When Julita Ukor learnt tree bark crafting 20 years ago, her main motivation was to earn additional income. But she has now become an expert in her community’s traditional craft.

Back then, she was making RM700 salary as a clerk, and it was hard to make ends meet with three children to suppport.

There was not much left each month for savings or to splurge on little luxuries or nice clothes for her family.

“My income was barely enough to complement my husband’s salary as a teacher. I found it hard to manage the household, especially with so many mouths to feed,” recalls the 45-year-old entrepreneur.

Being strapped for cash was tough and Julita decided her only option was to take on a second job to ensure a better future for her family.

“Some of my neighbours and relatives were in tree bark crafting. They said the returns were promising and encouraged me to try out on a part-time basis, while still keeping my job.

Julita’s team also makes souvenir items from tree barks.

The best part was that I could work from home and look after my children,” explains Julita, who picked up the art of tree bark crafting from her in-laws in her early 20s.

Tree bark crafting is one of the prime industries in Kampung Tuguson, a village about 15km from Kota Belud, where Juita lives.

The Dusun community here is known for their traditional craft of processing tree barks into fabric.

This includes felling the timbangan tree, removing the inner bark and soaking it overnight. The hydrated bark is then flattened with a roller machine or by being beaten using a wooden mallet.

The process is repeated till the bark becomes a thick piece of fabric.

In the past, this primitive tree bark fabric was one of the most versatile materials in Asia and Africa for clothing.

These days, it is used to make items such as pencil cases, skirts and jackets.

Tree bark crafting is a skill that’s still passed down the generations among the Dusuns.

Stitches to success

Julita and her team make a huge range of souvenir items from tree bark.

In 2000, the former clerk started her part-time home business with gusto. She invested RM500 in a sewing machine and roller machine – two vital tools in tree bark crafting.

The raw material, timbagan trees, grow in abundance and can be sourced easily from her orchard and the surrounding jungles.

“In the first month, I managed to stitch eight tree bark bags. I made RM200 from their sales at the morning market at Pekan Nabalu in Ranau. Although it was tough to juggle between two jobs, it felt rewarding. This inspired me to work harder,” says Julita.

Fuelled with determination, Julita burnt the midnight oil and worked hard to produce more handicraft. Within a year, sales from her tree bark craft surpassed her income as a clerk.

In 2003, she quit her clerical job to concentrate on her home business. To further hone her skills, the budding entrepreneur enrolled in advanced tree bark handicraft courses by Kraftangan Malaysia Sabah, to improve her stitching skills to cater to a growing market.

“My plus point is that I am able to sew. An added advantage was my vision to succeed in the business. One needs to be hardworking and confident to run any business. I’m glad to have the support of my family members, especially my husband,” says Julita, who joins Kraftangan Malaysia Sabah’s exhibitions to promote Sabah handicraft across Malaysia.

She has also brought the unique craft to Vietnam, China, Taiwan and Korea.

Today, the successful home-based entrepreneur has carved a reputation as the go-to person for tree bark craft among villagers in Kampung Tuguson.

Her handstitched items such as pencil cases, purses and gift boxes are supplied to the one-stop handicraft store Karyaneka in Kuala Lumpur, a number of airports and heritage centres in Sabah and Sarawak. She also supplies items such as wood bark jackets for traditional weddings and cultural centres across Sabah. Wooden boxes and pencil cases are popular orders as weddings favours.

The Dusun businesswoman can now make anything between RM3,000 and RM15,000 a month.

Julita runs her successful handicraft business from her home, employing local villagers.

To cope with her high-volume business, she ropes in relatives and neighbours to help.

Her large verandah has been transformed into a comfortable workstation.

There are three industrial sewing machines with boxes of tools and sewing items neatly placed in boxes. Tree bark material are folded and stacked up in shelves. A portable radio – tuned to community radio station Kupikupi FM and Sabah FM – provides entertainment while her team work to meet orders.

Her husband Patrick Kandar, 52, and their daughter Astella Tecy, 22, also help out with the business.

Her two sons – Astley Ann, 24, and Avey Kyn, 19 – are pursuing their studies in Kuala Lumpur.

“Thankfully, Astella Tecy is keen to learn the dying craft. Not many youths are interested to learn this craft as it is tedious and time consuming. My daughter has been helping me since she was in primary school. Her stitching is neat and she has an eye for fine detailing,” says Julita proudly.

While Julita’s work hours are long, she has no complaints. She still draws satisfaction from looking at her completed projects.

“It puts a smile on my face to see the labour of love that has gone into each handstitched item. My neck aches and tiredness disappear after looking at the items, which are one of Sabah’s most precious cultural heritage.”

Julita is thankful she took the leap of faith and ventured into the business world.

“I was initially scared to pursue my dreams. There was always the fear of failing but I never gave up. Running any business boils down to finding your niche and pursuing your interest with determination. With hard work and some luck, anyone can succeed.”