Sarawak is a land of rich natural resources. Its indigenous people make a living out of their natural surroundings. Daily activities are always a rotation among farming, hunting, fishing and gathering which demand them to utilise everything that nature provides for their convenience. The abundant weaving materials like rattan, bamboo, nipah leaves, pandanus palms and bemban reed have been creatively untilised in producing useful items like baskets, hats and mats. Some of these items have significant functions and meanings in their ritual ceremonies.
Baskets are primarily tools; either as a carrier and some form of a container. Interestingly, different types of baskets are made for every different function. There is a specific basket for planting, for harvesting, for storing and for winnowing the padi, besides those required for collecting bamboo shoots and edible ferns, for fishing and for keeping personal belongings. Likewise, suitable hats are made for farmers as head protection from the sun and rain. Mats are made not only for sleeping but also serve a purpose for drying padi in the sun, for catching the winnowed rice and also extensively used for their farming festivals and rituals ceremony.
Weaving and plaiting baskets isn't just for convenience. In the Iban community for example, the ability to plait fine baskets would enhance the standing of a woman within the community. This artistic culture is also enriched by the existence of numerous ethnic groups in Sarawak. The baskets and other plaited items are made in their own design and technique that represents the ethnic identity
The nomadic Penan are well known for producing the finest rattan sleeping mats and baskets which are closely plaited, soft and pliable. These are decorated in a cream or light colour with dark brown or black design of hornbills, spiders and florals motives. The most famous Penan basket is called ajat; made of finely split rattan, is cylindrical back pack basket with two shoulder straps.
The ingan basket, cylindrical in shape, supported by a set of four vertical sticks on the sides serving as legs, slightly flared at the top and made of wide strips of rattan, used for carrying and storage, is a typical Kayan basket. This type of basket is used for carrying goods for long distances and can also be used for storing padi or other personal belongings in the longhouse.
The Bidayuh makes a variety of baskets of different sizes. The most popular is tambok. Like the Kayan ingan, it is also in cylindrical in shape and supported with four vertical sticks. The Bidayuh carry their jungle produce to the market in this type of basket on their back, with a bark-cloth head strap over the forehead. Unlike the baskets made by other ethnic groups, the Bidayuh produce their tambok baskets by plaiting with vertical and horizontal strips of rattan, instead of with the diagonal ones as practised by the other groups.
Chantong is another type of basket made by the Bidayuh that is worth mentioning. It is finely plaited and superimposed with bark or skin and covered with a drum-like cover. Shaped like the Kayan ingan, it is used for storing personal belongings. Formerly when headhunting was prevalent, new heads were stored in this type of basket and hung up in the headhouse.
The coastal Melanau produce a wide range of baskets from the popularly known round topped Rejang basket to the modern purses and handbags, decorated with a combination of traditional designs in natural, black and red colours. These baskets are either made of thinly split rattan strips or strips of bemban.
This ethnic group is also famous for its traditional hat called terendak. They are large, somewhat conical in shape, made mostly of the swamp nipah leaves, decorated with long bamboo strips or nipah veins, radiating from the top centre of the hat and dyes in black and red. Rattan strips are sewn on the rim of the hat to strengthen it.
Among the outstanding baskets made by the Iban are the seed baskets ( raga). They are small, about 10" high, with a white band of wood around the top, and four-cornered bottom without stick support. They are very finely plaited and often decorated with symbols depicting the rituals of padi farming. These baskets are worn over one's shoulder or fastened at the waist so that the padi seeds can be conveniently taken out for planting.
The Kelabit produce a variety of baskets for carrying and storing padi. These usually large baskets, cylindrical, in shape like a cone and supported by a number of vertical sticks on the side, are generally decorated with horizontal bands of design related to padi growing.
Wide varieties of baskets, hats and mats are available in the Museum Shoppe for perfect souvenirs and collection of the indigenous plaiting arts of Sarawak.