malay cultural activist, Professor Dr Siti Zainon Ismail and tenun designer, Dr Norwani Nawawi, to create ten new tenun designs with a uniquely Johor identity.  These designs have been submitted to be patented by the Intellectual Property Licensing Board.

New Designs

Examples of the tenun fabrics in the man's samping [Right]
and the lady's sarong [Left] worn in the Johor
traditional Teluk Belanga style
Tenun fabrics were traditionally designed to order for royalty and special events.  For the skills and time involved in the production of a single piece of cloth, it is obviously a high-value product.  Depending on the skills of the weaver and the intricacy of the design, it may take up to three to four months to weave one piece of finished product.

For a start, YWJ has created ten new designs exclusively for royalty and also for commoners.  Among them are fabrics named, Songket Johor Jauhar and Songket Johor Medini for the Johor Sultan, Songket Johor Maharani for Permaisuri Johor Raja Zarith Sofiah Sultan Idris Shah and Songket Tengku Mahkota Johor for the Crown Prince, Tunku Ismail Sultan Ibrahim. 

Other designs include Tenun Johor Tanjung Piai, Tenun Mayang Selida and Tenun Johor Berbunga Renek with Johor inspired motifs of flowers, herbs and spices, specially for the people of Johor.

While YWJ aims to preserve the traditions in tenun weaving, it continues to explore and learn new production techniques from other nations like Thailand, India and Pakistan that have developed modern and faster ways to produce quality fabrics.

Tenun Heritage

Weaving the threads on a foot-pedal loom requires good
coordination of hands, arms and feet, with a great deal
of skills, patience and craftsmanship
One of the earliest written records of tenun traditions is found in a book by Professor Datuk Dr Ramlah Adam on Johor Menteri Besar and founder of United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), Datuk Onn Jaafar.

According to this book, the art of tenun in Johor can be traced back to the middle of the 18th century.  In 1838, his father, Datuk Jaafar Muhammad, was the most trusted administrator during the reign of Sultan Abu Bakar in Telok Belanga.  The record shows that the father of Datuk Jaafar, Haji Muhammad, was skilled in the art of tenun.

When Tengku Ampuan Mariam, eldest daughter of Sultan Abu Bakar, returned from Pahang in 1946, she was inspired to start a weaving centre at Jalan Mahmoodiah named, Rumah Tenun Johor.  Zamilah Bilal, better known as Mak Ambak or Tok Ambak, an active member of the women’s association established by Ibu Zain or Zainon Munshi Sulaiman, a pioneer female politician and renowned educationist, was in charge of this weaving centre.

The Tenun Workshop at the YWJ Complex in JB
Tok Ambak invited four skilled weavers from Terengganu to Rumah Tenun Johor who trained local weavers in the art of tenun.  Even after the demise of Tengku Ampuan Mariam in 1952, the weaving centre continued to accept weaving orders from the Palace and the local community.  The centre also became a popular destination, visited by both local and foreign tourists, until it ceased operations in 1980.

The historical value of tenun and the sophisticated techniques used to create colours, motifs and types of threads and fabrics can be traced to each region with their unique characteristics.  Tasked with tracing the history and reviving interest in the art of tenun in Johor, YWJ sent out study teams to gather more information from other states like Terengganu, Kelantan, Pahang and even abroad to Makassar. 

It was interesting to discover that patterns woven in the plaid design are known as tenun corak Muar, a design named after Muar, a district in Johor.  The study also revealed that Johor designs are strongly influenced by Bugis patterns common in Makassar.
Tenun Workshop

Preparing cotton threads in its required
length, strand by strand, before affixing the
spools to the weaving loom
The Johor Tenun Workshop will train youths who are keen to develop their skills in the art of tenun through a training syllabus organised in collaboration with the Institute of Malaysian Handicrafts.  

While the tenun heritage was originally a cottage industry with artisanal skills handed down by word-of-mouth from mother to daughter, Johor aims to revive interest in traditional weaving among the younger generation and start small and medium enterprises in the weaving industry.

With the help of two skilled tenun weavers in Johor, this workshop in YWJ has been in operations since early February 2016.  Through skills development, YWJ aims to develop more interest in this traditional art-form starting in JB and spreading it to other districts in the state by encouraging locals to open small enterprises in the weaving industry.  This is an YWJ initiative to develop tenun products that will reflect the local identity of each district in Johor.
Tenun Gallery

A range of cotton threads dyed in natural colours
Designed with information plaques, static displays and weavers working at their wooden looms, the Johor Tenun Gallery is also a tourist destination. 

Visitors learn that the traditional weaving process from thread to cloth is a long and tedious one.  It begins with the preparation of the threads.  While synthetic dyes may be used for commercial and practical reasons, threads were traditionally coloured by natural dyes from plants.  

For instance, blue was from the indigo plant, yellow obtained from turmeric (curcuma domestic) and red from sappanwood (caesalpinia sappan).  Tamarind seeds, mahogany bark and betel vine leaves were also used for natural dyes that are more environmentally friendly.

Using a traditional spinning wheel to spin
cotton threads into a spool
After selecting the base colour for the cloth, the weaver prepares spools of cotton thread in its required length, strand by strand.  

Once this has been completed, she will calculate the number of strands of thread required, depending on the size of the cloth to be woven and it may number from 1200 to 1500 strands.  

When the pattern has been decided and the spools fixed onto the weaving loom, then the weaving process may start.  The technique used is centuries old, where the highly skilled and patient weaver works steadily at the hand loom.

A section of woven cloth [Left] with threads [Right]
that are yet to be woven into intricate designs
In the long run, the foundation hopes to collaborate with relevant agencies like Kraftangan Johor and the Johor State Tourism Office to share more information on the Johor tenun heritage and promote Johor tenun products.  

YWJ also aims to increase their range of woven products in different categories – handmade and machine-made – so that these quality products can be more affordable. 

With new designs that reflect a uniquely Johor identity and the revival of traditional tenun weaving skills through training young weavers, the tenun heritage is carefully preserved in Johor as a traditional art-form for the benefit of future generations.

A version of this was published in The New Sunday Times, Life & Times on 12 June 2016

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