Songket is a fabric that belongs to the brocade family of textiles of the Malay world (today, Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei, Singapore and Southern Thailand). 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 in a technique called supplementary weft weaving technique.
The term songket comes from the Malay 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 Malay 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 Kingdoms in Sumatra especially the 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 Malay royal families in Sumatra and the Malay Peninsular such as the Pattani Sultanate, Sultanate of Kelantan, Terengganu Sultanate, 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 men also are known to weave it as well.
Songket is known in many names in vernacular Indonesian languages. Other than in Sumatra and Malay peninsula, it is also commonly known as songket in Bali and Java. While it is known as songke in Manggarai, Flores, and Bima in Sumbawa. The Karo Batak of North Sumatra, call it jongkit. People in Ternate, Maluku, call it suje, while the Buginese in South Sulawesi call it subbi’ and arekare’ and the Iban Dayak in West Kalimantan and Sarawak call it pilih or pileh.
The historical records of use of gold thread in Indonesia is somewhat sketchy. Songket weaving is first, 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, because Palembang is the famous songket producer in Indonesia. Songket is a luxurious textile that required some amount of real gold leaves 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 7th century to early 8th century. 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 16th century. 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 is traditionally considered an exquisite, luxurious and prestigious traditional fabric, only worn for special occasions, religious festivals, and traditional social functions. It has become a required garment for brides and grooms for their weddings, as in the traditional wedding costumes of Palembang, Minangkabau and Bali.
Today, songket is mostly worn in traditional settings as traditional costumes for weddings or any traditional ceremonies. Several efforts has been conducted to promote songket as a popular fabric for fashion, either locally and abroad. During the Dutch colonial era, West Sumatran songket were exhibited in the Netherlands. The Sawahlunto Songket Carnival was held in Sawahlunto, West Sumatra in August 2015. The songket carnival featured a parade and exhibition with participants from numbers of songket studios across West Sumatra. The carnival, held on 28 August 2015, was recorded in the Indonesian Museum of Records for the most people wearing songket at a same time, with 17,290 people wearing Silungkang songket during the event.
Several exhibitions has been held to preserve and promote the traditional art of songket making, such as the songket exhibition held in 2015 by Jakarta Textile Museum, which showcased around 100 pieces of songket from various Indonesian provinces.
Today, songket has become a source of inspiration for contemporary fashion designers who draw ideas from this traditional art.
Equipments and materials
There are two categories of songket weaving equipments; the main weaving equipment made from wooden or bamboo frame; and the supporting equipment which includes thread stretching tool, motif making tool, thread inserting and picking tools. The materials for making songket consist of cotton or silk threads or other fibers as the base fabric 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 were run 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.
The songket technique itself involves the insertion of decorative threads in between the wefts as they are woven into the warp, which is fixed to the loom. They are inserted as part of the weaving process, but not necessary in the making of the cloth. There are four types of supplementary weft weaving technique: continuous, discontinuous, inlaid and wrapped.
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 woven into the plain weave base cloth in certain motifs, creating a shimmering effect of golden pattern against darker plain background. Songket weaving is traditionally done as a 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 the values of diligence, carefulness and patience.
There are hundreds of songket patterns. In Palembang tradition, songket is inseparable from the lives of the 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, and Koto Gadang in Agam Regency, also Silungkang area in Sawahlunto, 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. The Klungkung Market is a popular spot to shop Balinese songket, as it offers wide collection of this traditional fabrics.
While in the neighboring island of Lombok, the Sukarara village in Jonggat district, Central Lombok regency, is famous for songket making. In this village, learning how to weave a good songket is an obligation for the Sasak women. Weaving songket is usually done by women during their spare time, and subsequently this traditional skill has enabled them to earn money for their family.
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