Dreamweaving with the Iban

For centuries the Iban people of Malaysia have literally woven their dreams into beautiful cloth.

Christina Garton Dec 19 - 3 min read

Dreamweaving with the Iban  Primary Image

Pua Kumbu featuring a crocodile motif. To protect the weaver, human figures are also woven into the cloth as food for the crocodiles. Photo Credit: Courtesy of the collection of Jan Dees and René van der Star.

Have you ever had inspiration come to you in a dream? What about textile inspiration? Perhaps a design or color combination that you'd not thought of before. For the Iban weavers of Sarawak, Malaysia, they literally weave their dreams into their cloth.

What do we mean by that? The Iban weavers create cloth with beautiful designs that reflect the content of their dreams. Known as Pua Kumbu weaving, only positive dreams are woven and if a weaver has the same dream three times they are obligated to weave that dream. The designs are created using warp ikat done traditionally on silk (although cotton is becoming more cotton) using natural, local dyes harvested from the rainforest.


18th century Pua Kumbu. Photo Credit: Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Each warp is carefully prepared using traditional techniques and following steps handed down from weaver to weaver. The different design motifs and meanings are also passed down from weaver to weaver, the combination of designs is what creates the dream stories in the cloth. Images one might find in the Pua Kumbu cloth include hornbill, water serpents, and plants. Once the warp is prepared and the design is set, the weaving takes place on a backstrap loom in the Rumah Garie longhouse.

The Pua Kumbu cloth is very important to the Iban, and used in many ceremonies to mark important life events in the community including for births, marriages, and funerals. To protect this knowledge, Malaysian architect and designer Edrick Ong founded the Society Atelier Sarawak to protect and encourage this weaving tradition. Ong works with the weavers to incorporate their cloth and textiles into high fashion and to bring their cloth to those outside Malaysia, including the Santa Fe International Folk Art Market. All this work has paid off as the Pua Kumbu weavers have won a Seal of Excellence from UNESCO for their outsanding craftsmanship in their traditional techniques.

—Christina Garton