Pahang has long been known as one of Malaysia’s most conservative states, where the ancient customs and traditions of the local Malays are still vibrantly alive. While this means that Pahang ‘suffers’ from a dearth of hedonistic nightclubs and all night parties, for the more culturally inclined visitor it offers some of the most interesting insights into the country’s fast disappearing arts and crafts traditions.
One of the most fascinating cultural attractions of the state is the Pahang Silk Weaving Centre, located in the quiet Cultural Village at Pulau Keladi, in the royal town of Pekan, located about half an hour away from Pahang’s state capital city of Kuantan.
Malaysia is best known for its batiks and songket, but for true connoisseurs, the Pahang silk is one of the hidden treasures of the country. Unlike the other materials, Pahang silk is entirely handwoven. Also unlike the other materials, Pahang silk has traditionally been used exclusively by the royals – and those of the royal court – for their sumptuous formal attire. It is only in recent years that the general public has become more familiar with Pahang silk, as more socialites and high flying designers start flaunting their Pahang silks.
Silk Weaving at the Cultural Village
As you might expect from a Cultural Village, the four buildings clustered in this compound are built in the traditional local Malay style, all wooden walls, stilts and peaked gables. The buildings comprise of the Tun Abdul Razak Memorial Hall, which is dedicated to the memory of Malaysia’s second Prime Minister, as well as the house where said prime minister was actually born. Incidentally, the Prime Minister was also noted for always wearing Pahang silks to official functions. The compound also includes a reproduction of a traditional Penghulu, or village chief’s house, and of course, the Weaving Centre.
On most days, visitors will see up to thirty weavers at work on individual silk pieces. From preparing the silks to the actual weaving, every step is done by hand and requires not only creativity and patience, but also a surprising amount of strength, dexterity and coordination. Just operating the simple loom is an art in itself! For those who prefer to wander on their own, there are written explanations on the various stages and processes involved in silk weaving, as well as a pictorial depiction of weaving’s history in Pahang. For a better understanding of the whole craft however, there’s no one better to chat with than Siti Hajar Sheikh Othman, the Centre’s trainer.
Silk Weaving & The Pahang Royalty
Pekan’s status as a royal town – i.e., the Pahang royal family live here – and the area’s reputation for fine silks is no coincidence. For centuries, the womenfolk of the villages have made their living by producing silks for the exclusive use of the aristocracy and even today, bluebloods and their close associates are strong patrons of the local silk industry. The silks produced here are sold under the brand name Royal Pahang Textile, or Tenun Pahang Diraja, and the Pahang royal family takes an active interest in the interests of the local weavers.
The Weaving Centre at Pulau Keladi is just the public face of Pahang’s most prestigious cottage industry, as the bulk of the work is still done in the weavers’ homes. As has been done for generations, the weaving is done by the women of four nearby villages – Kampung Sungei Soi in Kuantan, Felda Chini 5 and Pulau Keladi in Pekan, and Kampung Parit Raja in Rompin. Keen-eyed connoisseurs can even tell the difference between fabrics made in difference villages by the style and patterns used. Promoters of Pahang silk dub this area the Royal Silk Road of Pahang, a play on the more famous Silk Road in China.
Buying a length of Pahang silk can be an exercise in extravagance, as a meter of fabric costs from RM 150 a meter, depending on pattern or design. In addition, visitors can also order specially designed patterns of their own from the weavers themselves – a service that does nothing to dispell the ‘exclusive’ nature of Pahang silk! As all the pieces are handmade, the orders can take anywhere from a few days to a few weeks to complete.
Despite the cost however, Pahang silk is fast becoming a popular choice for wedding attire and other formal suits. And for those who aren’t about to spend so much on fabric, a visit to the Cultural Village is still a good way to learn about one of the most traditional arts and crafts industries in Malaysia.