Thread Talk With Jacqueline Fong, The Co-founder of Tanoti

Weave to preserve.

Thread Talk is a series venturing into a designer’s inner workings and thoughts. Today, we have Jacqueline Fong, the co-founder of Tanoti, a social enterprise that empowers women artisans and celebrates the rich culture of Sarawak’s ancestry through weaving.

Textile design plays a crucial role in garment making yet, the spotlight rarely shines on them–especially artisans for traditional textile crafting. Tanoti, founded in 2012, has produced fabrics—for clothmaking, interior decors, and art pieces—using indigenous techniques handed down from generations. Based in the Land of Hornbills, Tanoti gathers indigenous artisans across 25 village settlements, representing their respective ethnic cultures. 

Tanoti has withstood the test of time and is currently entering its first decade. Co-founder Jacqueline Fong confessed that the social enterprise was created “out of a sense of urgency”, with an initial goal to ensure that these weavers got to make ends meet. Fong phrased it beautifully: “How wonderful is it that our land is so diverse in nature and people can birth the gift of culture—the one gift that can outlive any being, wild or tamed.”

Ultimately Tanoti’s objective is to keep these traditional skills alive and that these au fait artisans would have a chance to continue weaving, preventing the cultural heritage accumulated over time from being destructed and eventually vanishing. 

How did Tanoti come about? What’s the story behind the name?

Tanoti was established in 2012 when funding for a Kuching-based weaving workshop by the Yayasan Tuanku Nur Zahirah (YTNZ) was discontinued. Tanoti then absorbed the community of 13 artists in May 2012, and most of this group is still with us today.

The word “tanoti” is a Sanskrit term for weave, entwine, stretch, or bend—all of which relates to producing crafts. With this name Tanoti, we want to pay homage to India, the land which had brought so many weaving techniques to the world.

What is Tanoti’s ultimate goal?

Tanoti was founded out of a sense of urgency. The initial objective for establishing Tanoti was to ensure that the weavers would keep their jobs and that they could continue weaving, thus allowing the precious techniques of songket weaving to continue.

Today, Tanoti has expanded our scope as we strive towards the preservation and sustainability of crafts. To the ever-growing community of craftspeople, their engagement with Tanoti allows them to continue practising the skills their elders have passed down.

How is the songket from Tanoti different from the others in the market? 

The Tanoti community invests in innovation. We intend to infuse new materials, innovative techniques, different genres and contemporary designs, to make songket relevant to a new audience. The looms and equipment used have never been modified, but the fabrics emerging from them are a display of progression and advancement in material culture.

What are your thoughts on the relationship between technological advancement in textiles and preserving the traditional craftsmanship of songket?

I think any advancements in textile will be key to the preservation of songket weaving.

With the advancement in handweaving, the handwoven songket will have the opportunity to be presented in more diverse looks, thus capturing different audiences. With advancements in textile manufacturing, the production of machine-made songket will allow a different demographic to use and enjoy this fabric at a lower price point. The whole idea is to widen the use and grow the market for songket—be it hand or machine-made.

As a social enterprise, what are some of the challenges Tanoti has encountered?

Tanoti’s pledge is firstly to develop Malaysia’s vibrant and viable crafts industry. In the course of our work, we acknowledge that many of the participants in this industry are marginalized in some way: they are generally underserved because of the remoteness of their location or are unable to earn living wages because of the lack of market access. The challenges that come with this work have to do with intermediation—firstly, logistics; secondly, communications; and finally, scarcity of product to sell (stemming from difficulties in accessing raw material, and also the prolonged production processes arising from vulnerability to weather elements to non-standard work times).

What is something that you have always wanted to do with Tanoti, but currently lack the resources to do so?

If I had sufficient resources, I would like to develop a supply chain and procurement system with our community artisans so that orders are conveyed and collections are made frequently. I want to build an in-house team of sewists and bagmakers to internalise our production as much as we can; I want to enhance the design team and set design targets so that we can sell more craft products and reach a wider market. I also want to grow our physical retail reach with a series of stores in Malaysia and Singapore, and consequently invest in digital marketing and step up our e-commerce.

In terms of developing content, I would like to produce a stage musical with a storyline around a lady weaver, using costumes and props that are handwoven with music which uses weaving equipment as percussion. I would like this musical to run permanently as a tourism product, and if possible, I would like this musical to go on tour around the world.

Ultimately, I dream of having a high-quality exhibition of Tanoti’s exquisite handwoven pieces at the Museé des Arts Décoratifs in Paris. To convey the Tanoti story to the world, this exhibition should also be designed to tour the world.

What does the process of making look like? How do you and the team decide on the motifs and patterns for every batch of songket made?

Each piece of Tanoti songket will have to be thought out and designed. The design team will develop the graph pattern and consult with the appointed weaver to translate the graph pattern into fabric. At Tanoti, the weaver is in charge of her project from beginning to end. She assumes the responsibility of undertaking each process of pre-weaving (dyeing, winding, warping, connecting the threads), weaving, and fixing the fabric.

Which personalities from the Bornean community do you think more people should know about?

I think craft legends should be acknowledged more. By doing crafts, they have very little means of marketing themselves. Bangie anak Embol, for example, is a master weaver and probably the last of her kind who can perform certain weaving rites and rituals.

Apart from textile making, what are some of the Bornean cultures that you would like to share with others? 

Most of Borneo’s ethnic groups started as animists and slowly converted to Christianity or Islam. In the course of adopting institutionalized religions, they had discarded various critical practices which are now confined to history books and museums. I particularly enjoy chantings or oral recitations of the Ibans, the tattoo culture of the Kayans and Sabans, and the unique food harvesting and preparation methods of rainforest dwellers.

What are the plans or projects that Tanoti is working on?

Tanoti is looking forward to opening our flagship retail store at 118 Mall in Kuala Lumpur, which will allow us to showcase the beautiful crafts of Sarawak. Our target opening date is Q4 in 2025.

In the meantime, Tanoti is producing a nationwide competition for excellence in heritage textiles, the Hasanah Gold Threads Awards. The awards had its inaugural run in 2023, and we are underway for its second edition. Heritage textile producers are invited to submit their best works under six textile categories, with a closing date of 20 August 2024.

In conjunction with the awards, we have put up a three-month exhibition of the winning submissions of the Hasanah Gold Threads Awards 2023. This exhibition is happening at Pavilion Bukit Jalil until the end of August 2024.