Semek Sulaiman, 60, makes weaving songket look so effortless as her hands and feet deftly manoeuvre her loom. She patiently loops the bamboo rod through the threads on her loom, and works it methodically. It is painstaking work.
Semek stops weaving to talk to us, representatives of the Star’s youth journalist programme BRATs (Bright Roving Annoying Teens).
“I started learning to weave when I was 14. There was no other work available then, and I learnt it from the other weavers,” recalled Semek who took two years to learn to work the songket loom.
Since then, she has been learning how to create songket patterns on the loom which requires experience and skill. Semek points out that there are many patterns that she has yet to master even after 46 years of weaving songket.
Songket is a handwoven piece of fabric with embossed metallic silver or gold patterns.
No one is quite sure of its origins, but it is believed that the art of weaving songket was probably brought to Kelantan through inter-marriages between royal families in the Malay archipelago and Indo-China.
The intricately woven fabric has always been a symbol of wealth and prestige, and are worn for special occasions like weddings and formal functions.
Commoners also wear songket these days, but it is still a luxury item.
“There is a wide range of songket, with different quality and patterns. Some are made from cotton, and the more expensive ones are from silk.
“The more intricate the pattern, the longer it’ll take for a weaver to complete the piece. An intricate piece of songket could take up to six months to weave, but these are usually made to order,” explained the owner of Cik Minah Songket And Batik, Mohammed Che Hussein. His family has been making and selling songket for four generations.
The 58-year-old businessman said he doesn’t know how to weave songket, but he knows how to ascertain the quality of the handwoven fabric. Mohammed also taught us some basic features of a songket.
“Just like the batik, a piece of songket consists of a kepala, badan and kaki,” said Mohammed as he spreads out a piece of songket to point out its three different components.
The kepala, which literally translates to “head”, is a wide panel of motifs that runs through the width of the fabric.
Another set of motifs run across the length of the fabric, and is known as the kaki, or “feet”. The rest of the fabric is known as the badan, or “body”.
Songket is distinguished by its metallic embossed motifs, and they are mostly inspired by flora and fauna.
“The most popular motifs are traditional ones like the triangular pucuk rebung, or bamboo shoots. Other motifs include buah ladu (rhombus), bunga tanjung (bakula flower), and sisik kelah (fish scales).
“A simple songket with regular repeated motifs takes two weeks to complete, but an intricate design will take much longer. The price of songket depends on the material used, and the difficulty of its designs,” said Mohammed who modestly added that he wears the more simply woven pieces. The price of songket ranges from RM200 for a simple design and up to RM15,000 for a custom-made songket with intricate designs. He said that the most expensive songket in his shop is RM7,000. This is because of the thread count which is higher than the average piece of songket.
The biggest challenge that Mohammed faces in the songket business is the scarcity of talented weavers as few young people are interested to learn the art.
He tries to resolve this problem by hiring and training workers from the National Institute of Craft. Mohammed’s children are pursuing careers in different fields, but he has a nephew who is involved in managing the business.
“I hope that the Government will do something for the benefit of songket because it is a dying industry,” said Mohammed.