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A Woman with Many Hats

by Chang Yi

In a little enclave of the new Miri Handicraft Centre at High Street, Kenyah handcraft lady, Sandra Ahie, takes out 10 strips of refined bamboo and soaks them in a pail of water. She is going to demonstrate in what she calls, ‘just a short few minutes’, to make the bamboo base or band of a Kenyah headdress.

She deftly places the 10 strips under her foot and starts weaving. In lightning speed, her agile hands and feet help her to finish the headband. She explains her weaving like she is a celebrity chef explaining how to make an intricate dish.

Sandra tells me that after preparing several of these bands or ‘skeletons’ for custom made headgears, she will then prepare the beadwork for it, in between customers dropping in at her little craft shop. Sometimes good bamboo is hard to come by, so she will do beading first while waiting for the next batch of bamboo to arrive.

Sandra was trained by her own mother in their village in Long Bungan, Baram, from the age of 10. After her secondary school education, she worked as a library assistant until her retirement, then she opened her handicraft shop to fulfill her life long dream of creating beautiful bead, bamboo and rattan crafts and carry on the legacy of her people. A Kenyah lady’s headdress can cost up to RM600 each, depending on the quality of the beads used.

It normally takes her five to seven days to assemble all the beads for one headdress, literally bead by bead. The designs are usually chosen by the customers themselves but sometimes she makes up her own designs, which are not very different from the traditional designs. The beads she uses tend to be the traditional black, white, yellow and red. However, some people may choose to incorporate other colours for a unique look.

Black velvet material is used to cover the headband. After covering the band, Sandra will slowly stitch the bead ‘belt’ on to the velvet cover. The sewing has to be slow and steady to ensure that the headgear is properly made. Any loose stitching will cause the beads to slip and it will not be smooth. Great care is taken to assemble the headpiece in order to showcase the beautiful Kenyah craftsmanship.

Sandra makes bands of beads with circumferences of 20, 21 or 22 inches. The readymade headdresses on the shelves in her shop are 21 inches, an indication of the norm. Some ladies with smaller heads take 19 inches, and on the other end, some need 23 inches. Every time she prepares a headdress, she will have to measure the head very carefully otherwise it will not rest on the head gracefully. So her customers have to go to her shop to have their headdress specially measured and made, and a Kenyah woman generally has one that will last her a lifetime.

This article first appeared in the January-March 2017 issue of Borneo Insider’s Guide magazine.


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