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The Sarong
by [?]

The Malay’s Chief Garment

No one knows who invented the sarong. When the great Sir Francis Drake skirted the beautiful jungle-bound shores of that strange Asian peninsula which seems forever to be pointing a wondering finger into the very heart of the greatest archipelago in the world, he found its inhabitants wearing the sarong. After a lapse of three centuries they still wear it,–neither Hindu invasion, Mohammedan conversion, Chinese immigration, nor European conquest has ever taken from them their national dress. Civilization has introduced many articles of clothing; but no matter how many of these are adopted, the Malay, from his Highness the Sultan of Johore, to the poorest fisherman of a squalid kampong on the muddy banks of a mangrove-hidden stream, religiously wears the sarong.

It is only an oblong cloth, this fashion-surviving garb, from two to four feet in width and some two yards long; sewn together at the ends. It looks like a gingham bag with the bottom out. The wearer steps into it, and with two or three ingenious twists tightens it round the waist, thus forming a skirt and, at the same time, a belt in which he carries the kris, or snake-like dagger, the inevitable pouch of areca nut for chewing, and the few copper cents that he dares not trust in his unlocked hut. The man’s skirt falls to his knees, and among the poor class forms his only article of dress, while the woman’s reaches to her ankles and is worn in connection with another sarong that is thrown over her head as a veil, so that when she is abroad and meets one of the opposite sex she can, Moslem-like, draw it about her face in the form of a long, narrow slit, showing only her coal-black eyes and thinly pencilled eyebrows.

In style or design the sarong never changes. Like the tartan of the Highlanders, which it greatly resembles, it is invariably a check of gay colors. They are all woven of silk or cotton, or of silk and cotton mixed, by the native women, and no attap-thatched home is complete without its hand-loom.

One day we crawled up the narrow, rickety ladder that led into the two by four opening of old Wahpering’s palm-shaded home. The little punghulo or chief, touched his forehead with the back of his open palm as we advanced cautiously over the open bamboo floor toward his old wife, who was seated in one corner by a low, horizontal window, weaving a sarong on a hand-loom. She looked up pleasantly with a soft “Tabek” (Greeting), and went on throwing her shuttle deftly through the brilliantly colored threads. The sharp bang of the dark, kamooning-wood bar drove the thread in place and left room for another. Back and forth flew the shuttle, and thread after thread was added to the fabric, yet no perceptible addition seemed to be made.

“How long does it take to finish it?” I asked in Malay.

“Twenty days,” she answered, with a broad smile, showing her black, filed teeth and syrah-stained lips.

The red and brown sarong which she wore twisted tightly up under her armpits had cost her almost a month’s work; the green and yellow one her chief wore about his waist, a month more; the ones she used as screens to divide the interior into rooms, and those of the bevy of sons and daughters of all ages that crowded about us each cost a month’s more; and yet the labor and material combined in each represented less than two dollars of our money at the Bazaar in Singapore.

I had not the heart to take the one that she offered the mistress, but insisted on giving in exchange a pearl-handled penknife, which the chief took, with many a touch of his forehead, “as a remembrance of the condescension of the Orang American Rajah.”

Wahpering’s wife was not dressed to receive us, for we had come swiftly up the dim lagoon, over which her home was built, and had landed on the sandy beach unannounced. Had she known that we were coming, she would have been dressed as became the wife of the Punghulo of Pulo Seneng (Island of Leisure). The long, black hair would have been washed beautifully clean with the juice of limes, and twisted up as a crown on the top of her head. In it would have been stuck pins of the deep-red gold from Mt. Ophir, and sprays of jasmine and chumpaka. Under her silken sarong would have been an inner garment of white cotton, about her waist a zone of beaded cloth held in front by an oval plate, and over all would have been thrown a long, loose dressing-gown, called the kabaya, falling to her knees and fastened down the front to the silver girdle with golden brooches. Her toes would have been covered with sandals cunningly embroidered in colored beads and gold tinsel.