Warning: This is not a South East Asian sun hat.

Though it is just about the same shape and size as the light-weight, conical and sometimes beaded sun hats worn by farmers and country people in Kalimantan and Borneo, this beaded object is not a hat. It is, in fact, a beaded Batak food cover from Sumatra used to cover a platter of food at a feast, a very much rarer object.

These objects are really beautifully beaded, but they can be tricky to identify. I have only ever owned two examples, and I bought them both on eBay described as beaded Dayak hats, an easy mistake to make if you have never seen one before. Even the experts can be fooled. There is one example on page 136 of the normally reliable “Beadwork. A World Guide” by Crabtree and Stallybrass which is wrongly identified as a tourist hat from Bali (though in their defence I must admit it is a crude example, obviously made for sale). This photograph shows the underneath and reveals the coarse fibre bast frame to which each bead is individually attached. Note the fringe of bead tassels round the lower edge, indicating that the covers, and the dished they covered were carried on the head or at shoulder height.

These food covers were traditionally made as trousseau and wedding gifts and kept as family heirlooms, used to dramatically present each dish and decorate the food table when the food was laid out for a wedding or funeral feast, thus adding to the status of the family offering the feast. The floral and abstract patterns in the beadwork are typically Batak and reminiscent of those found on traditional wedding Batak baskets like this one, used to present food or gifts to the bride and groom.


It is actually very easy to tell the difference between one of these food covers and a beaded Dayak hat. First of all, the hats are intentionally light weight, so that they can be comfortably worn, and are therefore never fully beaded.  The beading itself consists of a decal, round or star shape, at the apex of the cone. The hats were quite flimsy and often wore out, but when they did, the beaded panels would be removed and re-used.

In addition to the beaded decal, Dayak hats, particularly those made by the Kayan and Kenyan Dayak,  are often decorated with additional cloth appliqués, or embroidered patterns in contrasting colours. The construction of the sun hats is also quite different, being made of three overlapping palm leaves woven on a light rattan frame.

The illustration  below, from Heidi Murnan’s  “Beads of Borneo”, which is he only specific reference  I know on Dayak beads,  shows three Kenyan or Kayan hats with star shaped decals, appliques and embroidery.

From Beads of Borneo by Heidi Munan, Curator, Sarawak Museum, Editions Didier Millet, 2004.

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