What is Songket?

by Anne B. Robinson

If you’ve always wanted to immerse yourself in an oriental setting, what better way to do so than to explore the beautiful garments of the South East Asian region?

After visiting Malaysia, one of the first cultural characteristics I’ve noticed is their traditional Malay clothing. I was fond of the shimmering fabrics and wanted to learn more about them.

I’ve come to know that they’re called songket. While there are multiple local apparels, such as the Baju Kurung, the songket stood out to me.

Stick around to find out what is songket and what makes it unique to its people.

What is Songket?

Songket is a shimmering handwoven fabric consisting of metallic and bright colors. The textile is mainly found in Southeast Asia. It’s worn as a sarong on special occasions, such as weddings and celebrations in general.

Songket’s Manufacturing Products

Once you look at the songket fabric, you’ll immediately notice the enticing designs woven through it. If one of your guesses about the songket’s material is some sort of metallic or crystal thread, you guessed right.

The textile has a plethora of color options. Whether it’s orange mixed with gold or green speckled with green, you’ll likely find your favorite colors. The metallic threading is usually blended with satin or cotton.

Songket may be identified as a luxury product. That being said, there have been cheaper versions made to appeal to a larger crowd. These versions are usually made with rougher textiles like a polyester blend.

Various supplies go into making a songket. One of them is a frame loom. You’ve probably seen one of them being used in cultural documentaries discussing handweaving techniques.

Other manufacturing products can include:

  • Roll Board
  • Needle
  • Brushes
  • Bamboo Slider
  • Darwin Feed
  • Pelleting
  • Weaving Cakes (Kek)

Songket Making Process

There’s a lot of sweat that goes into making a songket. You might come across a couple of manufacturing processes, such as handweaving and using a sewing machine.

If you’re trying to capture the cultural essence of a songket, you might as well search for the former.

The truth is, not everyone has the gift of carefully crafting a mesmerizing songket. It can take years to master the making process. However, making approximately two to four yards of songket can be done in six to twelve weeks.

The songket manufacturing process and design vary from region to region. For example, in the Terengganu state, you might find more nature-filled designs, such as cloves and bamboo shoots.

The making of a songket involves several steps. Here are some of them below.

songket making process

Step 1: Choosing a Design

Since the process is as laborious as it is, you can expect the most intricate geometric shapes to be picked. You might also find floral patterns in more contemporary designs.

For more traditional songkets, Islamic designs are also utilized. This could point to the heavy Arabic influence in the Malaysian and Indonesian region, where songket is often found.

Step 2: Preparing the Yarn

When you pick up a yarn thread, it’s hard to believe how such a chunky piece of cloth could turn into this detailed garment.

This is why the first steps of songket-making involve heavy yarn preparations. It’s first dyed to the desired color. After drying, the threads are then rolled over on the bobbins of the sewing machine.

Step 3: Measuring and Heddling the Threads

Now, the threads should be unwound and carefully measured. Next, the yarn should be placed and stretched onto the rolling beam in a warping style. Finally, the maker combs each yarn thread through the reed.

In this step, the threads are woven into the heddles. The heddling process is used to create the weft, where the warps are perpendicularly crossed with the weft to create the weave.

Step 4: Weaving the Design

This is where the real hard work begins. As the weft goes through your warping, you’ll need to create the pattern.

While some pros out there won’t need it, some songket weavers use a draft paper to outline their designs.

After looking through songket fabrics, I could tell it had taken true dedication to the weaving art. If you ask most songket weavers where they learned to master this skill, they’ll mention their elderly. In other words, this craft has been handed down from generation to generation.

Unfortunately, traditions fade, and the young women who are expected to carry the heritage have succumbed to modern times. Some organizations are working on avoiding that, though. For example, the Tuanku Nur Zahirah Foundation is dedicated to reviving this dying weaving custom through charitable means.

The History of Songket

Also named the queen of traditional weaving, the songket is challenging to trace back to one specific culture. However, the etymology of the term songket is of a Malay origin, meaning “to embroider with gold or silver threads” (menyongkat).

It’s unsurprising that the songket truly shined in the 16th century during the rule of the Malacca Malay Sultanate Empire.

That’s because Malacca was the most crucial trade port in all of Southeast Asia. So naturally, cultural influences have found themselves in the region—in this case, Indian and Arab weaving techniques.

During that era, you can only imagine the flourishing of songket in royal wear. Detailed gold and silver patterns held a certain prestige in the empire.

Silks, cotton, damasks, and brocades were commonly traded around the region, creating grounds for the emergence of songket.

Other accounts of the origin of songket span earlier (13th century) than the 16th century. Some have speculated that the Indonesian city, Palembang, deserves the creative credit.

It might be true since Sumatra (which Palembang is located) held large accounts of gold mines that contained gold threads.

Other theories discuss the relationship between royal intermarriages and the creation of songket during the 13th to 15th centuries.

That’s a lot of speculation, but for a good reason. Who wouldn’t want to claim the elegant, handwoven fabric as their own?

Nowadays, you can find songket sold in Malaysian and Indonesian states, such as Kelantan, Terengganu, Pahang, Sumatra, Bali, Lombok, and the list goes on.

To Conclude

The options are endless if you can get your hands on any songket. You can make it into a purse, skirt, blouse, hat, or shoes. Nevertheless, it’s best not to forget the effort that went into making this textile!

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