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Metallic thread embroidery is a historically significant form of textile decoration in the Malay peninsula, Ptolemy’s “Golden Khersonese” of ancient times. Pillow ends, cushion covers, food covers and decorative hangings elaborately embroidered with gold- and silver-wrapped thread were conspicuously displayed at court and at weddings as symbols of rank and wealth. Undertaken by noblewomen, metallic thread embroidery was a point of pride and skillfully crafted items were presented as gifts to foreign royalty. Although no longer as visible, metallic thread embroidery has nevertheless retained a place in ceremony as part of Malay adat or custom and is now valued as an element of Malaysia’s artistic heritage.
Despite this, the history of metallic thread embroidery in Malaysia is a relatively neglected field of study and its rich diversity has not yet been fully explored. Drawing on examples in private and public collections in Malaysia, including a few rare dated works, this paper discusses the range of embroidery techniques and styles found in peninsula Malaysia, relating them to the character of regional courts and expression of regional identities. Within the Malay-speaking world, the variety of embroidery styles and the adoption and transformations of imported motifs tell of the intersecting relationships amongst the local polities and their engagements with colonisers and trading partners in a period of intensifying commercial activity. By interrogating the vocabulary of embroidery, this presentation provides a visual narrative of the exchanges and engagements with power and difference in the Malay-speaking world of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.