“Oh you are here!” she said as she shut her Macbook and stood up to give me a warm hug. After a string of back-to-back emails and texts, I guess a hug felt appropriate. What struck me the most however, was the ardent simplicity and modesty behind the woman who is the name and face of Sarawak based award winning social enterprise – Tanoti.
Jacqueline Fong, former investment banker, quit her successful career in banking and finance to take over an atelier of songket weavers in Sarawak; a workshop that was initially set up by a foundation established by Her Royal Highness the Queen of Malaysia in 2008, the Yayasan Tuanku Nur Zahirah. Over the years, she and co-founder Dr June Ngo have worked to grow the workshop into Tanoti and later into a brand that is redefining the way modern society looks at songket.
Located in Kuching, Tanoti works to preserve the ancient art of songket weaving ensuring that the craftsmanship exists for another generation by empowering young women weavers and creating a viable source of income for them.
Ever since its birth in 2012, Tanoti has been combining the ancient skill of songket weaving into creating more modern contemporary designs. Their products range from exquisite fabrics, to cushions, shawls, accessories, leather woven bags as well as high end couture; and take a production time of 2 days to 2 months depending on the skill and technique involved.
To achieve this, Jacqueline spends a few weeks every month travelling through the Sarawakian rainforests and residing in longhouses to work with artisans in their natural habitats.
One of her major milestones has been bringing rattan handicrafts of the Penan community to the mainstream market and creating a flow of economic power for them through a collaboration with World Wide Fund for Nature Malaysia (WWF). This project has empowered nearly 18 communities in over 20 villages over the past couple of years.
Along with building sustainable communities in east Malaysia, Tanoti has been one of the few fabric houses to represent Malaysian heritage textiles at international fashion events in London and France. Their rattan coil patterns, traditional Malay sampin and other products have been accorded the World Crafts Council Award of Excellence for Handicrafts in 2014 and 2016.
In an initimate conversation, Jacqueline tells us what it really takes to run a successful social enterprise and how she’s making her way through a market that is wrought of machine generated fabrics and textiles.
“Songket is beautiful. It’s an ancient art that is dying. If we don’t preserve it, then who will?”
Jacqueline and her partner took over a dismantling weaving workshop and started Tanoti with a minimum workforce and resources in 2012. Today, Tanoti is no longer a weaving workshop. It has evolved into an industry with immense design and production capabilities.
“The main reason we initiated with the idea of Tanoti was because the girls in the workshop were in the 20-25 year age group. By retaining the workshop, we did the task of keeping them interested in the art, providing them a source of income by creating a marketplace for their products and also preserving a heritage skill that is a part of the Malaysian identity.”
“The weavers at Tanoti are very much like you and me! But for us, they are ultimate because they hold a skill no one can really replicate.”
At present, Tanoti employs about 20 artisans who come from villages in and around Kuching and are skilled in the art of songket weaving. They in turn act as mentors for the new trainees who are interested to be a part of this ancient handicraft industry.
“You should come meet our weavers. They are always talking about attending rock concerts, watching footballs matches and not surprisingly dating good looking men! But at the end of the day, they are the backbone of Tanoti. It takes a certain profile to sit for eight hours, weave continuously and be creative. So far our weavers have been maintaining that.”
“With Tanoti we are attempting to put the soul back into fabric and that’s exactly what our products represent.”
What separates Tanoti as a cottage industry is that there is no automation in the factory. Every single piece of fabric residing under the Tanoti label is hand-woven. Along with that they are also introducing newer styles and designs to cater to the modern market and currently use songket weaving to weave silk, cotton, rattan and even leather.
“We are all about the technique. Our fabrics are still woven without the use of machines. If you look at our fabrics, the threads are not perfectly aligned. The fabric carries with it the thoughts of the weaver creating it and that encapsulates the beauty of its consistent imperfections. When you wear this fabric, you simply know its handwoven.”
“I think we are evolving as a society. People now want to pursue more social goals than financial goals.”
Running a social enterprise had never really been a part of the plan for Jacqueline’s booming financial career. Yet today, she is gaining reputation in the Malaysian handicraft trade as a well strategised business woman with a keen eye for development and a true strength to keep preserving and reviving an ancient heritage skill.
“ I don’t know what a social enterprise is! I’ll need to look at a blueprint for a real definition. But I do know that if you are in this industry you cannot survive without passion and commitment. If you are doing this for the buzzword, then don’t. Your goals need to be way beyond just finances and that makes it more difficult than running an ordinary business.”
Currently Tanoti products are available for purchase at The Datai, and St Regis Langkawi. If you are living in the Klang Valley, you can lay your hands at some of the exquisite products at British India, Senijari, Kedai Bikin and KitaKita outlets.
Can social enterprises really make a difference? Find out what these seven local entreprenuers including Kal Joffres and Rebekah Yeoh think.