As a little girl growing up in the small village of Kampung Batu Lunguyan, Sabah, Emily Jeneble was constantly surrounded by traditional weave crafting.
Her family, led by her grandmother, were always busy weaving and crafting one thing or another to help them with their daily lives.
“My grandmother is a traditional craftsperson, who makes all kinds of products to help our community.
“These items are practical necessities such as the sirung, a traditional cap among Dusun tribespeople, which helps people working in the rice fields to shield from the sun.
“She also makes the nyiru, a winnowing tray to separate rice grains from hulls.
“I have watched her, my mother and aunts keep busy with weaving all the time that I too began to learn from them.
“I started by making simple motif patterns and found it to be such an enjoyable activity,” Emily tells Eksentrika.
She added that for the village community, being locked away in a remote location and having limited access to perks such as television or the internet meant weaving became a common pastime.
“It also fills us with pride because it is part of our ethnic legacy,” she said.
“In 1998, after completing my SPM examination, my mother roped me in to help her with a large order of woven bamboo trays.
“She even paid me for my services and when I found that I could make decent earnings from this skill, I chose to focus on it instead of furthering my tertiary education,” said Emily.
It turns out that Emily was not the only person in her small village who realised the value of persevering in the art of traditional weaving.
Many youths and parents in the village saw it as an opportunity to strike a viable business path and remain close to home.
It was also a more appealing alternative compared to the conventions of taking up farming or venturing off to bigger cities.
“In the village, there are few career opportunities apart from farming or seeking employment from nearby shops or towns.
“My community started to see the incentive in honing our traditional skills, not just as a fun, family bonding session that has spanned across three generations but also a potential means to an income.”
Since embarking on her professional journey of making traditional crafts, Emily has worked with 30 members from her community to establish a consistent income stream.
They assist her to source the raw materials and also in crafting products.
The items they produce together include the Salingkawang bamboo woven baskets, a range of bags such as knapsacks, sling bags, totes, and wallets to keychains and gift boxes.
To date, they have gained customers across Malaysia and interest from foreign tourists.
“I’m happy to share that some of my students have also gone on to make a name for themselves and receive due recognition.
“We’ve also been lucky to gain the support of ministry organisations that commission us to supply the souvenirs for their programs and events,” said Emily.
In 2018, Emily was recognised by the Malaysian government, when she received a Young Handicraft Entrepreneur Award at a commemoration for National Handicraft Day.
During that event, it was reported that Malaysian handicraft sales could potentially reach up to RM1billion by 2025 and RM2 billion in 2035, making up 2% contributions to Malaysia’s creative industry.
These estimates were based on the Mega Science 3.0 – Creative Industry Sector Final Report by the Academy of Sciences Malaysia.
That year, Kraftangan Malaysia had projected RM500million in total annual sales for 2018 based on transactions accumulated between January and February that touched RM74.7million, from 5,361 handicraft entrepreneurs.
The weave crafters of Kampung Batu Lunguyan rely on unique, traditional skills inherited from their Dusun family lineage.
Each product they make is derived from natural raw materials sourced from the forest, such as bamboo creepers.
“Our method is popularly known as Salingkawang bamboo weaving.
“We are unique in that our entire process is 100% organic, from gathering plant materials from the forests near our village to each step from preparation to finished product.
“The traditional motif patterns are also inspired by the surrounding nature observed by our Dusun ancestors.
“For example, the Nurungan motif symbolises a pearl, and the Nandus motif is based on the shape of arrowheads of Dusun warriors, and symbolise protection.
“The Tavaran, which means “corn” is based on the pattern of corn ears,” said Emily.
Modern patterns have also been created by the Keningau weave crafters to suit today’s tastes in fashion, souvenirs, and decorations.
As with many tourism-related businesses, Emily’s traditional crafts were badly affected by the closure of airports and restrictions on tourism.
Pivoting online proved to be a challenge as her village’s remote location meant few among her community had good access to the internet and even then, those who were able to continue with e-commerce faced logistics issues to deliver ordered shipments.
“It was truly challenging and although some of us remained open online, we still needed to improve our online marketing know-how.
“Currently, many are relying on me to help them sell products through e-commerce, Facebook, and Instagram.
“As a collective, we are known as Kelarai Craft and we are trying to survive through online sales.
“Thankfully, we’ve received some marketing assistance from Kraftangan Malaysia in our focus online,” said Emily.
She added, however, that pivoting online has not been able to match the monthly earnings they were used to before the pandemic crisis.
Despite the onslaught of challenges, she is hopeful for the demand online to pick up in due time.
She also intends to continue training and teaching others in the traditional art of weaving, and someday build a gallery that showcases the evolution of the Salingkawang weaving legacy.
“I want to build the gallery to pay homage and preserve our heritage arts.
“It will also be a great source of reference for students, universities, corporate organisations, NGOs, and craft lovers.
“Hopefully, proceeds can also be gained from visitor footfall and this could further assist my community,” she said.
All images in this feature were supplied by Emily Jeneble.