Songket: The Enigma That Weaves Through Eras

For the past few weeks, I have been in a deep state of contemplation after an impulsive question struck me: how well do I value Malaysian heritage? Actually, the stimulus was this; one evening while I was having my own sweet time enjoying mochacchino in a coffee shop, across the table sat a young Caucasian lady dressed in a chic songket dress. I am not going to lie, her looks bedazzled me, but the fact that a foreigner had proudly chosen to wear a Malay traditional outfit in the heart of Kuala Lumpur bewitched me more!

Designs of songket showcased in the boutique.
A plethora of designs that give different vibes.The moment I entered this space, I felt like being in a majestic palace of old Malay Sultanate!
Source: Image by Manang Songket from Facebook

The Forgotten Heritage

Then it hit me. I looked at myself and pose a question in retrospect. “How many times do I actually wear traditional outfits?” It is such a crying shame that I subconsciously disregard and dismiss our heritage by simply not wearing it! The revelation on that very day has set me on a quest to revisit our proud Malaysian heritage namely songket. Even after doing some research about it online, I still had this uncanny curiousity. For that, I need to see the whole making process of centuries-old heritage in front of my bare eyes. Despite the ravaging monsoon along the East Coast Highway, the insatiable curiosity took me to the home of songket, Terengganu, Malaysia.

The Origin Of Songket

In morphology, the name simply originated from the Malay word ‘sungkit’. Generally, it means to knit or to weave, which significantly speaks volume of the overall process of making it. The epoch of songket in the Malay world is unknown. However, this centuries-woven heritage has always marked its existence in the Malay Sultanate’s era, especially in Terengganu.

Terengganese officials who worked in the palace those days would find it a must to wear songket. In their royal duties, they would wear samping for every occasion. Furthermore, the ways people wore songket depicted their status. For example, a Bendahara (equivalent to a prime minister today) would position the head of the songket at the right side of his body. While a Laksamana (Admiral) would position the head at his left. Oh, before I forget, the head is the middle part of the fabric, while the body is the rest of it. The feet are the pair that form the upper and lower parts.

A patterned songket with a floral motif.
A songket is made up of the head, body, and feet. In this picture, the head is the middle part which is made up by silver threads. The body is where the leaves motif is spread out across the fabric. The horizontal silver lines, with the zig-zag pattern make up the feet.
Source: Image by Manang Songket from Facebook

As such, songket could also tell the marital status of a female; if the head was in front, then she was still a maiden, and vice versa. Back then, not everyone could own the prestigious wear, as only government officials and elites had the privilege to don it as a customary uniform in the palace.

Types Of Songket

The enigma of songket lies in the intricacy of how multifarious threads interweave one another to finally form a majestic design mainly made up of gold and silver threads. To date, there are generally three types of songket:

1. Full Pattern

The woven gold and silver thread motif complements the entire fabric.
This pattern is usually applied to the main part of the fabric or body of the fabric, and is usually filled with gold thread.

Believe it or not, like languages, this interwoven fabric fashion also varies across cultures and regions. Malaysian songket, for example, came through with its most prominent floral motif. Obviously, commonly used motifs include the shape of flowers, leaves, and fruits.

Whereas across the Straits of Malacca, neighbouring country Indonesia prefer to apply more fauna motifs that portray animals such as chicken, bird, and surprisingly cattle! One way or another, this ancient heritage will always find its place in a society where heritage embraces nature.

Full pattern mostly uses golden and silver thread.
A full pattern is characterised by symmetrical motifs. Weavers seem to secretly share the similar kind of creativity when it comes to this pattern.
Source: Image by Manang Songket from Facebook

Songket is a heritage that we must preserve and glorify. Ultimately, the moment we lose it is the moment we lose our face and identity.”


2. Spotted / Scattered

For this type, patterns are woven scattered and not bound or linked to one another. In addition, famous motifs are cape flowers or its scientific name Mimusops elengi, cherry blossoms, and persimmons. More importantly, the distribution on the fabric also comes with a pattern on the head and feet of the cloth.

Mannequin wearing songket.
A scattered pattern that strikes a glamorous look on the wearer.
Source: Image by Author

3. Patterned

Looking at a patterned songket is just like feasting your eyes on a religiously-painted masterpiece that summons the spirit of nature into a piece of cloth. In addition to this, weavers would get to experiment and explore their more creative sides with this motif. A set of patterns is created by interlocking vertically or horizontally lined threads.

Floral pattern.
A patterned motif that glorifies the beauty of floral kingdom.
Source: Image by Author

Songket: A Perpetual Class That Lives On

The passage of time, more often than not, does damage to anything old and ancient. However, due to its high value, songket has managed to survive the test of time. The fabric of class and prestige has always found its way into the modern and fast-changing world. In this new millennium, it goes beyond royalties and elites. Nowadays, everyone wears and fashions the fabric regardless of styles for various functions.

1. Weddings

Just like any other cultures around the globe who subconsciously preserve and highlight the significance of their own heritage through dress codes, the Malays are no exception. Normally, brides and grooms would wear songket as the wedding outfit on their big day. It is a common practice in which a groom would wear a samping made by songket fabric, and his bride would wear songket dress.

A bride and a groom proudly donning the heritage.
“The King and Queen of The Day,” as the Malay proverb goes. The bride and groom enjoy a ‘royal’ treatment on their big day.
Source: Image by Manang Songket from Facebook

2. Festive Seasons

During Hari Raya Aidilfitri and Hari Raya Aidiladha, aside from baju melayu and baju kurung, songket has always been the preferred choice for those celebrating these occasions. A Raya without the spectacles of songket can be as dull as a beach without the splashing waves.

The Man With The Bronze Songket.
Wearing Baju Melayu paired with songket during the first day of Raya is a must to me. You can see cape flower motif is all over the fabric. I don’t know about you guys, but I prefer to choose a darker tone.
Source: Image by Author

3. Royal Ceremonies

Over centuries, the magnificient role of songket in royal ceremonies has not waned even for a bit, that it would eternally find its place in the palace. Songket is enthroned as the royal attire of Malaysian kings, as it has interwoven class and honour in the royal institution of Malaysia.

The Custodian Of Songket

Songket Master.
“The Man With The Golden Weave” – Mr Wan Manang proudly displays their signature product, Limar, a revived songket type that has been making a comeback for the past few years.
Source: Image by Author

Not all superheroes wear capes. As for Mr Wan Manang Wan Awang, the founder and owner of Manang Songket, one of his many deeds that he can call heroic is absolutely by keeping this local heritage safe, far from being drifted away by the current of time. A special note of thanks to Mr Wan Manang for showing me around your boutique.

If you happen to be in Terengganu and wish to drop by Manang Songket, here’s the map to the place.

Or, if you like to wear Malaysian traditional outfit other than songket, why not try a kebaya for any upcoming wedding ceremony?

About Naeim AHMAD

When he's not sweating it out on the football pitch, Naeim is fighting a never-ending battle against ignorance and misconceptions. His choice of weapon - logic, science, statistics, and a pen... or rather, a keyboard...

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