PETALING JAYA: It is known as “ratu kain”, or the queen of fabric.
Songket, a traditional handwoven fabric, is intricate and exquisite, with vibrant colours and beautiful patterns – all reflecting the workmanship of skilled artisans who can spend months at a time on one piece of this traditional art form.
Once donned only by rulers, members of royalty and dignitaries, these days people from various walks of life wear “kain songket”, mainly on festive occasions.
The Malay weaving technique, which involves inserting gold or silver thread between base threads, is traditionally passed down from one generation to the next.
In December, Malaysian songket was added to Unesco’s Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity list – a well-deserved achievement, according to professor Norwani Mohd Nawawi, the author of “Songket Malaysia” and “Ikat Limar: The Ancient Malay Textile”.
The retired lecturer tells FMT that songket used to be known as “kain emas”, or gold cloth, because of the actual gold thread that was used. However, over time, this has been replaced by metallic threads.
In the past, women would weave this fabric to earn additional income to help their families. “All ladies would have to know how to weave before they got married,” says Norwani, who taught at Universiti Teknologi Mara’s Department of Textile Design.
The 64-year-old – who, like her great-grandmother, is a weaver – waxes lyrical about songket. “When I see it, I think: how can a person weave such a fine and beautiful piece of cloth?”
The most important thing, she says, is to be patient and not rush the process.
As for the younger generation, Norwani adds: “I am very interested in teaching them to do simple weaving. Once they have cultivated an interest in it, they can move on to more difficult pieces.”
Calling it a Malaysian heritage, she hopes younger people, Malay or otherwise, will learn to appreciate the art form.
“Crafts – not just songket – should be taught at school or at home from a young age. It can be introduced in schools in a fun way, using colourful threads, so children will fall in love with weaving.”
These sentiments are echoed by Wan Manang Wan Awang, the founder and managing director of Manang Songket in Kuala Terengganu.
“Interest should be cultivated from the time children are in school,” says the 67-year-old, fourth-generation weaver, whose own interest was piqued when he spent time at his grandmother’s house.
“I loved watching her dye the yarn and, at times, I would dip my hand in the colour and it would turn red,” he recalls with a laugh.
“She told me a weaver must enjoy the process. Although it may take a long time, the finished product will be beautiful.”
Wan, who has been in the field for 45 years, eventually learnt how to weave from his mother, and shares that the longest time he has taken to complete a piece was nine months.
“After finishing it, I felt proud of what I had created,” he says.
His love for the craft also led him to learn limar bersongket, which incorporates a tie-and-dye technique. “I remember my grandmother making it, but sadly, at one point, it nearly went extinct in Malaysia.”
Wan began doing research into this art form, and even visited Indonesia and Thailand to find out more. After many experiments, he eventually succeeded in weaving it and has been doing so for over 10 years.
Today, he is pleased that four of his children have developed an interest in songket, and hopes more young people will acquire a love for it, too.
“After all, I want this to be passed down to my descendants,” he says. “It is our heritage. If we don’t use it, who will?”