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Songket Weaving - Malaysia


Srivijaya governed the Southeast Asian sea route from the 7 th century - lured merchants from the east and the west to trade under well-organised and protected conditions. Vague evidence seems to suggest that Srivijaya's rule began to crumble in the 13 th century, this gave other trading ports the opportunity to divert merchant ships with promises of trade opportunities. One such port was Melaka, which swiftly took charge of the trading route down the Straits of Melaka. Traders exchanged goods at the port, shipping basic necessities such as rice, sugar, pottery and luxury items such as silk yarns, gold and silver for ivory, tortoiseshell, resin, waxes, sandalwood, spices and other jungle products abound in the region's rainforest. Textiles were brought in to trade or as gifts for the Sultan and his entourage. It is noted that the royal court clothed in textiles were very much influenced by Indian weaving and design methods. The courts' controlled the textile trade and by the 15 th century, Melaka was trading in a variety of luxurious textiles including fine silks, gold threads and brocade. Weavers were no longer restricted to the use of local materials.

The adoption of silk led to many changes to the local weaving technology. Although the back-strap loom was capable of producing intricate designs and motifs, the use of fine silk threads required greater control. By the 16 th century, the Europeans had colonised many parts of Southeast Asia including Melaka. The frame loom was probably introduced from West Europe. The Malay weavers added to the frame loom, a fine comb where the warps could be passed through and separated but kept evenly spaced. This modified method meant that it was much easier to set up a plain silk warp and create patterns with the weft threads. It must have encouraged the creation of the songket especially in decorating the fabric with gold threading.

It is not certain as to the songket's place of origin but the Kelatanese believe that this weaving technique came from the North, somewhere in the Cambodia-Siam region and expanded south into Pattani and finally to Kelantan and Terengganu. However, Terengganu weavers believe that Indian traders brought songket weaving to Palembang and Jambi where it probably originated during the time of Srivijaya.

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 15 th century for sealing strategic alliances. These royal women would bring along their personal weavers with their entourage. Although the term menyongket means 'to embroider with gold or silver threads', the Malay songket is not embroidered. The songket utilises an intricate supplementary weft technique where gold threads are woven in between the longitudinal silk threads of the background cloth. This rich and luxurious fabric demonstrated the social structure of the Malay elite. The symbolism of thread colours to signify the status and title of the Court has been in use since the period of the Melaka Sultanate during the reign of Sultan Muhammad Shah (1426 - 1446, Sejarah Melayu). White gold thread was the colour of the ruler, yellow for the crown prince, blue or violet for the prime minister and so on. Sultan Muhammad Shah himself preferred to be dressed in 'Malay Attire' as he refused to emulate foreign clothing. The royal court weavers would produce individualised motifs often created by the wearers themselves. This rich textile was transformed from a mere form of attire into a canvas for individuality, personal triumphant, and was regarded as a symbol of prestige not only within the court arena but on an international stage.

In the past two decades, kain songket has been introduced into a wider audience of culturally conscious wearers. Terengganu has the highest concentration of songket weavers in Malaysia. With the gradual reintroduction of songket into the Malay Culture, there seems to be a stronger reason for the locals to take up weaving as a profession.

Pura Tanjung Sabtu

Art, culture and tradition is sometimes most difficult to explain if taken away from the environment in which it was born. Pura Tanjung Sabtu, a complex of historic wooden palaces is home and atelier to Yang Mulia Tengku Ismail bin Tengku Su. Tengku Ismail is a man of vision - a gentleman who believes in the Malay Identity and acknowleges the importance of maintaining that foundation for the future.

Tengku Ismail is second cousin to Sultan Mizan Zainal Abidin of Terengganu. He was brought up in traditional royal manner in the inner court of Dalam Kota Istana Maziah on the palace grounds of Kuala Terengganu. His love for the childhood memories would undoubtedly have planted a seed in his passion for restoring old Terengganu wooden houses. But the passion was ignited when he went on a trip to Kyoto in 1970 where he visited the 17th century wooden palaces of the shoguns. He was completely taken aback by how well the Japanese had preserved their historical milestones. After his schooling tenure at Westminster College, London, he returned to his beloved Terengganu However, his excitement turned into dismay by what he saw. The years that he had been away, much of Terengganu's traditional architecture had fallen into disuse. Many homes have been renovated with modern designs that have all but obliterated the original designs.

