THERE was a time when shawls and headscarves or veils embellished with glittery and exquisite ‘kerikam’ embroidery were an essential part of the wardrobes of Sarawak Malay women from noble and affluent families who wore them at special functions.
However, as time passed, its usage expanded and it became a ‘must-have’ for every Sarawak Malay family.
Some even regard it as an heirloom passed down through generations.
The ‘kerikam’, also known as ‘keringkam’, embroidery is synonymous with the Sarawak Malay community, but unfortunately, the continuity of this heritage art form has encountered a setback as the intricate and laborious needlework involved is discouraging people from learning the skills.
In ‘kerikam’ embroidery, coarse metallic threads, often gold or silver in colour, are used to create captivating motifs, with floral patterns being particularly prominent.
Previously applied exclusively to shawls and veils, ‘kerikam’ embroidery can now be found in traditional Malay attire such as ‘baju kurung’ as well.
Disappearing art form
Among Sarawak’s traditional arts activists passionate about preserving the ‘kerikam’ art form is Danny Zulkifli, 44, a Mathematics teacher at a primary school in Santubong, near Kuching.
Speaking recently at a heritage conservation programme conducted by the Brooke Trust and sponsored by Yayasan Hasanah, he lamented about how hard it was for him to get more knowledge on ‘kerikam’ when he first became involved in the craft.
“I wanted to learn this heritage art to ensure its perpetuation.
“With the art of ‘keringkam’ embroidery being highly exclusive, I found myself having to seek guidance from the elderly artisans who had the skills and the experience,” said Kuching-born Danny, who also owns a boutique here called ‘D Keringkam’.
He said kerikam embroidery caught his eye several years ago when he became interested in preserving Sarawak’s traditional arts and heritage.
In 2008, when he was posted to a remote school in Mukah in the central part of Sarawak, he decided to learn more about ‘kerikam’ and practise the needlework as he had a lot of free time during the weekends and school holidays.
“I even created my own kerikam embroidery pieces,” said Danny, who is diagnosed with dyslexia, a learning disorder.
“Being far away from my home (in Kuching), I didn’t miss my family so much as the ‘kerikam’ embroidery kept me busy. Not only did I find it therapeutic, but it also became a source of extra income for me.”
Book on ‘kerikam’ techniques
Sharing how he picked up kerikam skills while in Mukah, Danny said since his school had no Internet service back then, he would venture out to the nearby villages during the weekends to talk to the elderly folks there who were well-versed in the art.
“Within seven months, I managed to master the ‘keringkam’ technique as well as embroidering the motifs. I had no dedicated teacher – I learned by asking those who had the skills and by observing pictures (of the embroidered works),” he said.
On the veils, shawls, accessories and Sarawak Malay bridal attire – all decorated with his hand-stitched ‘kerikam’ embroidery – available at his boutique, Danny said it would usually take him about a month to complete a piece featuring a simple design, but the more elaborate ones would take three to four months to complete.
Incidentally, Danny worked with fashion designer Khaider and Sim Demi Couture to create a ‘kerikam’-embroidered gown for beauty queen Leslie Chiam, who represented Malaysia in the Miss Universe 2022 pageant in New Orleans in Louisiana, the USA.
“I’m grateful my sincerity and dedication to elevate the ‘keringkam’ heritage art has allowed it to be showcased on the world stage,” he said, adding that he is also in the process of writing a book on the techniques and types of kerikam embroidery, expected to be published by Dewan Bahasa and Pustaka Sarawak soon.
Meanwhile, Yayasan Hasanah trustee and managing director Datuk Shahira Ahmed Bazari said the foundation had been collaborating with its partners in various states to restore the glory of dying heritage crafts through various initiatives.
One of these initiatives is the Aspire programme, which aims to revive forgotten textile heritage arts such as ‘kerikam’.
“The Aspire programme serves as a platform for young individuals to learn this embroidery art over 18 months, also covering a three-month practical session.
“This programme also aims to assist the less fortunate who can use the skills they are taught to start an enterprise and (at the same time) ensure the continuity of Sarawak’s heritage,” she said.
Brooke Trust chairman Jason Brooke said Margaret Brooke (the wife of Sarawak’s second Rajah, Charles Brooke) was known to be a patron of ‘kerikam’ and ‘songket’ silk. A part of her collection of embroidered ‘kerikam’ pieces is showcased at Ranee Museum in Kuching.
“What we want to do is trace the origins of ‘keringkam’. We are not preserving this heritage simply because of its age, but we want to share the stories behind it so that the community can reconnect with their heritage roots,” he added.
Meanwhile, Salliza Sideni, head of museums and education at Brooke museums in Kuching, said since the start of the Aspire programme in June last year, 50 young people had been selected for training in ‘kerikam’ embroidery.
Among those participating in the programme are youths from juvenile correctional schools, Sekolah Henry Gurney and Sekolah Tunas Bakti, as well as Taman Seri Puteri Kuching (a shelter for children and adolescents run by the Welfare Department).
Under the programme, ‘keringkam’ embroiderers teach the craft to these disadvantaged youths. The participants also receive tuition and training in practical skills, followed by an internship at the Brooke museums in Kuching, comprising the Brooke Gallery at Fort Margherita and the Ranee Museum at the Old Courthouse.
“We will set them up with the skills and opportunity to go and make use of this accredited qualification at the end of it (training).
“This can be done through direct employment or networking or by introducing them to other artisans who have been working in this field.
“It will serve as a starting point for those trainees planning to venture into the business of keringkam embroidery after completing their training – they will continue the legacy of Sarawak’s heritage art.” — Bernama