By Alan Teh Leam Seng – February 27, 2019 @ 8:00am
“NOOR Arfa Craft Complex is nearby. Let’s make a quick detour, visit the place and head off to the airport after that,” my friend suggests the moment we finished our nasi dagang meal at Bukit Besar, a sizeable suburb south of Kuala Terengganu.
I nod happily. My three day visit to the capital of the east coast state of Terengganu has been nothing short of amazing. The place is overflowing with so much history and culture. I’ll never forget the many scenic spots that include tranquil dreamy beaches and cascading waterfalls that appear out of nowhere in the middle of a lush tropical rainforest.
The opportunity to visit Terengganu’s premier traditional craft centre would be a fitting finale to my trip.
The Noor Arfa brand, I duly learn, was established some 40 years ago when its owners, Wan Mohd Ariffin Wan Long and his wife, Noor Hijerah Hanafiah began toying around with a revolutionary batik production technique.
It all started when Wan Mohd Ariffin was going through the rigours of learning the finer points of making batik canting (hand drawn batik).
At that time, this technique was unpopular as it was time consuming and laborious. As such, most batik makers resorted to the time-tested method of using copper blocks to print repetitive designs on white cotton cloth.
Due to his inexperience, Wan Mohd Ariffin’s work didn’t come up to much and people hardly took any notice of them. His big break came when his wife’s application to become a teacher was rejected.
With no other options at hand, Noor Hijerah decided to throw caution to the wind and help her husband bring batik canting to the fore in Terengganu.
Naturally endowed with artistic skills, Noor Hijerah managed to master batik canting within a short period of time. Noticing her gift, Wan Mohd Ariffin decided to give his wife full rein of the production process and started training his sights on balancing the books.
The couple started off by making batik caftan, a variant of the robe or tunic that was primarily worn in the Middle East. They faced a dilemma when it came to marketing their product. Not many knew about batik canting and the response was lukewarm, at best. To make matters worse, other batik makers criticised their work, saying that their batik canting was crude and wouldn’t appeal to anyone.
Fortunately, the couple stayed their ground and refused to throw in the towel. Some time later, they got wind of a newly-opened batik boutique in Kuala Terengganu which was a subsidiary of the state government. After much persuasion, Wan Mohd Ariffin managed to get his product on the shelves.
Exposed to a wider audience, the couple’s batik caftan drew the attention of government officials as well as members of the royal family who valued the product for its uniqueness and exclusivity. Demand began to pick up and that made the other batik makers sit up and take notice.
Suddenly, everyone was interested to learn batik canting from the husband and wife team. The technique had finally taken Terengganu by storm.
Wan Mohd Ariffin and Noor Hijerah didn’t rest on their laurels. Instead, they expanded their business and made certain that their pioneering efforts brought the batik industry to greater heights. Today, Noor Arfa Craft Complex is the culmination of their years of hard work and sacrifice.
My friend’s story arouses my interest. I can’t wait to see the exquisite pieces that has revolutionised the way batik is made in Terengganu. Excited, I find myself impatiently willing the car to go faster, even at stretches where traffic is rather heavy.
FLOATING MOSQUE DETOUR
Along the way, our short drive to the Chendering Industrial Estate unexpectedly turns into a mini sightseeing tour. Just before crossing Sungai Ibai, we stop briefly at the imposing Tengku Tengah Zaharah Mosque.
Known also as the Floating Mosque as it sits on the Kuala Ibai Lagoon, this majestic structure is a true feat of engineering. Unable to resist its beauty, we spend more than a few minutes marvelling at its Moorish architecture which incorporates the use of marble, ceramics, mosaic works and bomanite paving.
The Noor Arfa Craft Complex was built in 2008.
Noor Arfa Craft Complex is a quick four minute drive from the Floating Mosque. Built in 2008 to showcase the richness of Terengganu batik craftsmanship, this place has since grown to become a one stop centre dedicated to the advancement of the local handicraft industry and doubles as a training centre for budding artisans.
We head to the demonstration centre, which is located at a side annex near the main building. At the entrance, we meet with Muhammad Afif Fauzizs who graciously volunteers to take us through the rigours of batik canting.
BATIK CANTING EXPERT
After introducing the basic materials and equipment on his work station, Muhammad Afif starts by sketching designs on a piece of white cotton cloth with a pencil.
The artisan draws inspiration from a variety of sources for his outlines. Among his favourites are the local flora and fauna as well as abstract art.
Once complete, he traces the pencil lines with a canting filled with molten wax. He cautions that the wax is very hot and must be handled with care.
We watch in silence as he meticulously makes certain that there are no gaps in the wax outline. This is to ensure that the dye remains within its dedicated space when applied later with a Chinese paint brush.
Quizzed on his choice of brush, Muhammad Afif reveals that it all boils down to personal preference. Over the years, he has come to favour the ones used for Chinese calligraphy as they give him better control and the brushes’ pointed tips allow him to reach narrow spaces easily.
