Malaysia Arts and Crafts - Songket, a Malay Traditions
By Khairuddin MS
Songket is a fabric which belongs to the brocade family of textiles. It is a rich, opulent ceremonial fabric traditionally hand-
woven in silk with elaborate patterns of gold or silver weft threads and only donned by the nobilities. Today, songket can be found hand-woven in cotton and started to be worn by the commoners.
The term 'songket' comes from the Malay word menyongket, 'to embroider with gold or silver threads'. Strictly speaking, songket is not a piece of embroidered work. The songket utilizes an intricate supplementary weft technique where metallic threads (gold or silver) are woven in between the latitudinal silk threads of the background cloth.
These special lengths - or weft 'floats' - pass over three, five, or seven silk warp (longitudinal) threads and under one on the loom to form designated patterns which contrast in colour and texture with the ground cloth. It is these even-sized metallic floats forming distinctive patterns, which distinguish songket from other types of hand-woven textiles. On antique pieces, the contrast in texture between the background cloth and the songket weaves is more pronounced since the gold threads was usually rounded and made by winding the gold filament round a thick core thread.
The songket goes through eight stages before it becomes a piece of fabric and it is still traditionally woven. As weavers are usually from rural areas, it is not surprising to find that the motifs are patterned after local flora and fauna. These motifs are also named after local Malay delicacies such as seri kaya, wajik, and the tepung talam, believed to be favorites of royalty.
In general, songket can be classified into 2 different groups based on the arrangement of the motives; 'bunga penuh' (fully decorated flowers) and 'bunga tabur' (scattered flowers). 'Bunga penuh' songket contains heavily decorated motives. Usually the motives used vary from shapes of flowers, leaves and shoots. Songket with 'bunga tabur' is woven with scattered pattern of flowers. Even though it is called 'scattered flowers', the pattern is actually geometrical.
Although the beginnings of songket weaving in the Malay Peninsula remain obscure, historical accounts point to a long tradition of weaving in the Peninsula, stimulated no doubt by the flourishing trade that had been going on between the East and the West since at least the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Traders exchanged goods at the port, shipping basic necessities such as rice, sugar, pottery and luxury items such as silk yarns, gold and silver for ivory, tortoiseshell, resin, waxes, sandalwood, spices and other jungle products abound in the region's rainforest. Textiles were also brought in to trade or as gifts for the Sultan and his entourage. Weavers were no longer restricted to the use of local materials.
It is not certain as to the songket's place of origin but the Kelantanese believe that the technique came from the north, around Cambodia and Siam, and then expanded south, via Patani, to Kelantan and then to Terengganu. However, the belief in Terengganu is that songket weaving was introduced by Indian traders who brought songket weaving to Palembang and Jambi where it probably originated during the time of Srivijaya.
A man's songket outfit normally consists of a stiffened kerchief or head-wrapper (tengkolok); a long-sleeved tunic (baju) with a stand-collar; a tasseled waistcloth; a knee-length sarong (samping); and trousers. The songket outfit worn by a woman can either be in the baju kurung style, which consists of a long tunic worn over an ankle-length sarong, or in the baju kebaya style, which consists of a long silk blouse fastened with gold brooches worn over the ankle-length sarong. Today songket is a popular choice for the Malay wedding costume and is often presented by the groom to the bride as one of the wedding gifts.
Songket is a manifestation of the intricate and fine traditional Malay's hand-woven art; inherited from generation to generation. As enchanting as always, the weaving of the songket never ceases to captivate its audiences; thus so, Malaysia can further bask in the glory of its legacy -- the songket, one of the world's loveliest textile traditions.
About the Author
Khairuddin is a simple man who wish to introduce his Malay rich traditions to the wide world. He is also the webmaster of http://www.mycraftoutlet.com. Please feel free to visit http://www.mycraftoutlet.com/articles.htm to learn more about this beautiful people.
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