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Sarawak's keringkam weavers keep golden tradition alive

Each delicate headscarf can cost thousands of ringgit, but the care and work that go into making them is priceless.

Nur Shazreena Ali
3 minute read
Ros Salleh, a keringkam weaver from Kampung Darul Islam Belimbing in Puncak Borneo, folds a stack of embroidered headscarves.
Ros Salleh, a keringkam weaver from Kampung Darul Islam Belimbing in Puncak Borneo, folds a stack of embroidered headscarves.

The sun has barely sent its first rays over the horizon but in Puncak Borneo, Sarawak, Ros Salleh is already hard at work.

Sitting in her living room, she carefully counts out a precious handful of gold-plated threads which she uses to embroider a design into the cloth stretched over a wooden frame before her. 

Ros is one of a handful of keringkam weavers in Sarawak, and spends long hours every day working on the traditional Malay headscarves. 

A single piece of keringkam with its intricate embroidery can cost up to tens of thousands of ringgit, although the ones Ros makes are of a more affordable calibre, valued at about RM2,000. 

The price depends on the complexity of the design, the quality of the thread used, and the size of the headscarf. 

"The bigger the size, the higher the price will be," Ros said in a recent interview with MalaysiaNow. 

Originally, keringkam was woven with high quality gold thread which ensured that the colour of the embroidery would last. 

These days, just one skein of gold thread costs RM200.
These days, just one skein of gold thread costs RM200.

A good keringkam can keep its quality for anywhere from 15 to 20 years. But producing one requires extensive skill and a lot of time. 

The scarves that Ros makes take about two months each to complete. 

"It's not easy as it takes a long time and a lot of patience and skills, especially in terms of the embroidery," she said. 

"Each stitch needs to be made very carefully so that the gold-plated thread does not break, and the pattern is neatly arranged. 

"Each strand of thread must also be counted to ensure that the motifs are balanced, otherwise the embroidery will not look good and the quality will drop." 

Like most other keringkam weavers, Ros prefers to use thread imported from Turkey and India which are of better quality. 

Every two months, she makes the 55km trip to Kuching to collect her orders at the Songket and Keringkam Gallery in Jalan Masjid.

Lately, though, deliveries have been slow and Ros has been forced to wait several weeks before new stock arrives. 

And as with most other things, when supply dips, prices rise. 

One roll of high quality gold thread used to cost about RM90. These days, a single reel can cost as much as RM200. 

To make one keringkam requires at least 30 spools of gold thread. 

Esmanani Jawari, a keringkam instructor, said prices were high as the materials needed were not widely available in the country. 

"The thread is not available in Kuching, or in any other part of the country," she said. 

"That is why we have to import it from other countries." 


In the whole of Sarawak, there is only one fabric shop that sells the materials needed for keringkam: Salih Ahmad in India Street. 

There, bundles of gold thread are imported from India and sold to keringkam weavers. 

Shajahan Sayed Ahmad who runs the shop said it had been bringing in the precious commodity for the past seven decades. 

He has noticed little if any disruptions to the delivery of fabric and materials to his shop. For him, the problem is the other way around.

"These past six months, the number of keringkam weavers coming to my shop has been significantly smaller," he said. 

"Even my regular customers, the old weavers, I seldom see anymore."