Beads of hard work

Traditional attires available at Faridah Lit's handicraft shop.

Orang Ulu crafter Faridah Lit started working with beads when she was a teenager. The pastime quickly turned into a serious business, and has been going strong for the past four decades. Today, she supplies bead products to local craft stores and outsources beading works to housewives in the community to help them earn.

Different patterns for different classes

It has been 40 years since Faridah Lit first tried her hand at bead works — the traditional craft of the Orang Ulu tribe. With heritage deeply rooted in the community, Faridah spent most of her childhood watching her aunt weaved beads as it was part of their identity.

“Every time I came home from school, I would watch my aunt weave beads together. Like many other Orang Ulu crafters, we started from watching the old folk and the interest would gradually grow on us,” she said.

Faridah Lit showcasing her crafts.

Descended from a Kenyah lineage, Faridah recalled the days when she was a teenager, she would be amazed watching her aunt working, starting from a single bead up until it became the finished product. “She knows how to create many crafts using beads, and I would admire the finished products. Her artwork were all beautiful. In the end, I learned to do them myself.”

At 15, Faridah started to weave beads to form simple necklaces. Then she would sell them to handicraft shops around the neighbourhood to earn pocket money. Hailing from Long Bangan, Belaga, the 54-year-old revealed that her parents were farmers who did not earn much.

“By making and selling the necklaces, I would earn money for school and also some pocket money to spend.” She still kept the business until today, albeit on a slightly bigger scale. The crafter could weave necklaces, hats, table mats, traditional attires and others — then she would sell them to handicraft shops.

Aside from that, Faridah said she would also promote her products at functions and events such as the Pesta Benak, Regatta, Pesta Redeem and others. But due to limitations over the current pandemic, she had to open up a small stall in 10th Mile, Kuching to earn an income.

As a supplier for many craft shops in Sarawak, she would also outsource beading jobs to housewives in the community. “I would teach them how to do it, and they would weave for me.

This way, they could generate an income too.”

Meanwhile, the small business owner hopes that the state government could help local crafters, mainly in providing business capitals. “Handcrafting is one of the main traditional sources of the Orang Ulu community to make a living. Hence, providing a business capital can help in many ways.”

As the handicrafts — not only from the Orang Ulu tribe but from the different tribes in Sarawak — symbolises the identity of Sarawak, Faridah feels that it is also vital for the state government to help promote awareness of the handicrafts.

Faridah Lit showcasing her crafts.

She believes that it is important for the younger generations to learn the art of traditional crafts. “It is essential for them to know how to make them as we are not getting any younger. In the face of modernisation, they are only a handful who mastered the art. One day, the elders will be gone, and unless the young ones learn to make them, the craft will cease to exist.”

As a mother, Faridah also taught her daughter to weave beads. “She knows how to do beading work, however, due to time constraint of having a full-time job, she would only have time to help me weave earrings.”

Asked whether the patterns she weaved onto the table mats and traditional attire held any meanings, Faridah answered that in the Orang Ulu tribe, especially back at home, they still practised a hierarchy system within the community.

“The ones with just the head of a human can be used by the middle-class family. Designs with the head and a full body can only be used by those in the upper classes, especially descendents of the head hunters,” she disclosed.

Designs with the head and a full body can only be used by those in the upper classes, especially descendants of the head hunters.

Meanwhile, the pattern that consists of a human body accompanied by a tiger and a hornbill at the side is only reserved for families at the top of the hierarchy, descendents of noblemen and leaders. “Those in the lower-classes will only wear flower patterns,” she said. According to Faridah, those who dare to use patterns that is not befitting to their class will become the talk of the village.

Faridah showcasing a table mat with flower patterns, a symbol that only the lower-class families could use.
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