Meet retiree Sirongan Sulaiman, 60, who has turned her hobby of hand weaving tapestry into an income generating business.

She picked up the skill two years ago, after retiring as a teacher at SK St Patrick in Tawau, Sabah.

“After retirement, I moved back to my family home in Kota Belud. To keep my mind alert, I decided to learn the tradtional art of handwoven tapestry. It took me two months to pick up the skill, to weave tapestry using looms,” says Sirongan during an interview in Kota Belud recently.

On average, the mother-of-eight earns between RM2,000 and RM4,000 each month from sales of her handwoven tapestry pieces.

“The money helps to pay for my children’s tuition and college fees, and household expenses. Extra money is saved for other odds and ends to help my large family,” says Sirongan, whose children are between 16 and 37 years old.

After her retirement from teaching, Sirongan returned to her village and learnt to weave. — Photo: Utusan Melayu

Sirongan wanted to continue working although she has retired from civil service.

Like many Malaysians, Sirongan is concerned about making sure she has enough funds for her golden years.

With the projected lifespan of Malaysians at 75 years old, the Employees Provident Fund’s recommended retirement savings is RM228,000.

However, 65% of EPF members have savings of less than RM50,000 at age 54. EPF’s 2015 annual report states about 80% of its active members have an average savings on RM100,000 and less.

Thus, Sirongan encourages senior citizens to learn new skills and try to monetise them.

“Find a new skill that piques your interest. Pick up a skill like baking, wood crafting or sewing. Retirees can always engage in these activities on a part-time basis and earn extra income.”

Such jobs help senior citizens earn money and keep the mind active. It provides them with an opportunity to interact and socialise with others too.

“Retirees should continue to work for various reasons – to keep physically active, mentally sharp and have a social life. It also enables them to connect to the outside world.”

Sirongan Sulaiman (right) learnt the ropes on Iranun handwoven tapestry from her older sister, Pandian. Photo: Abdul Kalam Mukim

Weaving runs in their blood

Sirongan was fortunate to be able to learn a new income-generating skill as she comes from a family of tapestry weavers.

Her elder sisters – Pandian Sulaiman, 67, and Landongan Sulaiman, 62 – are among a handful of traditional weavers from Kota Belud, a small town about 70km from Kota Kinabalu.

Pandian and Landongan have been weaving for close to 50 years now; they are custodians of their Iranun community’s rich weaving and needlework heritage. The Iranuns are known for their unique tapestry weave designs.

There are several types of Iranun fabrics woven for traditional costumes, called dastar, sambitan, ampik or ampit, mugah, baraguru and tapak sila.

Each of these woven fabrics is used for different purposes.

Iranun tapestry pieces are made using the backstrap loom technique.

The Iranun community is renowned for their intricate handwoven textile. Photo: Kraftangan Malaysia

The weavers construct the looms themselves, using wooden rods. One end is tied to a post, while the other end is fastened to the weaver’s waist with a strap. It is different from Terengganu’s songket weaving, which uses the kei’ (pronounced as ‘kek’) weaving equipment.

“Tapestry weaving has been in our blood for seven generations. My sisters learnt the skill from my mother and grandmother when they were teenagers. Back then, I was not interested to learn weaving as my focus was on my studies,” says Sirongan, who was a Bahasa Malaysia and Mathematics teacher for 36 years.

Their handwoven tapestry are made using threads, either cotton, gold, silver or silk, and worked over different portions of a warp to form designs.

Sirongan admits it was initially a challenge to learn to weave tapestry, especially at 58 years old.

Thankfully, her sisters held her hands throughout her learning journey.

“The most difficult part is counting each coloured thread strand and ensuring it is placed in the right warp. Once you get the hang of things, hand weaving tapestry turns therapeutic.

“It is a good form of mental exercise too. It keeps me focused, especially when I keep count of thread pieces and create designs between the warp and weft,” explains the jovial woman from Kampung Rampayan Laut in Kota Belud.

Preserving an ancient craft

Sirongan has learnt to produce many traditional Iranun handwoven tapestry pieces, including mugah, dastar and sambitan.

Dastar pieces feature fine woven designs, with local cultural influences. It includes flora and fauna (cotton flower, tapioca leaves, winter melon leaves) and animal (horse and rooster) motifs.

Pandian Sulaiman is touted as the guru in Iranun handwoven tapestry. She wears a blouse made from baraboru handwoven material. Photo: Utusan Melayu

The Iranun, Dusun and Bajau communities use this material with elaborate motifs – interwoven with gold or silver thread – as headgear (tubau or sigar) for special ceremonies. The material, measuring a square metre, is woven mainly with threads of black, yellow, white, green and red.

The handwoven cloth is also often used as wall decorative pieces, handbags and table furnishings.

Mugah – a cloth piece with vertical motif – is often worn by Iranun women. Measuring 33cm by 66cm, it features colourful traditional designs called tali-tali, tuara and anunan. The base cloth is always red or black.

Weaving sambitan is the most difficult, and thus this is the most expensive of the Iranun’s handwoven fabrics.

It features a combination of weaving and hand embroidery. The square cloth measures one metre square and is the preferred choice as headgear (tubau) by Iranun men, especially for weddings.

Red is always the preferred colour for sambitan woven material. It features designs like winter melon leaves and tapioca leaves.

These pieces are sold between RM300 and RM2,000, depending on the design’s intricacy.

“I can complete a dastar, measuring one square metre, in a week. Some of the more popular designs are inspired by floral motif like lotus flower and cotton flower. Designs featuring horses are also sought after, as it represents Kota Belud’s Bajau community,” says Sirongan.

It takes about two weeks to handstitch a one-metre strip of linangkit.  Photo: Abdul Kalam Mukim

The grandmother-of-four has also mastered a needlework tapestry technique called langkit or linangkit.

Langkit is a type of handstitched embroidery. It is used as a form of decoration on traditional costumes of Sabah’s Dusun, Bajau and Rungus communities. These embroidered pieces, measuring between 2.5cm and 5cm, are stitched on sleeves.

Designs include geometric motifs, flowers and animals. It is used during special functions and weddings. Sirongan charges about RM1,000 per metre for the decorative work

“Hand-stitching the langkit is a tedious process. It requires patience and an eye for fine detailing. It takes about a month to complete a two-metre strip,” says Sirongan, who works on langkit orders during the day to avoid straining her eyes.

The sisters do the hand weaving projects at Pandian’s home, a stone’s throw away from Sirongan’s house.

Sirongan looks forward to going to her eldest sister’s home as it enables her to complete her tapestry orders while spending quality time with her sisters.

“We chat and joke while working on our projects. It’s really fun as we get to have our meals together, just like how we used to as children.

“Weaving tapestry has enabled us to further strengthen our sisterly bond,” says Sirongan, who spends about seven hours working on her tapestry pieces on weekdays.

Sirongan is grateful her fourth son Abdul Kalam Mukim, 25, has taken an interest in traditional Iranum handwoven tapestry. He helps to promote his mother and aunts’ exquisite craft works across Sabah, Sarawak, Labuan and Peninsular Malaysia.

Abdul Kalam is the only child who has followed Sirongan’s footsteps to learn handwoven tapestry and linangkit.

“I am happy that one of my eight children has a keen eye for tapestry. My eldest daughter works in Kota Kinabalu and has not had time to learn the skill yet. My second girl is still studying.

“Hopefully they will eventually pick up the dying art form when they are older. If their mother could learn it at 58 years old, they too can learn it,” says Sirongan, with a wide grin.