In Focus

Woman's skirts (Kain kebat), 1983.135 and 1983.137

In the Baleh region where the woman's skirt (1983.135) originates, the central motif of the cloth's design is known as the Aji Bulan or Moon Rat. Anthony J.N. Richards identifies the moon rat as "Echinosorex gymnurus Rames (and candidus). It is a pugnacious nocturnal burrowing insectivore living near water, a survivor from prehistoric times."[1] The motif is heavily stylized and is not supposed to be a naturalistic representation of a rodent. Its abstracted design is emphasized, with very few accompanying supplementary motifs surrounding it. Weavers today remember how to construct the motif, a very ancient one, but cannot explain what each curl or projection might mean.

Discreetly tucked in between curls is a tiny anthropomorphic form, rare on skirts. It has a head, limbs, and upturned feet. Only the weaver would have known what it represents and why she wove it on her skirt. It is most definitely not a food offering for the rodent. Food offerings are for spirits, the depiction of whom on textiles outranks, by leaps and bounds, stylized representations of animals, especially innocuous ones like the moon rat.

Liberal splashes of indigo blue accentuate the lozenges and chevrons of the entire design, which makes this Iban skirt an exceptionally beautiful one.

In the Saribas, where the woman's skirt (1983.137) is most likely to have originated, this textile design is known as Lang, though a Baleh weaver would immediately see the Aji Bulan (Moon Rat) instead. Here we have a classic case of essentially the same basic design with a single genesis, probably developing in Kalimantan prior to the migration of the the Iban into Sarawak hundreds of years ago, evolving into respective regional variants and expressions over the centuries in areas totally isolated from each other.

In the Saribas, the design evolved into a more stylized motif and has the name Lang, shortened from Sengalang Burong, the Iban god of war. Why the god of war found himself woven onto skirts is a mystery lost in time. Saribas weavers recognize the motif but cannot explain why it is called Lang. However, they can tell you that it is always surrounded by the constellation Pleiades, known to the Iban as Bintang Banyak (Seven Sisters). Seven motifs, each comprising a diamond-shaped rhomboid with four extensions bending into curls, surround Lang. This motif is also found on pua kumbu (ritual blanket) and is known as buah bintang or the star motif.

To emphasize this point, the weaver, probably at a later stage when she had access to new threads, stitched onto the skirt a strip of cloth decorated with multicolored embroidery designs of stars that were additionally sewn into it. This skirt is a beautifully executed Lang design and a good representation of fine Saribas workmanship.

Iban women in the 19th century wore two types of skirts: the kain jugam or plain indigo skirt for daily wear, and the kain kebat or tie-dyed (ikat) skirt for specially occasions and festivals, especially for participating in rites. In the published material, little mention is made of the ritual significance of the tie-dyed skirt. Contrary to popular belief, it is not simply a garment of beauty worn to attract attention or to advertise a weaver's skill; it is also used as ritual payment and, in some cases, acts as currency for fines. For this very reason, skirts do not remain the personal property of the weaver, as is often mistakenly put forth in academic literature, but are the property of the bilek or family unit in the longhouse. The bilek is paramount, and daughters and granddaughters proudly wear heirloom skirts woven by their foremothers.

In the healing rites called pelian, the manang, or shaman, would always ask for a kain kebat as ritual payment. The same skirt would also be used in the healing ritual when the shaman went into a trance to seek the lost soul of the sick patient. His feet would be touching the skirt, acting almost like a homing device, so that his soul might return to the present.

Female lemambang, or bards, would also ask for tie-dyed skirts as payment when they chanted the sabak or ritual dirge at the wakes of deceased persons.

However, the most significant yet seldom acknowledged purpose of the skirt is well documented by Micheal Heppell;[2] women rip off their skirts and toss them at their men to shame them into action. The practice still occurs today, especially in domestic disputes, when a wife wants to make a very public point. It is her way of saying, "You are only fit to wear my skirt!" The tie-dyed skirt, suffice it to say, is not only a woman's pride but also her most damning armament.

[1] Richards 1981: 4-5.

[2] Heppell et al. 2005: 42-43

Excerpt from

Vernon Kedit, "Woman's skirt (kain kebat) with moon rat design (bebuah aji bulan)" and "Woman's skirt (kain kebat) with brahminy kite design (bebuah lang)" 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), 150-151.

Web Resources

  • Wikipedia
    Learn more about the Iban people.