Cultures & Traditions
Weaving Ranks & Status in Iban Society
It would be a grave misunderstanding to underestimate the weaver's worldview and limit her lexicon of motifs, patterns, and designs to just that of innocuous flora and fauna, especially in the case of master weavers who have deep knowledge of the full range of Iban mythology—and the cryptic names of the entire cosmology of Iban deities, literally, at their fingertips. When a weaver creates a frog motif and calls it a frog in public, her Iban audience would immediately discern that she most definitely means it to represent something other than just an amphibian, and they would instantly relate it to a deity of the Iban pantheon. To accurately read an Iban textile design, one must always contextualize it and have an almost encyclopedic knowledge of Iban folklore and oral wisdom, remembering always that a weaver ultimately weaves to enhance her own status within her community—a female prestige system paralleling that of her menfolk, who base theirs on headhunting with its associated values of valor and bravery. By enhancing her own status, she is also adding to the spiritual strength of her bilek, or family living quarters, in the longhouse.
In Iban society, women are ranked according to their aptitudes, and in the Saribas region specifically, birth is also an important factor in determining a woman's social status. The lowest rank is the indu paku indu tubu (she who gathers ferns and shoots), someone who does not know how to weave. Above her is the indu lawai indu temuai (she who is a good wife and hostess), who has little leisure time to weave, being a full-time wife and mother. The next rank is the first echelon of weavers, the indu tau sikat tau kebat (she who knows how to comb the threads and tie designs), who is affluent and can afford servants to care for the family or, conversely, industrious, finding time to weave after executing her familial duties. Most weavers remain at this level, their skill average, their spiritual strength sufficient to weave designs posing little danger to them. However, a serious weaver would aspire to attain the next rank, the indu tau muntang tau tengkebang (she who knows how to fold the threads and create new designs). To qualify, a weaver must weave nine pua kumbu (ritual blanket) with ascending respective spiritual weights thus completing her first cycle in the attainment of spiritual prowess. She is allowed to leave the selvedges of her tenth pua kumbu uncolored. In other words, she has become a master weaver, and all her subsequent pua kumbu may have the distinctive uncolored white selvedges.
The highest rank a woman could attain is the indu tau takar tau gaar (she who knows how to measure the mordant and treat the threads), and she would reign supreme in her community, leading all the rites and ceremonies. As a grandmaster weaver, she would exercise the privilege of conferring praise-names on the designs woven by other weavers and master weavers if she so wished. Grandmasters, who are very few and far between, achieve their status only by being recognized as such by the entire community once they have woven whole repertories of the most powerful designs and are able to "tame" the mordant bath, which, it is believed, requires great spiritual strength. These grandmasters are also believed to enjoy special protection from weaving deities from whom they learn the secret measurements of various mordant and dye solutions through dream encounters. Grandmasters also leave the selvedges of their pua kumbu uncolored.
Vernon Kedit, "Ceremonial cloth (pua kumbu)" in Eyes of the Ancestors: The Arts of Island Southeast Asia at the Dallas Museum of Art, ed. Reimar Schefold in collaboration with Steven Alpert (Dallas: Dallas Museum of Art; New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2013), 152-155.
Learn more about the Iban people.