They used to be well-guarded secrets but veteran Kelabit beader Sinah Rang Lemulun has no reservations about sharing her traditional beading techniques with Norina Changan. Even though Norina is an Iban from Sibu, Sinah would go the extra mile to teach her as she is eager to learn the dying craft.

“It’s nice to meet a young person who is interested in beading. Many Kelabit girls have left the village for better job prospects in big cities. Sadly, traditions like beading and weaving are left behind as youths step out into the big world,” says Sinah, 73, during an interview in Bario, Sarawak, recently.

In the past six years, the septuagenarian has formed a close bond with Norina, who is 40 years her junior. Despite the large age gap, these housewives are brought together by their passion for traditional Kelabit beading.

Sinah represents the older generation of traditional Kelabit beaders. With over 60 years experience in traditional beading, she is regarded as the go-to person for colourful bao (beads) in the community.

It takes several days for Sinah to complete this Kelabit beaded ceremonial headpiece.

She worries about the future of traditional beading as only a handful of the young are interested in the craft.

“I taught my two daughters the art of beading when they were younger. My eldest daughter went overseas over 20 years ago and now lives in Perth, Australia. So. it’s difficult for me to teach her the skill. My second daughter lives with her husband at another longhouse in Bario.

“They are not interested to continue the tradition,” explains Sinah, a mother of five.

Thankfully, young relatives like Norina have a keen interest in traditional beading.

“I have always been fascinated by beads, especially by its style, shapes, colour and material. It is a wonderful hobby that allows me to tap into my creativity and skills,” says Norina, Sinah’s neighbour at Bario Asal Lembaa Longhouse, the oldest longhouse in the highlands of Bario. Norina moved into the longhouse after marrying Sinah’s nephew, Galvin Hendrick, in 2012.

Sinah is happy to be the link between the past and future of traditional Kelabit beading. The grandmother of 15 was the one who approached Norina to learn the skill.

Norina still remembers her first attempt at stringing a bao alai, a traditional Kelabit bead necklace. The result, she says, was disastrous.

Norina with a beaded sash featuring a traditional ethnic design.

“It was not strung in sequence. One colour may come in various hues and it took hours to sort out the beads accordingly. Thankfully, Sinah taught me techniques of mixing and matching patterns, as well as old taboos and restrictions in beadmaking,” explains the mother of two children, aged four and five.

Sinah chips in: “Beading is not as easy as it seems. It requires passion and patience. Norina’s plus points are her enthusiasm, creativity and perseverance.”

Cultural legacy

Beads are highly valued among Sarawakian tribes. It signifies the wearer’s status in the community.

These valuable items are often used in ceremonial rites and rituals. It is also worn during Irau Mekaa Ngadan (a name changing ceremony), a special thanksgiving event for providing a Kelabit couple with children. As jewellery, they signify wealth, power and social standing. They are also family heirlooms.

Besides the Kelabit community, beads are also important to many Sarawakian tribes like Kayan, Bidayuh and Orang Ulu, explains Sinah.

“In the past, beads were crafted from seeds, stone and bone fragments. During the 15th-18th centuries, Spain, Portugal, Dutch and English traders brought in exotic pieces like Venetian and Bohemian beads. These antique items are priceless,” she adds.

These days, beads are mass-produced, in many shapes and sizes. They are made from materials like glass, synthetic, wood, shell and ceramic.

Sinah has been selling her beaded crafts at the longhouse and market in Bario town. Items include traditional headgear, necklaces, sashes and peta bao rawir (bead caps for women). Hundreds – if not thousands – of beads are used for each project. They include seed beads, Venetian beads, frosted glass beads and polymer clay beads.

Sinah sells her simpler beaded works for RM100 but her more intricate pieces could fetch up to RM25,000.

“It takes hours to make these items. It involves choosing the right colour, stringing it neatly in accordance to traditional design. The older and more exotic the beads, the higher they cost. Unlike factory-made ones, these beads are unique, one-of-a-kind and represent part of our history,” says Sinah, who spends between four and eight hours on beading work each day. Besides beading, Sinah runs a homestay in the longhouse.

Only a handful of Kelabit women are interested to make beaded adornments.

Both women sell their handcrafted goods at exhibitions in Kuala Lumpur and across Borneo. Sinah’s daughter Tisa Rang – who is based in Perth – helps to promote the beads online.

Norina has taken a step forward to sell her goods via social media accounts like Facebook and Instagram.

“I have many friends living in Sibu, Miri and Kuching who love traditional Kelabit accessories. I have received a number of online orders from them. I’m happy to have learnt the skill to help me earn extra income,” says Norina, who does part-time catering and helps out at the paddy fields.

Together, Norina and Sinah have formed a unique friendship focusing on beading, one of the Kelabit community’s most precious cultural heritage.