First published in Going Places Magazine, June 2019.
Unravel the tradition of gold embroidery at Kuala Kangsar.
Each time the artist runs the needle through the velvet, she delicately smooths the gold thread at a precise angle. She traces the intricate floral patterns using a cardboard template and hand-held spool. Silky and shiny, every strand must be carefully woven; even the slightest slip can be noticeable. The gold embroidery, or tekat emas, must be perfect if it is to be presented to royalty.
Tekat emas is an unusual skill to master, even among embroiderers. In Malaysia, this craft is a cultural heritage unique to Kuala Kangsar. It is a glistening artistic representation of the Malay identity.
A Family of Embroiderers
Mardziah binti Abu Kassin, 50, comes from a long line of embroiderers in the royal town of Perak. “The skill was passed down to me by my mother. I didn’t learn formally, but after a long time of observing her, I was able to do it too. I was about 18 years old when I started learning,” she says.
She admits that as a child, she did not share the same enthusiasm as her family. Mardziah used to sell handicrafts that were made in Perak, such as labu sayong, cushions, and betel leaf holders.
Noticing that many customers were asking about the gold-thread embroidery, she decided to give it a try. The first item she made on her own was a decorative tekat art that can be framed on the wall. From there, her passion grew.
Mardziah is the eighth child in a family of nine children. Two of her older sisters are also skilled in tekat emas, but she is the only one who chose to do it full time. They inherited their abilities from their mother, Azizah binti Mohamad Yusof, a living heritage and embroidery teacher in Kuala Kangsar.
“I managed to learn from my grandmother too. She passed away at 100 years old. I picked up many techniques from her,” she adds.
As it seems, this craft is predominantly mastered by women, at least in Malaysia. Traditionally, it would be passed down within the family, from one generation to the next. In countries like Saudi Arabia, it is usually practised by male embroiderers.
There are also significant differences in the aesthetic designs.
In Saudi Arabia, they often sew Arabic phrases from the Quran. In Acheh, Indonesia, they do crescent moon designs but embellish them with floral patterns. In Malaysia, we have floral motifs, fauna motifs and geometric motifs.– Puan Mardziah
Her own customers tend to request floral patterns, such as the chrysanthemum, bougainvillea, cempaka and paddy.
Threaded with Tradition
The history of tekat emas is interwoven with our country’s history of trade. During the 15th century, the embroidery style was introduced to the local community by traders from the Middle East. The beauty and finesse of this craftwork naturally made it sought-after by members of royalty and nobility.
The embroidery would usually be used on ceremonial items for weddings, engagements, births and other important events. Within the royal family, it can be used to decorate clothes and household items, such as curtains, cushions, table cloths, and bedsheets.
Mardziah’s family has been sewing for the royal family of Perak since the 1920s. In 2007, she and 12 other artists had the opportunity to prepare the gold-thread embroidery for the coronation of the 13th King, Tuanku Mizan Zainal Abiden. It took them three months to complete everything entirely by hand.
Beyond our own shores, this traditional art has its fair share of cultural appreciation. Last year, her team was commissioned to make several traditional household items, which are now exhibited at a museum in Busan, Korea.
Although many embroiderers rely on sewing machines to increase production these days, Mardziah still prefers the traditional way of embroidering her masterpieces. First, she stretches the fabric on a wooden loom, before fixing a cardboard cut-out with the desired motifs on it.
Using several needlework techniques, she secures the gold threads onto the fabric, ensuring that the cut-out is completely covered by the threads to give it a finer finish. Complex designs can take Mardziah up to two weeks to complete. Not as easy as it looks!
As is tradition, Mardziah only uses imported materials. According to her, the gold threads in Malaysia do not have the same quality and lustre as the kinds you find in other countries. She gets her thread supply shipped from Germany, while the velvet pieces are brought in from England, Korea and Japan.
“Since many of the items back then were worn by sultans for ceremonial events, the materials had to be imported from abroad,” she explains.
When done with trained hands, an eye for detail, and lots of patience, the resulting embroidery comes out neat and elegant. The gold threads gleam in vivid contrast against the bright fabric, typically fashioned in dark colours like maroon, navy blue or royal purple. When you run your fingers over it, the fine thread work should feel as smooth as silk.
Training the New Generation
Times have changed and tekat emas is no longer reserved for the rich. “Since the 60s, it has become more commercialised. Many people use them during weddings, such as handbags and shoes,” she says.
“In the past, hand-sewn embroidery is for those with higher social ranks, or superiors. Now anyone who can afford it can wear them.”
To Mardziah, this shift opens doors for budding female entrepreneurs. She now owns a small shop in Kuala Kangsar, which has been in operation since 1997. There are 13 artists working for her, six of whom are full-time staff. They can sell small souvenirs for up to RM200 a piece, while wedding packages can cost between RM2,200 to RM6,000, depending on the selected designs.
That is not to say that it is without its challenges. The materials used in tekat emas are expensive and the costs are only ever increasing. She has also had to make adjustments to quicken the process. Rather than carve out the template on her own, she would use a cutter. Mardziah is learning also to use technology to keep up with the evolving digital landscape.
She believes that tekat emas has a fighting chance to survive for several generations. On top of the growing interest among youths, vocational classes are readily available, instead of being restricted to the home.
Back then it was difficult, there was no one to teach. Only the elders knew how. Now many are skilled at tekat. Now there are handicraft classes. There are students.– Puan Mardziah
Mardziah estimates that there are around 30 to 40 tekat embroiderers spread across Kuala Kangsar alone. “Right now we also train tekat students. Many of them have become good at it. Even my children who are still in school know how to do it,” says the mother of six.
Many of her students have gone on to run tekat workshops and start their own businesses.
To raise awareness towards the art, she has started providing demonstrations and workshops to people visiting Kuala Kangsar. They would not have enough time to finish embroidering the whole handicraft within a few hours of course, but this lets them get a taste of tekat and understand the value of this cultural heritage.
She also welcomes students who want to be trained in tekat, as Mardziah believes that this is key to ensuring the survival of the traditional craft.
I hope tekat emas, especially hand-sewn tekat emas, can be preserved so that the craft will not ebb away with time. If more people are trained in it, then the craft will not disappear – it will live.– Puan Mardziah