"Dancing Figure" Pua Sungkit Ritual Cloth

Iban Dayak, Borneo

Cotton; discontinuous supplementary weft wrapping

19th Century

82 x 23 in/208 x 58.5 cm


The most highly ranked of Iban Dayak textiles are pua sungkits, which were described by early ethnographers as having a special function in headhunting rituals…they were held up by the women to “receive” fresh trophy heads after a raid and were carried down to the river to be washed, flayed, possibly carved with curvilinear designs and then brought back to the long house wrapped in such a precious cloth as the one presented here, to be placed in a basket with others and smoked over the fire. This was the proper way to honor a fallen enemy and helped ensure there would not be a return of an angry ghost to cause trouble to the community.

Of all the possible sungkit patterns, and they are diverse, textiles with the motif known as “dancing figure” sungkits are the most rare and sought after by museums and collectors. The cloth is named for the bone needle (sungkit) used in the complex weaving technique Iban women used to achieve pattern on the cloth. This involves working a discontinuous supplementary weft thread with a bone needle around a couple of warps. With some 50 or more bobbins of thread at the ready to rise up the sungkit, two structural wefts are beaten in for every wrap of the warp. A very painstaking method indeed that was largely abandoned after headhunting was suppressed at the end of the 19th Century. Scholars Traude Gavin and Ruth Barnes feel the likely source for the dancing figure motif group is to be found in a class of Indian Trade Cloth known as “Dancing Ladies”, block printed in Gujarat in the 16th Century and traded to Indonesia in exchange for spices. This seems very reasonable and enriches out understanding and appreciation.