Snazzy songket

Songket, long associated with formal Malay ceremonies, is getting a glamorous makeover.

I HAD driven through a bewildering maze of sandy alleys, dodging leaning fences and potted plants, to find some weavers of songket, a traditional “royal fabric” with metallic thread patterns, long used by the Malays for grand occasions. There in Kampung Pasir Panjang, Kuala Terengganu (KT), songket is being woven amidst the stilts beneath humble wooden houses.

Zainab Mohd, 54, has been weaving since she stopped school at Primary Six.

“It used to cost RM2.50 for one sarong in the 1960s. Now prices are much higher as there are many well-to-do Malays,” she says.

She makes about one songket sarong per week, and sells it to middlemen for about RM200 each. A 10-minute drive away, at the main Pasar Payang market in town, it retails for double that price.

Still, her work is considered basic. According to Assoc Prof Sulaiman Abdul Ghani, songket is scaling great heights.

“Songket is the symbol of luxury nowadays,” says Sulaiman, chief executive officer of Terengganu International Design Excellence (TIDE), a state government initiative to promote various crafts.

“The price has gone up a lot in the past 10 years. Pieces costing RM7,000 are given as gifts at the Umno general assembly. People talk about, ‘Oh my songket costs RM15,000’. It has become part of the Datuk and Datin culture,” he says in an interview at the state government’s crafts showroom in KT.

A plethora of songket companies, including Bibah Songket, Wan Manang and Atikah, have been developing the fabric. “Apart from petroleum, songket is a real heritage and asset of Terengganu,” he adds.

How to modernise?

Yayasan Tuanku Nur Zahirah (YTNZ), a foundation named after its patron, our Queen, aims to take songket even further.

Dr June Ngo, its director of textile design and production, has been training some 40 (mostly) young weavers at YTNZ’s workshops in Chendering, near KT, on how to create a range of contemporary songket that is comfortable and light-weight, unlike the traditional heavy, slightly rough cloth.

One way to do that is by altering weaving techniques.

“Traditional songket is more tightly woven. By using a looser, more open weave, you can get songket to be as soft as organza. It can even be elastic and be used as street and sports wear. We want to broaden the appeal of songket,” Dr Ngo says.

While metallic threads of the past made songket rather stiff, rough and scratchy, now there is Lurex, a high-end metallic thread, also used by Versace and Armani, which is soft and ‘non-itchy’.

Songket can even be made using glow-in-the-dark threads.

Even good old silk threads can be processed differently, she adds. “For instance, high-twist silk yarn is stronger and does not fray. It will shrink a little upon touching water to create a crepe effect.”

While a lot of Terengganu songket has become brighter and more colourful, Dr Ngo has chosen to move towards understated elegance with a palette of beige, grey and light pink tones. This is the result of YTNZ’s collaborations with various fashion designers, including Melinda Looi, Rizalman Ibrahim, Tangoo, Tom Abang Saufi and Radzuan Radziwill.

“When you work with fashion designers, you get to know what kind of colours and fabrics they like,” she says.

As for the motifs, they can be outlandish. “Basically, you can create any pattern you want, even tigers and patterns you see in modern tattoos.”

Unlike Dr Ng, Sulaiman prefers a more conservative approach. When I ask if we can put motifs of the Petronas Twin Towers or the Angkasawan Negara (national astronaut) on songket, he replies:

“We don’t want our songket traditions to be stagnant. But we should first refer to and understand the traditional designs and move from there. We shouldn’t innovate blindly.”

So, if we want an outer space theme, he suggests using patterns from Cirebon, on Java’s north coast.

“Cirebon was a Javanese port with many Chinese traders. Their batik has these cloud patterns called mega mendung, based on myths about deities who can fly through air. They can also be seen in old Terengganu batik. So why not use these instead of putting a rocket or astronaut on songket?

“I feel motifs like that, or the Twin Towers, are too futuristic. Songket is Ratu Kain Melayu (the Queen of Malay textiles). It’s all about dignity, decorum and elegance. You can’t just take any motifs for songket, it can’t be too tacky. We don’t want to wear a rocket on our bodies,” he adds.

Cross fertilisation

Traditional songket has been a beneficiary of multiple cultural influences, as can be seen in the gold-threaded cloths of India and the Islamic world. There are even Chinese elements.

“Many people came to Terengganu from Yunnan province (in South China) in the last few hundred years and brought the technique of weaving with them,” explains Sulaiman.

As the state was on maritime trade routes, Cambodia, Champa (Vietnam), Patani (South Thailand) and even the Bugis who settled around Pekan, Pahang, all inspired local songket. “You can also see a similar fabric in Laos, though they have less gold thread,” he adds.

