A new exhibition, presented by Queen Azizah of Malaysia, has opened during the London Craft Week at the Malaysian High Commission on London’s Belgrave Square. The exhibit runs until May 15.
Titled “Tenun Pahang: Weaving Hope,” the exhibition shines a light on the centuries-old traditional Malaysian woven silk fabric called Tenun Pahang Diraja, or Royal Pahang Weave in English.
What’s special about the exhibition is that all the fabrics on display were made by weavers in prisons who acquired the skill via an integrated human development program, which uses the transfer of specialist weaving skills as rehabilitation and employment.
A traditional wooden loom and a weaver at work are also on display, alongside a collection of historic fabrics and garments provided by the Museum of Pahang, and the queen’s own garments.
A craftmanship unique to Pekan, the royal seat of the largest state in the Malaysian peninsular Pahang Sultanate, Tenun Pahang Diraja was at risk of dying out until it was rescued by Queen Azizah almost two decades ago.
Under her leadership, the number of certified weavers has grown from 12 in 2005 to 332 today, over half of whom are male inmates of the prisons of Penor and Bentong in Pahang.
A total of 14,591 inmates have been successfully trained under the program to obtain the skill and some of them have established their own workshops or are working in the weaving industry.
Speaking to WWD during the opening preview, Queen Azizah, who accessorized her regal pink ensemble made of Tenun Pahang Diraja with a necklace and a bracelet made of giant pearls, a yellow diamond brooch, and a pair of beige Salvatore Ferragamo bow heels, said the thinking behind the program was to better utilize the time prison inmates would spend by guiding them to learn the process of silk weaving and eventually produce more fabrics that could supply a growing demand. In return, they would be paid for the textiles produced.
The queen has also founded the company Cheminahsayang, which continues to offer released inmates the opportunity to continue weaving upon release.
She revealed that she first learned about the imperiled state of Tenun Pahang when she was looking to sort out her outfits during her tour to promote her cookbook.
“When I married my husband 26 years ago, I was busy trying to have babies for 10 years. I didn’t do anything during that time. I really wanted to have a baby. That was my priority in life. I stopped playing golf, and badminton. I stopped everything. Because they said: ‘Oh you cannot do this. You can never get a baby.’
“After I had the baby, I wanted to launch my cookbook, and we decided we were going to wear Tenun. At the time I thought: ‘Isn’t it dead already?’ They said: ‘No. There is one old lady who does it. But she doesn’t teach anyone, because she said: ‘It’s my family’s secret, and it’s OK that it dies with me,'” Queen Azizah recalled.
Determined to preserve this tradition, she and her team later spoke to all the remaining weavers one by one and eventually put together a bilingual curriculum for all to learn how to make Tenun Pahang, from nailing the terminology to how to boil the thread to color the fabric. She later gave the technique a royal rebrand, to elevate its status.
“During this round, somebody told me that inmates are weaving in prisons. So the first thing I did was that I called them and said: ‘I want to go to prison. I want to see what they’re doing,'” she said: “There were two looms, sharing a room with all other projects at the back with guys who are teaching how to do foot massages. Now we have taken over four rooms for our weavers.
“The best part is that the wardens are the ones who are teaching there. And from there we’ve come this far, from just doing the vertical pattern or horizontal line and placing the plaids, to including little gold motifs, which is a unique feature of Tenun Pahang. Because it’s small, you can wear Tenun Pahang for both formal and informal functions,” she added.
The queen credited her husband, King Abdullah, as the driving force behind her continuous devotion.
“He told me that he doesn’t want to see the weaving this year and gone by the next. He encouraged me and gave me all the support to do this for the state,” she said.
“We cannot let this die. This is our pride and the only thing we have and we must show it to the world. As the Queen, it’s my duty to give them hope to accept them into society. I want the world to know that the best and finest quality and the most beautiful design of Tenun Pahang comes from the prison, and I hope more international designers can use Tenun Pahang in their design.
“We are getting bigger and bigger and the best is yet to come. I hope this will continue as a legacy. I want it to go on for another 1,000 years, before the end of the world,” she added.
Judith Clark, curator of the exhibition, told WWD that the show marks the first time London Craft Week has introduced the idea of international pavilions. The other international participant this year is Norway. Reflecting that, the space of the exhibition takes cues from the structure of a pavilion, as well as the shape of a loom.
“We wanted it to feel evocative of the fabric that was coming from the loom, and also create a kind of calm around the loom, such that the rhythm of it would be the song and that you would also be able to really focus on the incredible textiles,” she said.
“What was incredible for me was to come into a passion project, but also with so much drive that she’s [the queen] really driving something which she feels is saving a tradition where there were very few weavers who were capable of creating such intricate textiles. And there’s a kind of accumulative patterning that is filled with motifs that are incredibly evocative and traditional, that the prison inmates are reinterpreting so it’s not like continuing one tradition and it remains static. It’s a tradition that they are adding to in a creative way,” she added.