His dreams to impede the loss of Terengganu's traditional architecture became a reality upon working on a race against time to restore the importance of Songket in Malay culture. Tengku Ismail used his large collection of antique songket to reinstate the traditions of songket wear amongst royal families. Soon, orders for songket pieces were streaming in and a small cottage industry was set up. With income from the sale of songkets, Tengku Ismail realised his dream and began the hunt for old houses as early as the 1980's . He eventually bought eleven 100 - 160 year old wooden houses from villagers in Terengganu. With the help of a team of skilled local craftsmen headed by a grand old gentlemen of 95years old, Tok Ayah Teh Sar, Tengku Ismail had the 11 houses dismantled and reinstalled 9 houses into a complex on his land, surrounded by 14 acres of landscaped gardens, lawns, orchards, fields with a dreamy stream running through this lush piece of paradise.

Tengku Ismail had to inject a little creativity in designing the complex. Since all the wooden houses were originally individual entities, the complex has included a main hall or a 'balai' instead of the traditional layout and then then stretched into an east wing and a west wing.

Guests are met by their host at the balai called Rumah Ibu Seberang Baroh. Incidentally, all the houses are named after the villagers where they originated from eg. Rumah Sungai Rengas, Rumah Kuala Ibai and Rumah Rhu Rendang. The back portion of Rumah Ibu Seberang Baroh is an extended patio where wayang kulit (traditional puppet theatre) performances and silat (Malay martial art) demos are held.

Tengku Ismail retains the west wing as his private residence but opens the rest to the public. Two of the wooden houses in the east wings are guesthouses, another is reserved as a songket gallery. There's a dining area where visitors can enjoy home cooked Malay cuisine in the comfort of traditional surroundings and tranquility of village life.

Culture and traditions as in all royal families are intricately woven into their lives and upholding the status of these values has been one of the unwritten prerequisites to holding a royal position. Understanding that one is closely connected to the other is the success of a highly respected leader for in a world of convenience and haste, often quality and precision is left on the wayside. Teaching such qualities and paving the way for future generations to truly appreciate their heritage should be our leaders' requirements. For more information, please contact:

Pura Tanjung Sabtu
5728, Kampung Tanjung Sabtu
Mukim Manir
Kuala Terengganu
/Fax: (09) 615 3655/019-983 3365 (Tengku Ismail)
E-mail: Website:

Prices : Morning Coffee - RM60 per person. Lunch Tour - RM100 per person (depending on the number of guests and food served). 1 Night Stay - RM250 for twin-sharing with breakfast. 3Days/2Nights stay - RM600 per person (package includes 5 meals a day and 1 local tour) Advanced booking is required for both the tour and overnight stay.

Bibah Songket

Puan Hajjah Habibah believes that although motifs can be a combination of new and of traditional designs, she makes no compromise on the quality of the weaving and the material. Every single step of traditional songket weaving is followed through as did master weavers of the sultan's centuries ago . However, even in the earlier years, Kak Bibah knew that she could lift the beauty of songket to a new level by adding a variety of coloured threads where traditionally only silver or gold threads were used. With that, she introduced a new weaving technique to accommodate a variety of colour threads that could be added to the songket piece. Her years spent working with the Iban (Indigenous tribe in Sarawak) students on the ikat pua also gave her the idea of combining both the ikat pua and the songket to produce a unique songket range. She spent a great amount of time after that perfecting her discoveries.

Going back to the roots of traditional malay songket weaving, Bibah set up her factory in Terengganu at a small village called Kampung Rhu Rengeh. She trained her master weavers from scratch and after years of preserverence, her efforts are beginning to fruit. The young weavers whom she hires from the nearby villages have developed such skills and confidence that they often shun simple designs for more intricate ones.

Kak Bibah's hands-on dedication has inspired many of her young weavers and for others who have married and moved away to other villages, she continues to provide them with supplementary income by setting up looms in their homes so that they can weave in their leisure time. This small but significant cottage industry of songket weaving is taking a big circle and returning the art and traditions of the Malays to the people.

Kak Bibah believes in transforming art into all she touches. Batik and songket allows her to expand her artistic horizons but she also takes heed in producing songket that flows and is soft to the skin so that the textile can fall gently onto the contours of the wearer, complementing the physique. Her attention to detail and the quality to create her pieces warrants apiece made in at least 3months but the wearer and buyer can be assured of the making of an heirloom for years of appreciation and pride. Having established a ready market for traditional use of songket, Kak Bibah continues to expand the horizon of opportunities for songket. Exclusive Malaysian Resorts use songket to infuse modern and traditional to form a crystal-clear Malaysian identity. State Houses and Government buildings adorn their foyers and amphitheatres with songket panelling to reinforce Malaysia's heritage.

Today, the Songket is sublime. It has finally developed a story, a lovestory enriched with art, passion, tradition and identity. The true Malay Songket.

For more information, contact:

Bibah Songket
Lot 1040 Kg.Rhu Renggeh, 21080 Chendering, Kuala Terengganu
Tel: +6 09 617 1853 Fax: +6 09 617 2693
email : website:


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