Clothing and heritage: A Kenyah warrior’s bark-cloth jacket in the Borneo Cultures Museum


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Heritage Snippets of Sarawak

By Valerie Mashman

Fig 1: Kenyah warriors jacket. Nusantara Collection, Sarawak Museum.

KENYAH warriors used to wear bark-cloth jackets during ceremonies related to warrior initiation and headhunting. These jackets have survived the decline of headhunting because Kenyah men and women continue to wear them on special occasions and value them as items of heritage.


The large curved patterns on the border of this jacket (Fig 1) are composed of dragon (aso) motifs, which are indicators of status. These motifs are stencilled by men using a wooden template and the colour is obtained from a reddish natural dye. Even today, people continue to respect these patterns as indications of status. This is because they believe if people who are not eligible, use motifs that proclaim a high status, they will suffer a punishment inflicted from the supernatural world. Such punishment might be a misfortune such as an unexplained accident or an illness.

The white bark-cloth itself comes from a tree called the Ti tree by the Kenyah Lepo’ Ke. Some scientists believed this to be the same as the tree used for extracting poison used in making poisonous darts, ipoh or Antiaris toxicaria. However, there is some uncertainty regarding this as there has been little conclusive research on this subject.

The fibre is usually collected by men who extract the inner layer of bark from a felled tree. The outer layer of bark is first peeled off, revealing the inner layer, which is stripped off in large pieces. It is then beaten with a wooden mallet, which has criss-cross grooves on its surface. This process softens the bark and accentuates gaps in the fibre, which are then strengthened by lateral stitching.

Women work on the final stages of the jacket. The material consists of a soft light whitish bark-cloth cut in the shape of a rectangle, which is then folded over and cut down the middle to create the jacket. The seams are then sewn together at the sides.

To reinforce the fibre of the bark-cloth, it is stitched laterally which also prevents tearing. The jacket is then finished off with a border consisting of a band of diamond motifs embroidered with indigo thread. Additionally, the hem of the jacket is dyed and knotted into tassels to form a deep red fringe.

Archaeologists believe that stone tools with incised grooves found in sites in Borneo were used in making bark-cloth. The earliest examples of these are thought to date back to the first centuries B.C. According to anthropologist Bernard Sellato, Kenyah Lepo’ Ke and Lepo’ Ma’ut elders in the upper Bahau area, recognise such tools found by archaeologists as being similar to those used by their ancestors.

This type of jacket is made by Lepo’ Ke and Lepo Ma’ut Kenyah who live along the Balungan and Bahau Rivers in East Kalimantan. There are very few families left still making this type of jacket using natural dyes. Newer jackets are tinged with the brighter colours of commercial paints and marker pens.

Many Lepo’ Ke migrated into Sarawak during the last century and live at mainly at Long Pulong, near Long Banga, in the upper Baram River area.

The Kenyah and Sa’ban of Long Banga wear this unique jacket on ceremonial occasions. It is an artefact which recalls ties of kinship, trade and migration, which transcend political borders between nation-states.

Fig 2: Kenyah Lepo’ Ke women wearing ceremonial bark cloth jackets They are playing a stringed instrument called the lutong. Long Banga Upper Baram, 2012.

Valerie Mashman is currently an Associate Research Fellow at the Institute of Borneo Studies, Universiti Malaysia Sarawak. Before this, she was a research fellow at the Sarawak Museum. She has published extensively on Borneo cultural objects. She is interested in the oral history, values and social change, indigeneity, and material culture of the indigenous peoples of Borneo.

“Heritage Snippets of Sarawak” is a fortnightly column.

— DayakDaily