When Zandra Rhodes unveiled her 2016 Autumn/Winter collection at London Fashion Week, fashionistas were intrigued that three-quarters of it was constructed from Malaysian songket. Explaining her choice of material, the celebrated British fashion designer said, “Some of the clothes were just lovely in the iridescent greens and pinks. They were really something special.”
You don’t need to be a fashion connoisseur to appreciate the fine craftsmanship that goes into songket, a heritage brocade textile closely identified with the Malay archipelago. Distinctive for its elaborate motifs and famed for its complex and delicate weave work, the songket is created using an intricate supplementary weft technique where gold threads are woven in between the longitudinal silk threads of the background cloth.
The art of songket weaving is believed to have come to the Malay Peninsula through trade, migration and political marriages since the 15th century. The trading empire of the Malaccan Sultanate, during which luxurious textiles such as brocades, silk, satins and taffetas were imported, contributed to the industry’s growth. Renowned Malay writer Munshi Abdullah, who visited the states of Terengganu, Kelantan and Pahang in 1836, observed that the production of the silk sarongs was then a thriving industry.
Under the protection of the Sultan, the weavers lived at the courts and only produced songket for royal ceremonies – a testament to its exclusivity. The songket also served as gifts from the Sultans when they performed official visits to other countries. In the 19th century, the East Coast court weavers became some of the most highly skilled weavers found in the Malay Archipelago, and towns such as Kuala Terengganu and Kota Bharu were renowned as weaving hubs. The 1910 Annual Report of Kelantan stated that almost every house in Kota Bharu had a weaving loom.
Although the term menyongket means 'to embroider with gold or silver threads', it’s a misnomer to say that Malay songket is embroidered. The threads are inserted as part of the weaving process, but not necessarily in the making of the cloth. The songket technique itself involves the insertion of decorative threads in between the wefts as they are woven into the warp, which is fixed to the loom. The result is that highly coveted luxuriant effect of shiny motif patterns against a darker plain background.
Songket motifs may appear in forms derived from flora, fauna, food, nature and court-related objects. According to Junaidah Salleh, Principal Assistant Director of the Intangible Heritage Division from the Department of National Heritage, there is really no limit to the number of songket motifs. “The motifs reflect the intangible memories passed on through generations via their handicrafts. All these motifs depict the life philosophy, idioms, and proverbs that become the guidance for the Malays.” Case in point, the complicated process of songket-making is believed to cultivate the values of diligence, carefulness and patience; all virtues prized by the Malay culture.
And what makes good songket? “It is determined by the creative skills of the weaver in combining the usage of patterns, motifs and tones of the thread types,” she explains.
Ironically, the reason why it is so highly valued is also why weaving songket began to decline. Older generations of weavers passed away, leaving a progressively shrinking pool of younger weavers to take up the difficult and time-consuming craft. The introduction of mechanisation and cheaper pretenders has only accelerated the craft’s decline.
Fortunately, in recent years, the songket industry seems to have experienced a resurrection, thanks to heritage conservationists and creative entrepreneurs who are making it relevant to modern society. One of the brightest sparks is award-winning Tanoti Sdn Bhd, a Sarawak-based social enterprise that’s contemporising songket into a high-fashion fabric and nurturing a new generation of weavers. Meanwhile, some states present songket souvenirs, thus solidifying it as a symbol of the Malay cultural identity.
Learn more about Malaysian textiles at National Textile Museum, 26 Jalan Sultan Hishamuddin, Kuala Lumpur. Tel: +603-2694-3457