He stresses that choice of colours used and their application on the cloth are of utmost importance.
“Good colour combination will result in an outstanding piece,” he says, while waiting for the colours on the cloth to dry.
Soda ash or sodium silicate is applied on the entire cloth surface when it’s completely dry. The chemical acts as a fixer that maintains colour durability and stops it from fading quickly. Once the soda ash has completely permeated through the cotton fibres, the cloth is placed in a pot of boiling water to remove the remaining wax.
VIBRANT COLOURS, CAPTIVATING DESIGNS
Moving on, we follow Muhammad Afif to a drying area to bring in several pieces that had been completed the day before.
The finished batik pieces are stunning, with colours so vibrant and design, captivating. Batik canting pieces are truly in a class of their own when compared to the repetitive block printed patterns. These desirable attributes have gone a long way in helping batik canting win the adoration of countless local and foreign batik lovers.
As we thank our host for a most informative demonstration, we overhear the distinct sound of someone working on a handloom.
Noticing our curiosity, Muhammad Afif guides us over to the opposite end of the hall. Before taking his leave, he introduces us to his colleague, Zahara Zakaria who has been weaving songket for the past three years.
Songket is a fabric that belongs to the brocade family of textiles commonly worn by Malays during major festivals and important gatherings.
It’s hand-woven in silk or cotton, and intricately patterned with gold or silver threads. The metallic threads stand out against the background and that creates a unique shimmering effect.
According to Zahara, traditional songket weaving involves several complex steps. It all starts with the dyeing of the threads in the desired colours. Once completed, the coloured threads are spooled onto small bamboo bobbins that go inside the weft shuttle of the loom.
Then, the threads are loaded onto the appropriate shafts and heddles in the loom. During the weaving process, the shafts and heddles lift the threads according to the pre-determined design. Only a certain number of treads are lifted at any one time.
SKILLED SONGKET WEAVER
The shafts are vertical strings connected to a pattern controller that sits on top of the loom.
As the process goes on, weft thread is passed in between the lifted and unlifted threads. In the hands of a master weaver like Zahara, this is done at almost lightning speed. The process continues until the desired fabric length is achieved.
Although the process may appear simple, Zahara cautions that accuracy is of the utmost importance.
“Even the smallest mistake can be glaringly obvious as it’s the nature of the songket cloth to highlight every thread woven on it,” she explains before explaining that weavers are known to unravel days of backbreaking work just to correct a minor mistake.
Apparently, the unravelling process is twice as hard as weaving itself and that speaks volumes of the dedication and discipline portrayed by those who are serious in this traditional craft.
Zahara pays undivided attention to her work and ensures that each songket piece she produces is perfect in every sense of the word.
“Time to make a move or else you’ll be late for your flight, whispers my friend while gesturing towards the exit.
Nodding my head,I start tracing his steps as he strides across the hall. Along the way, the sight of an elderly lady weaving baskets with strips of coloured pine straws stops me in my tracks. The opportunity to see her in action is too good to pass up.
Kuntum Sulung is one of the most senior basket weavers at the Noor Arfa Craft Complex. Known affectionately as Mok Teh by her younger colleagues, she smiles widely upon noticing my approach.
Working all alone in a quiet corner, Mok Teh is a picture of calm and serenity. She looks just like any other east coast woman in the past who spent most of their time weaving at home during the rainy season.
Back then, having weaving skills was one of the prerequisite skills required of a woman before she’s even considered worthy of betrothal.
Speaking fluent Malay with a distinctive Terengganu slang, Mok Teh explains that most of the raw ingredients that she uses are obtained from screw pine groves growing in the secondary forests and mangrove swamps found along the coastal region. When out collecting the leaves, she also looks out for the edible fruits that are delicious when eaten raw or cooked.
The freshly collected leaves are heated over hot coals to make them more pliable. After that, a sharp knife is used to strip the leaves of their sharp thorns and tough mid rib. Both the upper and lower parts are removed so that all the leaves have a uniform length.
After that, the leaves are soaked in fabric dye for about 20 minutes before they’re taken out and left to dry. Among the commonly used colours are purple, navy blue and green.
The traditional method of weaving always starts with the base which can come in a variety of shapes depending on the type of basket the weaver intends to make. Then, the weaver would position the static parts or spokes before gradually filling in the sides. It takes Mok Teh up to two days to finish a sizeable basket, complete with cover and side handles.
“What took you so long?” my friend asks exasperatedly when I finally turn up at the car park. Sheepishly, I apologise profusely for the unintended delay and start regaling him with tales of my chance encounter with Mok Teh.
During the journey to Sultan Mahmud Airport, I make a mental note to return again whenever the next opportunity presents itself. There are still many unexplored parts that I’d like to see and judging from the wonderful experience that I had just now, Noor Arfa Craft Complex definitely deserves a second visit.