Keringkam, The Glittering Crown

Keringkam, The Glittering Crown of Sarawakian Malay Women

Keringkam – shawls and veils made from rubia gauze fabric, fully embroidered with golden or silver coloured course threads – is the elegant traditional headscarf synonymous with Sarawakian Malay women.

With unique designs and motifs which have interesting names such as ‘chicken feet’, mountain, irrigation canals, scissor lace, beans, creeping plants, flowers, orchids and geometric patterns such as crowns, keringkams have also become precious heirlooms for many Sarawakian Malay families that have managed to pass on these treasures from one generation to another.


The keringkam is considered a family heirloom and is worn across generations. For example, in this photo, this selendang keringkam was first worn by a family member in 1967 at her wedding (left pic.) and 51 years later, the same exact keringkam was worn by her niece at her wedding in 2018 (right pic.). (Photos by: Rossalynn Ismail)
Interestingly, the word keringkam is not found in the Malay dictionary. In the 2006 The Sarawakiana Series: Malay Culture journal on keringkam, it is believed that the word keringkam is phonetically derived from the French word clinquat which means “glittering, decked with gold”. Another possibility is that keringkam is a combination of two words, namely Keling and Kam. Keling is a reference to Southern Indian merchants who brought the gold threads to trade in Sarawak. Kam may be taken from the ancient Cambodian language which means “types of fabrics”, or it might also have its roots from the Thai word Kham meaning “gold or anything that is beautiful”. Why kelingkam to keringkam? Well, a popular belief is that the change from “l” to “r” is heavily influenced by the Sarawakian Malay dialect that stresses strongly on the pronunciation of the consonant “r”.

There are two types of keringkam: a Selayah (veil) and a Selendang (shawl). A selayah that measures about 55cm wide and 95cm long covers the head right to the shoulder, while a 77cm wide and 156cm long selendang is worn right to the waist level of the wearer. Keringkams are primarily worn by the Malay women during the akad nikah (wedding solemnisation) ceremony, wedding receptions, engagement ceremonies, official functions, and ceremonial visits. Keringkams can also be seen worn by dancers in cultural performances and even at funerals, as the keringkam is usually placed to cover the head of the deceased.

A Selayah keringkam, usually worn by Sarawakian Malay brides during the akad nikah (wedding solemnisation) ceremony. (Photo by: Rossalynn Ismail)

 

A Selendang keringkam. In this photo, it is worn as a head covering during a wedding reception. (Photo by: Rossalynn Ismail)
Keringkam embroidery is an extremely intricate and meticulous process. Believe it or not, the technique of keringkam embroidery is a mathematical one – the embroiderer will calculate the strands on the fabric to determine the size of a chosen motif, which will then be repeated to ensure all motifs are identical. All keringkams are handstitched on a pemidang (a rectangular-shaped table-like frame for the embroiderer to work on) with essential tools such as the lace spindles, silver or bronze flat needles, a pair of scissors and the star of keringkam – the gold threads. A simple piece can take two to three months to complete and the custom-made ones, that cater to the wishes of the wearer to have more motifs sewn in, will take even longer. As the scarves are embroidered with gold threads priced at RM150 a spool, a piece of keringkam can cost several thousand Ringgit, depending on its size and how heavily embroidered it is.

A keringkam embroiderer working hard on her pemidang. (Photo by: Sarawak Tourism Board)
An array of exquisitely-embroidered keringkams, showcasing the maker’s aritistry at its best. (Photo by: Sarawak Tourism Board)
Ranee Margaret Brooke, the wife of the second White Rajah of Sarawak Charles Vyner Brooke who integrated herself with the locals and their culture, fell in love with the style of dress of the Sarawakian Malay women, as she wrote in her memoir My Life in Sarawak published in 1913 – “I thoroughly enjoyed putting on the costume, so comfortable it was, the discarding of my stays, too, those mid-Victorian horrors of steel and whalebone worn by fashionable females of that era. In my cool garb, I felt free, untrammelled, and (greatest of all charms in my eyes) quite Malay!”.

During a webinar sharing on keringkam and songket by Kraftangan Malaysia Development Corporation (Sarawak Branch), it was revealed that not only Ranee Margaret, but almost all of the Brookes embraced the lifestyle, culture and tradition of the Sarawakian Malays. Their appreciation and love for the local fashion was apparent when Ranee Margaret’s daughter-in-law Dayang Muda Gladys Brooke wore full Sarawakian Malay attire (with both keringkam and songket) during a visit to the Vatican City with her husband Tuan Muda Bertram Brooke in 1946.

The first Ranee of Sarawak, Ranee Margaret Brooke (2nd from right) wearing a full Sarawakian Malay attire with both keringkam and songket, pictured with Lady Maxwell (1st from right), Dayang Sahada (1st from left), Dayang Lehut (2nd from left) with two unidentified ladies-in-waiting circa 1880s. (Photo by: Ranee of Sarawak Museum)
Dayang Muda Gladys Brooke, wife of Tuan Muda Bertram Brooke, posing in her full Sarawakian Malay attire. This photo is one of the many images you can find in her memoir Relations and Complications. Being a Recollection of H.H. The Dayang Muda of Sarawak, published in 1929. (Photo by: Foldari Books)
Ranee Margaret’s affection for keringkam was further shown when she wore the traditional shawl for her official portrait and frequently invited local Malay embroidery craftsman from the nearby kampungs (villages) along the Sarawak River to the Astana (the Brooke’s residence) to produce their crafts and also teach more women to learn to make keringkam. One of them is Ros Alan from Kampung Sinjan who became one of the royal embroiderers to the Brookes in the 1880s.

The artisan and the art – An intricately handstitched selendang keringkam with double-crowns, made by Ros Alan (top pic, seated left), one of the royal embroiderers to the Brookes, with the assistance of Hjh Dayang Rafeah binti Perseh who later added the Bunga Tabur Bintang (little star-like) motifs. This keringkam is custom-made for Hjh. Dayang’s eldest grand-daughter’s wedding in 1967 and it took two years to be completed. (Photo by: Hjh. Napsiah Hj. Nahari (top) and Rossalynn Ismail (below))
Today, keringkam is not only limited to veils and shawls, but its use has also diversified and been incorporated into accessories and apparels such as handbags, ladies shoes, wall frame decorations, blouse sleeves and a host of others. Keringkam embroiderers are also entrepreneurs, establishing their own brands to cater to an increasing demand for keringkam and paving the way for a deeper appreciation to the Sarawakian Malay heritage.

For centuries, keringkam has stood the test of time, being the “crown” of elegance and beauty of Sarawakian Malay women. It is not just a head covering, it is a symbol of social status, culture, history, traditions, religion, heritage and more. Thus, the art of keringkam and the skills of keringkam-making must be preserved, expanded and promoted among the youth of today. With a class of its own, it is possible for the keringkam of Sarawak to be elevated to an international level. Who knows, one day we may be able to see keringkam being paraded on the fashion runways of New York and Paris!