I haven't usually had the time to submit to magazines but last year, I was invited to do so.  My thanks to Brenda from the Grand River Bead Society who made the recommendation to A Needle Pulling Thread magazine, a beautiful publication which encompasses many fiber arts.  My article came out in the Fall 2014 issue but I was not able to reprint it until now.

The article isn't about my work but that of the special women in my life.  I have edited and expanded the original article to encompass and explain more of my unique creative cultural heritage.  Note that all the photos submitted to the magazine were taken with just my iPhone 5!

I was born and spent much of my childhood on a tropical island called Pulau Pinang (Penang) in West Malaysia.  The eyebrows of currently snowbound readers are probably shooting upwards as they wonder, "And you left?"

I grew in tropical South East Asia and assumed as a child that everyone was creative. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I realized the women who most influenced my formative years – my maternal grandmother and mother – were extraordinarily talented.

Beaded shoes made by my mother

My family belonged to an unusual fusion cultural population known as the “Peranakan” (“descendants” in the Malay language) or Straits Chinese. We are the descendants of Chinese immigrants who settled in Indonesia and the Malay Peninsula area (now known as West Malaysia and Singapore) probably from about the late 15th to the 19th century. Few women were among those early settlers so a number of the men married local Malay women.

Beaded bag by my mother

The male Peranakan became known as Chinese babas and the women, nonyas or nyonyas. The blending of the founding families led to an extraordinary intermixing of language, customs, cuisines, fashion, architecture, jewelry, home d├ęcor to a harmonized style uniquely their own. Later on, the Peranakan were also influenced by the British who colonized that part of the world until 1957. Indeed the patois spoken at home was a mix of Chinese, English and Malay.

My maternal grandparents in 1948 : Grandmother shown in her nonya kebaya
My grandmother always wore the nonya kebaya as long as I could remember. The kebaya is traditional wear in many parts of South East Asia. It usually consists of a fitted jacket-like blouse and a batik sarong held up with silver filigree belts. A camisole is worn beneath. The nonya kebaya came to being sometime in the late 1930’s.

Embroidered Nonya Kebayas

Before then, the nonya wore simple dark brown cotton print blouses called baju panjang (long dress in Malay) adorned with a set of triple brooches (kerosang) with top knot hairdos to match. But these gave way to starched kebayas made of transparent material, typically voile, of different hues, adorned with intricate machine embroidery.

grandmother in baju panjang
Grandmother in her baju panjang and wearing kerosang jewelry c.1930's

The kerosang also went from the one large and 2 small sets called ibu anak (mother child) to 3 identical brooches chained together.  The triple brooches became “buttons” as the kebayas had no closures.  Check out this fantastic blog post by Melsong where the author and friends got to dress up in authentic nonya clothes and gorgeous jewelry for a heritage celebration.

Most nonya women did not make their own kebayas. The art of nonya kebaya embroidery is a difficult one to master as it takes years to learn. Grandmother was one of those skilled enough to make beautiful kebayas not only for herself but for her clientele. Women in her day were not educated so her craft enabled her to work from home and contribute to the family income. The kebaya is constructed from 5 panels of fabric – the two front halves, back and the sleeves. The panels are usually sewn together before the embroidery begins. Grandmother first traced the pattern on the material which was then stretched taut with an embroidery hoop.

Cutwork embroidery of my grandmother's nonya kebaya

All she had was her single stitch treadle machine. Yet she was able to create amazing patterns with just running and satin stitches. The satin stitches were made by moving the hoop to and fro. To create texture, she would add layers of different colored threads. She often used the cutwork embroidery technique. My grandmother once delighted me with the story of how my mother at age 3 ruined a client kebaya when she climbed up onto the sewing machine and used the embroidery scissors to make holes in the fabric just like my grandmother!

Joining the pieces was also beautifully done with a cutwork stitch called ketuk lubang (“forging holes”). The tiny perforations along the seam lines are so delicately even! Many of my grandmother’s kebayas were given to me after she passed away and are now treasured heirlooms.

Ketuk Lubang : perforated seam embroidery
Growing up, Grandmother had to learn to embroider and do bead work. These were considered necessary skills for young women in her day. Nonya brides were expected to give their new in-laws beaded items like spectacle cases, purses, shoe vamps, pillow or bolster ends, decorative panels and so on.

My grandparents on their wedding day c. 1930
Indeed, nonya women practically bead embroidered everything in sight.  Anything from curtain tie backs to even the pouch that held the marriage certificate as shown in this example which I photographed at the Peranakan Museum in Singapore :

Like many nonya brides, Grandmother embroidered her own wedding slippers called kasut seret (literally translated as “shoe drag”) using a fabric base and metallic threads. But the kasut seret went out of style not long after she got married in 1930.

Grandmother's wedding  slippers 

The kasut manek (“shoe bead”) became much more popular. Fashionable nonyas would make new pairs to match new outfits. The typical shape of both the kasut seret and kasut manek was a rounded closed toe style but open toed and pointed toed versions also came into being.

The beadwork featured 19th century Chinese motifs but gradually western influences crept into the designs. For example, where peonies once dominated, roses now prevailed. Even geometric patterns were included.

The most common bead work technique was the one in which each bead was sewn down on a piece of fabric which had been stretched on a frame. A grid was drawn on the fabric to aid bead placement. Shoe vamps were always worked on in pairs to ensure the pattern remained correct especially if one side was the mirror image of the other.

My mother's completed beaded shoe vamps

This kind of bead work almost died out but has, like the nonya kebaya, seen a revival in recent years. My own mother began to make beaded shoes, bags and pictures after she retired as a teacher. She bought up vintage nonya beads as much as she could! But had to admit using some of the tiny beads from the past was impossible because no one made needles small enough to go through them anymore! Today she uses Japanese seed beads. Instead of having to draw out the grid, she uses appropriately sized aida cloth.

My mother was lucky as there were still artisanal shoemakers around who could give her the vamp templates so she could make vamps for more modern shoe styles. Shown above are shoes, bags and a picture she made for me. Unlike my grandmother, my mother does not sell her work but enjoys the creative process immensely to the delight of many family members who are privileged to receive those gifts.

The Nyonya Kebaya: A Century of Straits Chinese Costume

The Peranakan Chinese Home: Art and Culture in Daily Life

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Original Post by THE BEADING GEM
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