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Material wealth

Photo of songket decorative piece with black peacock design
(Courtesy of Tuanku Nur Zahirah Foundation)

THE first time I touched silk, I fell immediately in love with the fabric. Raised on a steady diet of polyester and cotton, the cool feel of silk against my skin felt like a revelation.

Silk was first developed in China and used exclusively by the emperors before its popularity spread to the other members of the nobility and thence, to the merchant class. It soon found its way along trade routes — which became known as the Silk Road — to the Middle East and Europe.

Silk is not uncommon in Indian households. The traditional bridal saree is made from embroidered kanchipuram silk costing anywhere from a thousand to tens of thousands of ringgit. Of course, with the advent of artificial silk — ingeniously called Art Silk by textile manufacturers — a poor bride can still look rather splendid on her wedding day.

Over at home, traditional Malay weddings allow the bride and groom to be raja sehari or royalty for a day. What better material to be seen in for royals and those feeling like royalty than the cloth of gold, songket.

Royal fabric

Songket, from the Malay word menyungkit, which variously means to embroider or to lever up, is a luxurious, traditionally handwoven textile commonly associated with Malay royals and the nobility. The art of weaving gold and silver threads into intricate patterns on silk fabric has been practised here since the 16th century.

In days of yore, songket weavers served the ruler, and took months, even years, to complete a piece. The artisans made a good living serving the court, and ensured that the art survived from generation to generation.

Photo of women in Terengganu weaving songket
Women in Kg Bukit Debu, Terengganu, keeping the art of songket weaving alive
(Courtesy of Tuanku Nur Zahirah Foundation)

You can see some excellent photos of traditional Malay attire among the nobility in Azah Aziz’s beautifully bound and informative book on Malay textile and dressing, Rupa & Gaya, Busana Melayu, published in 2006 by Penerbit Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (RM150). The book is peppered with pantuns, such as this one that waxes lyrical about kain songket limar, considered the pinnacle of songket design.

Songket limar awannya cemerlang,
Pakaian raja zaman dahulu;

Tuan laksana bulan mengambang,
Cahaya menusuk ke dalam kalbu.


Unfortunately, despite its exalted status, songket weaving went into decline in the 20th century. As court influence waned, many of the expert weavers, who were female, found themselves without patrons, and the art started to die off.

There are, however, a few craftspeople who kept the art alive, and songket weaving continues to be a small cottage industry, mainly in the east coast states of Kelantan and Terengganu.

Rites of passage

According to the handsomely produced Songket Revolution (RM380), published by the Tuanku Nur Zahirah Foundation and written by Datin Noor Azlina Yunus, songket had an important function in the performance of royal rites of passage back then, as it does now.

Photo of Noo Azlina with a piece of songket
Noor Azlina

“Commencing from the birth of a baby through wedding ceremonies and the installation and death of a ruler” Noor Azlina writes, kain songket served not only as splendid garments but also as backdrops, hammocks and shrouds.

The 144-page coffee table book, which was launched on 19 March 2009, is a wealth of information on kain songket. The book chronicles the fabric’s history and evolution and its place in Malay culture and tradition.

In an interview with The Nut Graph, Noor Azlina provides tips on how to store kain songket. She warns that it should be refolded every few months so that the creases do not become permanent.

What I found most interesting about the book was its short profiles on weavers, designers, collectors, textile specialists and conservators. They provide an insight into the various designs, patterns and processes that go into the making of kain songket. These are people whose passion for preserving, and perhaps modernising the craft, is clearly apparent.

“People have got hidden talents which I tried to emphasise in each interview,” explains Noor Azlina, who said it took eight months to come out with the book.

She explains that the songket-making process is quite laborious. It still takes several months to produce a piece of kain songket. The finished cloth is sold for anywhere between RM200 and over RM100,000 per piece, depending on the quality and design.

But unlike silk, which has gone on to grace the world stage and has been adopted by fashion houses the world over, songket is still very much on the back foot. It is seen as a traditional product that, due to its weight and stiffness, does not lend itself to the fashion industry’s creative designs.

Photo of the book, Songket Revolution

Songket revolution

In an effort to bring songket the attention it is due, a new style of songket has been created by Dr June Ngo Siok Kheng, a Sarawakian textile designer-educationist.

For her doctoral thesis, Ngo took the low-tech process of songket weaving and stood it on its head to produce lightweight songket in silk, organza and crepe.

Songket Revolution details this incredible transformation, and describes how the new style songket is eminently suitable for high fashion thanks to the “featherlight malleable fabric with good draping qualities, woven in a variety of new, fine yarns in wider and longer yardages”.

Seven of Malaysia’s top designers — Melinda Looi, Rizalman Ibrahim, Tangoo, Pink Jambu, Jovian Mandagie, Tom Abang Saufi and Radzuan Radziwill — were provided with the new style songket and their creative designs are showcased in the book.

Some of these beautiful outfits as well as accessories made from songket were even put on display at the Malaysian Crafts Fair at Harrods of London in late February.

To someone only used to seeing kain songket as a samping in the traditional baju Melayu attire for men, the new designs are quite mind blowing. It is hard to imagine that kain songket, which is so steeped in tradition and Malay culture — can lend itself to couture so well.

Of course, it remains to be seen if the traditional songket weaving industry will embrace this change, for without sufficient production of the new songket, its couture ambitions would die a premature death.

Photo of songket outfit designed by Tom Abang Saufi
Designed by Tom Abang Saufi
(Courtesy of the Tuanku Nur Zahirah Foundation)

This is where the Tuanku Nur Zahirah Foundation, which was established in 2007, comes into the picture. It was set up as a social business with the motto, “improving lives through heritage”.

The foundation set up an R&D and production centre in Kuala Terengganu, which aims to modernise handwoven songket practices, assisting weaver communities and training young weavers.

However, there are still many obstacles before it can reach its goals, warns Noor Azlina. One main challenge is how to attract the young into the industry when there are so many employment opportunities that pay better out there.

Indeed, without concerted efforts from foundations, conservators and government patronage, it is likely that songket weaving could end up being a relic of our past.

N Shashi Kala wishes she could afford a nice piece of songket.

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