Songket is a fabric that belongs to the brocade family of textiles of Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei. It is hand-woven in silk or cotton, and intricately patterned with gold or silver threads. The metallic threads stand out against the background cloth to create a shimmering effect. In the weaving process the metallic threads are inserted in between the silk or cotton weft (latitudinal) threads.
The term songket comes from the Old Musi word sungkit, which means "to hook". It has something to do with the method of songket making; to hook and pick a group of threads, and then slip the gold and silverthreads in it. Another theory suggested that it was constructed from the combination of two terms; tusuk (prick) and cukit (pick) that combined as sukit, modified further as sungki and finally songket. Some says that the word songket was derived from songka, a Palembang cap in which gold threads was first woven. The Indonesian word menyongket means ‘to embroider with gold or silver threads’. Songket is a luxury product traditionally worn during ceremonial occasions as sarong, shoulder cloths or head ties and tanjak, a headdress songket. Songket were worn at the courts of the Malay Kingdoms in Sumatra especially Srivijaya, as the source and the origin of Malay culture in Southeast Asia. In the early kingdom age, Songkets are also traditionally worn as an apparel by the Indonesian royal families in Sumatra such as the Deli Sultanate in Medan, Serdang Sultanate, Palembang Sultanate in Palembang and the recently restored royal house in Jambi. Traditionally women are the weavers of songket, however in this modern time males also are known woving it as well.
The historical records of use of gold thread in Indonesia and Malaysia is somewhat sketchy. Songket weaving is historically associated with areas of Malay settlement in Sumatra, and the production techniques could have been introduced by Indian or Arab merchants. In Indonesian tradition, songket is associated with Srivijaya, a wealthy 7th to 13th century maritime trading empire based on Sumatra, due to the fact that Palembang is the famous songket producer in Indonesia. Songket is a luxurious textile that required some amount of real gold leafs to be made gold threads and hand-woven into exquisite fabrics, hictorically the gold mines are located in Sumatra hinterland; Jambi and Minangkabau highlands. Although gold threads was found buried in the Srivijaya ruins in Sumatra, along with unpolished rubies and pieces of gold plate, there is no corroborating evidence that the local weavers used gold threads as early as 600s to early 700s CE. Songket probably developed in later period somewhere in Sumatra.
However according to Kelantan tradition this weaving technique came from the north, somewhere in the Cambodia-Siam region and expanded south into Pattani, and finally reach the Malay court of Kelantan and Terengganu as early as the 1500s. The weaving of songket continues as a small cottage industry on the outskirts of Kota Bharu and Terengganu. However, Terengganu weavers believe that songket weaving technique was introduced to Malaysia from India through Sumatra's Palembang and Jambi where it probably originated during the time of Srivijaya (7th to 11th century).
Much documentation is sketchy about the origins of the songket but it is most likely that songket weaving was brought to Peninsular Malaysia through intermarriages between royal families. This was a common occurrence in the 15th century for sealing strategic alliances. Production was located in politically significant kingdoms because of the high cost of materials; the gold thread used was originally wound with real gold leaf.
Songket making and patterns
There are two categories of songket weaving equipments; the main weaving equipment made from wooden or bamboo frame and supporting equipments which includes thread stretching tool, motive making tool, thread inserting and picking tools. The materials to making songket consist of cotton threads or other fibers as base fabrics and decoration threads made from golden, silver or silk threads. It is believed that in ancient times, real gold threads were used to create songket; the cotton threads are ran along heated liquid gold, coating the cotton and creating gold thread. However today because the scarcity and the expensiveness of real gold threads, imitation gold or silver threads are commonly used instead.
Songket weaving is done in two stages, weaving the basic cloth with even or plain weaving and weaving the decoration inserted into basic cloth, this method is called "inlay weaving system". The shining gold, silver or silk threads were inserted and weaved into plain cotton basic cloth in certain motifs, creating shimmering effect of golden pattern against darker plain background. The songket weaving is traditionally done as part-time job by young girls and older women in between their daily domestic chores. The complicated process of songket making is believed to cultivate virtues, as it reflects diligence, carefulness and patience values.
There are hundreds of songket patterns. In Palembang tradition, songket is inseparable from the lives of its people who wear it during important events such as births, marriages, and death. Examples of Palembang songket patterns are, naga besaung, pucuk rebung, biji pare, bintang berante, bintang kayu apuy, bungo mawar, bungo melati, bungo cino, bungo jepang, bungo intan, bungo pacik, cantik manis, lepus berakam, pulir, nampan perak, tabur limar and tigo negeri.
In Indonesia, songket is produced in Sumatra, Kalimantan, Bali, Sulawesi, Lombok and Sumbawa. In Sumatra the famous songket production centers is in Minangkabau Pandai Sikek area, West Sumatra, Jambi City. Jambi and Palembang, South Sumatra. In Bali, songket production villages can be found in Klungkung regency, especially at Sidemen and Gelgel village. While in the neighboring island of Lombok, the Sukarara village in Jonggat district, Central Lombok regency, is famous for songket making.
Outside of Indonesia, further production areas include the east coast of the Malay Peninsula especially in Terengganu and Kelantan, and in Brunei. However it is known that the quality are comparatively lower compared to those produced in Sumatra.
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