Textile Society of America


Date of this Version



Textiles as Cultural Expressions: Proceedings of the 11th Biennial Symposium of the Textile Society of America, September 24–27, 2008, Honolulu, Hawaii


Copyright 2008 by the author.


Historians emphasize the diversity and fluidity of Malay world identity and culture, questioning the very meaning of “Malayness.” A summary glance at early twentieth century examples of metallic thread needlework reveals the “mixed and many” Malay embroidery styles. While these styles have been associated with different regions, the relationships between them have not been examined closely. This paper assesses examples of late 19th and early 20th century embroideries from four regions in the Malay peninsula. Although not comprehensive, it highlights two particular features of peninsular Malay embroideries – the use of glass and the ways in which plant forms are crystallized – as flexible means through which embroiderers and their patrons articulated a broader shared history alongside local interpretations.

Historical context

The Malay peninsula, a claimant to Ptolemy’s appellation of the Golden Chersonese, represents only a fraction of the Malay world. Malay populations lived in riverine settlements and coastal trading hubs of island Southeast Asia. Waterways were arteries of commerce, with the Straits of Melaka connecting Palembang in Sumatra and Melaka on the Malay peninsula, two areas that remain key reference points for Malay culture and identity.

In traditional Malay polities, lineage (particularly the connection to a Melaka-Palembang ancestry) played a crucial role in supporting prestige and claims to legitimacy. Incorporating royal genealogies, later Malay court chronicles took pains to emphasize rulers’ “link to a continuum of Malay history.” At the same time, given the existence of competing lines of descent, pressure from non-Malay rivals, and tensions within the courts themselves, Malay rulers constantly negotiated the changing balance of power through the allegiances they formed.

The shifting nature of political and marital alliances across regional courts makes it difficult to decipher the precise relationships between the variations in regional embroidery styles and the patterns of political patronage. On the other hand, the widespread nature of certain types of embroidery as ceremonial furnishing and their common characteristics speak of a shared embroidery history and provides a visible manifestation of cultural ties when Malay identities were fluid and local.