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By Narina Exelby (@NarinaExelby)     7 Oct 2016

Narina Exelby uncovers the ancient powers, traditions and rituals behind the sacred pua kumbu cloth

It’s midafternoon and the women of Ngemah Ulu longhouse in Sarawak, Borneo, are sitting in soft shafts of sunlight along the ruai—the main street—of their community. They sit with their legs outstretched and make the most of the afternoon light as they weave rattan mats that will be used for sleeping or perhaps for drying corn. It’s 2016, but it could very well be 1962, or 1896; afternoons have passed like this for generations.

If it were 1896, however, some of these Iban women, all descendants of headhunters, would probably be weaving not with rattan but on a back-strap loom and with wild cotton. While their men earned their reputations through hunting, the women followed a gentler, but no less esteemed, route to social prominence: through tying, dying and weaving pua kumbu, the ceremonial cloth of the Iban tribe. Just as the most celebrated headhunters would qualify to have the back of their hands tattooed, so too would the tribe’s most accomplished weavers.

A weaver meticulously working at Ngemah Ulu longhouse in Sarawak
A weaver meticulously working at Ngemah Ulu longhouse in Sarawak

But that was the old days; although life in Borneo’s remaining longhouses is still largely traditional, things are changing. ‘None of the women in our longhouse now can make pua kumbu,’ says the headman’s wife, ‘But then, headhunting too is a thing of the past.’

The significance of pua kumbu, however, remains. ‘For the Iban, these sacred textiles hold so much power,’ explains Janet Rata Noel, an authority on pua kumbu and the curator of Tun Jugah Foundation Museum and Gallery in Kuching, Sarawak. ‘Pua kumbu were used to receive the heads into the longhouses when the men returned from a hunt, and the cloths were also used in the tribe’s important celebrations, from marking births, deaths and marriages to agricultural ceremonies.’

The meticulous process of creating this sacred cloth is peppered with rituals and taboos. Knowledge is passed from the women of one generation to another, and a girl learning the art would copy the simplest designs of her ancestors. She would start with a small cloth and, as her skill and artistry (and her favor with the gods) increased, so would the size of her textile.

The design for the sacred cloth begins as a dream. Once a woman has had the dream—considered a message from the gods—she must consult a shaman who will determine whether she has the strength to weave the images she dreamed, because, the Iban believe, the motifs in pua kumbu have their own powers. ‘Safe’ motifs are vines, creepers, bamboo or trees; the more skilled the weaver, however, the more powerful her dreams and the motifs in her design would depict demons, humans and animal totem figures like crocodiles and snakes.

The tools used by Borneo's dream weavers
The tools used by Borneo’s dream weavers

Long before the pua kumbu begins to take shape, the threads are prepared—an extensive process that requires immense skill, and the scientific details of which many master weavers kept a closely guarded secret. Traditionally made from wild cotton (these days silk is also used), the threads are ‘washed’ in a mixture of plant extracts that strips the cotton of its natural oils, preparing the threads to take the vegetable dyes. It’s a process that is done outside and away from the longhouse, to prevent bad luck from falling on the community; during this time the women must keep their heads covered whenever they are outdoors, and as soon as their work is done they must bathe in a river.

In the old days, explains Noel, there were so many taboos and rituals surrounding the creation of the fabric that it could take up to five years to complete one pua kumbu. Today, as traditions fade and chemical dyes are favored, it still takes six to 12 months to complete a cloth.

Once the warp threads (the vertical ones) have been set up on the loom, the tying of the design begins. There are many taboos observed in this part of the process too, and weavers would place a piece of iron, often a nail, under the loom to give them strength and keep them safe from the powers of the motifs. As another form of protection, early on in the weaving process a solid band is introduced to the design, forming a symbolic barrier that protects the weaver from the motifs she creates afterward.

Iban Tribe Trophy Skulls Inside Rumah Bundong, a Traditional Iban Longhouse, Kapit, Sarawak, Borneo, Malaysia
Iban Tribe Trophy Skulls Inside Rumah Bundong, a Traditional Iban Longhouse, Kapit, Sarawak, Borneo, Malaysia. Photo: Alamy

There is a hierarchy in the order in which the designs are tied and if the design includes animals then the needs of the most powerful ones must be taken care of first: A crocodile, Noel explains, must have something to feed on before he is created, otherwise he could harm the weaver. And when the weaver ties the design of a crocodile, she must not leave her loom until the entire mouth has been tied.

Once animists, the Iban people are now predominantly Christian and many of the women who weave today and who carry that faith choose to disregard the rituals and taboos that their ancestors once observed. ‘I just copy designs that I’ve seen in photos,’ says Agnesia Belon, who belongs to a group of Iban women who weave pua kumbu in their spare time at the Tun Jugah Foundation. ‘The motifs I weave mean nothing to me, spiritually. But I like to weave because it’s a part of my heritage. And I want to keep my heritage alive.’ Some women, however, will still place a nail underneath the loom, she admits. ‘Just in case.’

We’d love to see your photos of traditional handlooming. Share them with us on Instagram

Narina Exelby
Narina Exelby (@NarinaExelby)

With more than 236 magazine deadlines behind her, Narina Exelby left regular employment in 2012 to live a life less ordinary. Since then she and her partner have roamed the world, exploring wherever their work takes them: Europe, Africa and, mostly, Southeast Asia. They’re currently based in a little fishing village on the quiet west coast of Bali and blog at

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