And more recently, there have been influences from Klungkung in Bali. “The songket there is very colourful. For the Balinese, the colours relate to their Hindu deities. But for us, we just enjoy the colours.”

Thus, it looks like centuries before 1Malaysia, songket was already tapping the synergy from cultural cross-fertilisation.

Dr Ngo, who is also a senior lecturer at the Faculty of Applied and Creative Arts at Universiti Malaysia Sarawak, completed her PhD on creating contemporary songket in 2007.

Initially, she had problems when she wanted to learn more about this traditional Malay craft from weavers.

“People asked, why is a Chinese interested in songket? Did I want to take knowledge from them, then do business? I told them I’m an educator and wanted to share my knowledge, not just with university students but also other weavers and the Yayasan itself.”

Her breakthrough came when Habibah Zikri (of Bibah Songket), well known for her bright and colourful songket designs, agreed to take her in.

“I think I was the first person in years to be allowed to study her workshop. I learnt a lot from her.”

Much of Terengganu songket is produced on home looms by elderly ladies (like in Kampung Pasir Panjang) and Dr Ngo says it has been a bit difficult to convince them to change their age-old methods.

“They see our yarns and are reluctant to try because they think it’s too fine and fragile and will break easily. It’s easier to train young weavers to start on new yarns and techniques. I believe in the Yayasan’s cause as it can revolutionise the songket industry.”

Hand versus machine

Most of the 40 weavers at the YTNZ Chendering workshop were taught from scratch on site. But Siti Zurina, 23, and Che Norimah, 24, are graduates from the Institut Kraf Negara (IKN or National Crafts Institute) in Rawang, Selangor.

“I feel satisfied when I see the end result all nicely arranged on the cloth,” says Che Norimah.

The colours and designs are provided by Dr Ngo.

“We don’t do our own designs,” adds Siti Zurina. “But when I was working at two small songket companies previously, my designs were adopted.”

But passing on songket weaving skills to the younger generation is not so easy.

“Weaving was the least popular course at IKN,” says Siti Zurina. “Half of my class left after one year. It’s difficult, stressful and takes a long time. The cloth frays.”

Che Norimah adds, “You want to create certain patterns, but something else comes out. Most IKN students prefer working with wood, metal, ceramics or batik instead.”

According to Juliana Ariffin, who supervises the workshop’s weavers, the pay is about RM450 per month, with about RM200 in overtime, plus a further monthly grant of RM300 from the Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation. That’s not bad considering that many weavers in Terengganu work semi-independently from home.

“The looms, threads and designs are provided by the songket companies,” explains Siti Zurina.

Payment follows the upah kain system, which is determined by the complexity of the design. Typically, a home weaver can get RM1,500 for a complicated silk piece which takes six weeks to make.

Another weaver, Latifah Hendut, learnt the process from watching her mother make songket at home. But at the workshop, they learn the complete process, including how to process silk yarns.

“If we work from home, we only know about weaving. Perhaps I may become an entrepreneur one day,” Latifah, 35, says.

“In the kampung, we are just surviving. The big songket operators buy up what we make, and then put their own brand on it. It’s difficult for the kampung folks to do their own marketing.”

Then there is the competition from factory machines.

Some of Che Norimah’s friends from IKN have abandoned hand labour for songket-weaving machines instead. “They are paid about RM800 to work in Kuala Lumpur but the cost of living is high there,” she says.

Cheap factory-made songket is also imported from India and Pakistan.

Dr Ngo says: “That’s for the mass market. The patterns are repeated on the cloth and the colours and designs are limited. For instance, you can’t make a full-length songket peacock on a dress.”

But Wan Mohd Sukri, manager of the Modern Store at the Pasar Payang market, points to some ornate and colourful designs in his shop which costs up to RM7,000 each.

“These are all hand-made in Terengganu. But nowadays, machines with computer controls can create the same designs. Some traders here will show you different grades of machine-made songket. And they will claim the better quality ones are locally hand-made.”

To keep pace with change, Dr Ngo is experimenting with partial mechanisation of the weaving process. “But we don’t want to mechanise it fully otherwise it will not be a handicraft anymore.”

Sulaiman notes that for songket to remain part of Malay culture, its price must be accessible to the younger generation.

“Local companies cannot be too arrogant about pricing otherwise we can’t blame people for buying the cheaper machine-made products from India.

“But sometimes, the factories there don’t understand the local floral patterns and end up simplifying them. I still believe that the quality of local songket is better.”

A Songket Ball, themed Keeping Heritage Alive, will be held on July 10 at Shangri-La Hotel, Kuala Lumpur. The King and Queen will grace the event, which will feature a musical performance by Stephen Rahman Hughes, M. Nasir and Ida Mariana. Proceeds will be used to support the YTNZs weavers and other songket development efforts. For enquiries, call 03-2284 8253.

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