Friday, 22 October 2010

A Stitch In Time

What to write in my first ever blog post? Natalie is of course the seasoned hand at this and can reel off the most wonderful blog posts in the blink of an eye. As for me, it’s been a head-scratcher.

So I’m keeping it simple and starting with a fabric keepsake - my grandmother’s Peranakan blouses from the 1950’s. I should briefly explain that Peranakan refers to the 15th century descendants of Chinese traders who settled and intermarried in what is now known as Malaysia and Singapore - and from whom both my parents’ families are descended. One afternoon, on a visit to Singapore over a decade ago, my maternal grandmother and I were poring over old photo albums while sipping Chinese tea. I was particularly taken with the black and white photos of Nyonya (Peranakan women) elegantly posing in their traditional dress of sarong kebaya – a long sleeved buttonless embroidered blouse (kebaya) tailored to skim over the figure and worn over a colourful batik sarong. “I still have my old nyonya kebaya”, my grandmother told me walking over to an old wooden armoire in the corner of her bedroom. Pulling open a drawer she held up to the light several of the most exquisite blouses I had ever seen. I was smitten.

Made from delicate cotton voile each kebaya varied in colour from pristine white to vibrant turquoise, mossy green to buttercup yellow. The intricate embroidery (known as sulam) on each was of flora, richly detailed around the edges of the seams and sleeves either in contrasting coloured threads or matched to the same hue of the cotton voile.It could take a highly skilled seamstress up to six months to painstakingly stitch just one nyonya kebaya and was an expensive outlay even in the 1950’s. It made me curious about the Peranakan culture I knew little about. Rooted in Chinese tradition and strongly influenced by the Portuguese, Dutch and British. They were known for taking great pride in their appearance and for being skilled artisans in needlecraft, ornate embroidery and intricate beadwork that they used to embellish clothing, shoes and all manner of textiles for the home.

My grandmother’s kebayas had lain forgotten in a drawer for decades. A garment once synonymous with Peranakan heritage and identity had long fallen out of favour with fashion (though I now hear they are enjoying a bit of a revival). Surprised by my admiration for her ‘old blouses’ she gave them to me, and said they needed someone to appreciate them. Even at my slimmest there was never a chance I was ever going to fit into them tailored as they were to my grandmother’s petite frame. Instead I see each kebaya as part of a lost art form and have carefully stored them away for posterity. But on occasion I like to take them out of their tissue paper, run my hand over the embroidery, slide an arm through the sleeve to feel the fineness of the fabric, give a nod to the seamstress who toiled over it, and daydream about the stories hidden in their stitches.


  1. Oh my gosh - a lost art form indeed - these are incredibly beautiful! It's lovely that they are still being treasured by you... imagine how many more must just be lurking in a drawer somewhere, unadmired and forgotten. 6 months to embroider each one -wow.

  2. Thank you Jane. I feel really really lucky to have them. I know, 6 months!! It must have required the patience of an absolute saint.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...