KUANTAN, Pahang: A rhythmic thud rang through a fabric workshop in Kampung Soi in Kuantan, where weavers were working attentively.
Each operated a wooden handloom as big as a grand piano, their hands and feet moving in astonishing coordination.
The looms had been warped with thousands of silk threads that run the length of the yardage. A weaver tugged a hanging rope, and a shuttle zoomed horizontally across, hitting the edge of the loom with a thump.
With each pedal movement, the warp threads were alternately lifted and lowered, allowing the shuttle that carried the weft threads to travel back and forth.
The weavers were making Tenun Pahang, a fabric unique to the east coast state and one that holds a special place in the heart of Malaysian Queen Tunku Azizah Aminah Maimunah Iskandariah. Tenun is the Malay word for weave.
A Johor princess married to the Pahang crown prince (who was proclaimed the sixth Sultan of Pahang on Jan 15 and ascended the throne as Malaysia’s 16th king on Jan 31), Tunku Azizah has been the face of Tenun Pahang since 2005.
“When I wanted to publish my cookbook, the museum said why don’t we wear Tenun Pahang (for the cover photo)? I went to see and I realised there’s so much that can be done,” she told CNA in an exclusive interview at Istana Abdulaziz in Kuantan.
“When I saw Tenun Pahang, I really fell in love. I sat there and I started designing. I couldn’t let it (the art) disappear. It must go on,” she added.
The queen, then Tengku Puan Pahang (consort of Pahang crown prince), set to work immediately. The textile was conferred a royal status the following year, and Tunku Azizah officially took a personal interest in its preservation and development.
She gathered the master weavers to tap on their expertise - there were only 15 of them back then - prodding them gently to part with their knowledge. They were reluctant to do so in the beginning, preferring to keep the skills within their families.
Over the course of the next decade, Tunku Azizah saw to the establishment of an institute that provides a two-year course free of charge on the skills of weaving Royal Tenun Pahang in Pulau Keladi, Pekan. She also set up a business entity Che Minah Sayang that employs skilled weavers, including ex-inmates.
A foundation was set up to further promote the art, of which Tunku Azizah serves as the patron.
With her becoming the queen early this year, the textile has received national attention.
At the installation ceremony in July, she appeared alongside Malaysian King Al-Sultan Abdullah Ri'ayatuddin Al-Mustafa Billah Shah in a regal attire made of this fabric, which was woven by prison inmates.
“I am perhaps the only queen in the world to wear fabric made by prisoners to the royal coronation,” said Tunku Azizah, 59, beaming proudly.
THE ART OF TENUN PAHANG
Silk weaving in Pahang is believed to have been brought to the state along with the migration of Malays of Bugis descent. A community of skilled weavers can be found in the village of Pulau Keladi, the birthplace of Malaysia’s second prime minister Abdul Razak Hussein.
Common designs of Tenun Pahang include lines and squares, while intricate patterns on the fabric are achieved through meticulous weaving.
“The motifs are small and cute,” said Tunku Azizah.
These days, weavers use raw spun silk yarn imported from China, which is then soaked and dyed. The yarn is painstakingly arranged and combed before the threads are fed into the handloom.
The process is so tedious that it takes weeks for a piece of Royal Tenun Pahang to be completed, depending on the complexity of the design and the weaver’s skills.
(Above: The pattern on a piece of fabric changes when viewed from different angles.)
In this age of automation and fast fashion, Tunku Azizah insisted that the fabric must be handwoven in order to qualify for the “royal” prefix.
“No machine-made Tenun Pahang can call itself diraja (royal),” she said. “With machine, the design is limited. The work done by hand is totally different.”
Due to the effort required and workmanship, a piece of Royal Tenun Pahang produced using a handloom can cost hundreds or even thousands of ringgit.
Tunku Azizah believes in enhancing the art of weaving, and the foundation has hosted workshops and study tours to Cambodia, Laos as well as Hyderabad in India. This allows the weavers to learn more and see the best practices of other cultures.
Today, there are approximately 200 skilled weavers of Royal Tenun Pahang.
WEAVING WORKSHOPS IN PRISONS
Getting the Bentong Prison and Penor Prison involved in making Royal Tenun Pahang was unplanned, Tunku Azizah said.
