Keringkam embroidery is a significant artistic heritage for the Sarawak Malay community.
The word ‘keringkam’ comes from the gold or silver thread called clinquant thread used to embroider motifs on shawls and headscarves.
With traditional Sarawak Malay attire, there are two types of scarves; the shorter ones called selayah and the longer types called selendang.
In the olden days, the women would wear these keringkam embroidered scarves for special occasions such as weddings.
Charles Brooke’s wife, Margaret, was known to have loved these fine traditional embroidery, as she had several in her keeping and had also taken portraits of herself wearing the selayah keringkam.
Depending on the size of the fabric and the detail of the motifs, a piece can take up to three months to complete.
Nowadays, only a handful of artisans know how to do keringkam embroidery. One of them is a 41-year-old Iban lady, Doris Hilda Reji, who fell in love with this Malay traditional craft.
She also happens to be the only non-Malay keringkam embroiderer in Sarawak.
Hailing from Lundu, she currently lives in Kampung Siol Kandis, and first began keringkam embroidery in 2003.
She was part of Skim Inkubator Kraf, an incubator scheme to start handicraft businesses under Malaysian Handicraft Development Corporation. She still does custom orders today.
When KajoMag met her, she was working from home embroidering keringkam as per customers’ orders.
KajoMag: How did you first learn how to embroider keringkam?
Doris: I was a single mother trying to learn extra skills to make a living. Back then, I took some courses at Sarawak’s Women and Family Department (JWKS) and they started to offer a keringkam embroidery class.
I was among the youngest in the group so some of the officers suggested that I sign up for it. They said since I was still in my 20s, my eyesight was still good; perfect to do intricate work of keringkam embroidery. Before taking the class, I had never heard of keringkam before.
When I first saw a selendang with keringkam embroidery, I told myself I had to learn and finish one myself. It took me about three months and I still have my first ever keringkam embroidering work.
Since I started, I did keringkam embroidery on not just scarves but clothes and decorations to put in a frame.
There were some people looking for unique souvenirs, so I turned keringkam embroidery into small bookmarks to cater for their requests.
KajoMag: How does it feel being the only non-Malay in this artistry?
Doris: I have always liked anything that is handmade so I was not choosy on what to do; as long as the finished product is something made by hand. Since there was an opportunity for me to learn, I took it without thinking about it.
KajoMag: Do you have any plans on teaching your children how to embroider keringkam?
Doris: I taught my daughter how to embroider over the three months as we waited for her SPM results. She did that before she went off to further her studies. Even now, she occasionally sits next to me and helps embroider with me.
I don’t think she would take it seriously as a career, but at least she has some basic skills on how to do it. I always welcome those who are willing to learn from me at an affordable fee.
KajoMag: What is your hope for the future of keringkam embroidery in Sarawak?
Doris: As far as I’m concerned, pua kumbu is still widely known among the Iban community because we still use it to this day, so the younger generation knows about pua kumbu.
For keringkam, however, perhaps there are not many who are familiar with this art.
There is always room to promote more about keringkam among the younger generation. If they do not learn about it, then they would have no interest in wearing anything with keringkam embroidery on it.