Handicraft amongst the indigenous people of Sabah, Malaysian Borneo originates in their effort to shelter, clothe and feed themselves in the best way they can. They produce a wide range items which are mainly for functional rather than for decorative use. These include household and domestic items, farming and hunting equipment as well as ritual and ceremonial objects. Their handicrafts are traditionally influenced by both environmental resources and culturally determined needs.
There is wide variation between the crafts produced by peoples of different cultures in the various districts of Sabah. For instance, the coastal people relay on sea fishing and their arts and crafts are different from those of the interior indigenous groups which practice hill or wet rice cultivation, forest hunting and river fishing. The differences apply not only to utilitarian implements, but also ritual objects, musical instruments, etc.
The availability of local materials also influence the nature of handicrafts. In the Tambunan District for example, the use of bamboo for making baskets, houses and fencing is very common amongst the Dusun community. Similarly, bitter gourd is widely available in Tambunan and it has help to establish this district as a centre for the production of ‘sompoton’, a mouth musical instrument which is traded throughout the Dusunic groups. Rattan is another durable material widely used by interior communities who have access to forest resources for making hats, baskets, decorative wall hangings and for binding wood and bamboo pieces together. Materials for traditional clothing are also derived from local plants, including bark, cotton or fibers from pineapple, banana or coconut plants.
Men and women traditionally make different types of handcrafts. In the interior, women are largely responsible for hat making, mat and cloth weaving, embroidery, the manufacture of small baskets, winnowing trays and other articles which they use in their daily lives; while men make larger baskets, parang, ploughing and hunting implements, nets and other fishing articles, and weapons. Amongst coastal fishing communities, men construct boats, carve wood, and prepare fishing devices, while women weave and embroider cloth, weave sleeping mats and others.
Formerly, articles were created mainly for domestic usage and their basic designs reflected their functional purpose. Surplus items were sometimes traded at market gatherings for other commodities. In this way, imported trade-ware such as jars, beads, brass-ware, brass or bronze gongs, and handcrafts produced by coastal peoples, found their way from the coasts into the interior of the island of Borneo. With increasing access to the outside world, scarce materials are sometime substituted by cheaper imported items in the production of traditional articles. Thus, rare glass beads have largely been replaced by cheaper plastic beads in producing local beadswork and costume decoration. Inexpensive imported cotton threads are now used in embroidery and weaving. Imported cotton cloth and nylon-backed black velvet have virtually replaced traditionally made cloths in costume manufacture.
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