As a matter of policy, every prison in Malaysia has to teach its inmates a craft, and she discovered that the prisons in Pahang had chosen Tenun.
Tunku Azizah sent the prison wardens for training and they, in turn, trained the prisoners. She is a regular visitor to both prisons.
During a recent visit to the weaving workshop in the Penor Prison, a spritely Tunku Azizah went from station to station, chatting casually with the inmates. She explained their work to CNA and sometimes requested them to release the fabric from the loom for all to take a closer look.
A prisoner, who was put behind the bars five years ago, recounted how he wove the emblem of Pahang and the crescent and star of Johor on the fabric worn by Tunku Azizah during the installation ceremony.
His chest puffed up with pride as he showed CNA a file, and on the top of the stack of papers was the printed image of the design arrangement.
“We weave the fabric for the king and queen, not just anybody,” the 34-year-old said.
Is his family equally proud that he was involved in making the special fabric? “They do not know, they never visit me here,” he said quietly.
A total of 58 inmates at Penor and 63 at Bentong Prisons earn a stipend working in the workshops considered part of the rehabilitation programme.
Their handiwork can be purchased from the website of Malaysian Prison Department.
“We see an improvement in the prisoners’ behaviour after they are selected to be part of the workshop. They learn to be patient when weaving,” said Chief Inspector Mohd Roslan Ahmad, who is in-charge of vocational industry at the Bentong Prison.
In the Bentong prison workshop, the inmates' loom benches are padded with cushion as they tend to sit on their looms all day. Books filled with hand-drawn designs are on a table for their reference.
A prisoner, who only wanted to be known as Hafiz, said he wanted to learn weaving after hearing so much about it from other prisoners. “Other skills, we can learn outside. But the opportunity to learn weaving is rare,” the 34-year-old said.
“Even though we are convicts, the royal family members wear what we make, and I am proud of that,” he added.
With one year left before his jail term is up, Hafiz said he hoped one day he could work for Tunku Azizah’s weaving company in Pekan.
PASSING ON THE LEGACY
The fabric can be made into clothes, or smaller items such as pouches and tissue box covers, as seen at the sales gallery of Royal Tenun Pahang Development Centre in Kampung Soi.
For the queen, her favourite style has always been baju kurung, the traditional Malay wear comprising a loose-fitting top and skirt.
There is a sentimental value to it as well, since it was her great-great-grandfather Sultan Abu Bakar who made baju kurung popular by naming it the official attire.
“I think baju kurung is versatile, you can wear it everywhere,” Tunku Azizah said.
“My grandmother never wore anything other than baju kurung, I saw how elegant she looked. My mother wore it, my mother-in-law wore it.
“I put little beads on my baju kurung, that’s it. And I go around showing people (the sewing and the details), I have my kocek (pockets). I am very proud of it,” she said.
Tunku Azizah, who is of Malay-British descent, attributed her artistic flair and her appreciation for art to her western ancestry.
She draws inspiration from multiple sources - including magazines and even shadows on fabric cast by a prison grille.
“I am not an artist, but I like anything that is produced by hands, embroidery, tapestry, crochet, knitting and needlepoint.”
Before she married into the Pahang royal family, Tunku Azizah would admire the handwoven silk fabric at Jim Thompson in Bangkok, wishing there is an equivalent in Malaysia.
Now that she has discovered Tenun Pahang and taken on the role as its spokesperson of sorts, she wants to be seen wearing the fabric as much as possible.
“I feel I have a role to play. I feel I should ‘abuse’ my position for the sake of the continuity of Tenun Pahang. I want to leave it as a legacy for future generations,” she said.
And it seems that the royal couple’s youngest daughter Tengku Puteri Jihan Azizah Athiyatullah has shown an interest in Tunku Azizah’s closetful of baju kurung and the art of textile.
Tengku Puteri Jihan, 17, attended the king’s installation ceremony in the very same baju kurung that Tunku Azizah had worn to her father Sultan Iskandar’s installation as Malaysia’s eighth king in 1984.
“She is going to pursue textile art in England. She also ordered her own loom.
“I hope my daughter will be able to carry it on. I have to retire one day,” Tunku Azizah said.