Songket (Malay)

Country: Malaysia
A beautifully hand woven songket cloth, known as “the cloth of gold” and “queen of fabrics” in Malaysia. © Malaysian Handicraft Development Corporation

Songket is a traditional Malay textile that is hand woven of silk or cotton and features patterns in supplementary weft metallic yarns. In the past, songket was woven with precious gold or silver yarns, and due to the richness of the materials used was hailed as “the cloth of gold” and “the queen of fabrics”.

Believed to have played a central role in the Malay royal courts since at least the 16th century, songket was once the preserve of royalty and the nobility. The introduction of synthetic metallic yarns and dyes in the mid-20th century made songket more affordable and its use more widespread.

Today, songket remains one the most important ceremonial textiles in Malay culture. It is worn at formal occasions such as weddings, official ceremonies like coronations and state functions, as well as cultural celebrations like Hari Raya Aidilfitri.

In Malaysia, songket is produced mainly in the east coast states of Terengganu and Kelantan. There are also songket weaving centres in other states, particularly Pahang, Selangor and Sarawak.

Songket being woven on a foot-operated loom called kek. © Malaysian Handicraft Development Corporation

Songket is woven on a foot-operated loom called a kek. Traditionally, songket is woven into the form of a sarong (tubular skirt), samping (short sarong for men), selendang (woman’s shawl), bengkung (man’s waist sash) and destar (man’s head cloth).

In the past, sarongs would be cut up to make traditional clothing like baju Melayu for men and baju kurung or baju kebaya for women. Due to innovations in the craft industry since the 1980s, songket has also been woven as yard fabric to facilitate tailoring, upholstery and the making of household products.

Currently, the craft is continued by songket businesses and workshops that employ weavers of various skill levels. Two of Malaysia’s most celebrated songket masters are Zainab @ Ngah Bt. Mamat and Habibah Zikri, both from Terengganu. For their contributions to the craft, they were accorded the prestigious title Tokoh Kraf Negara (National Craft Master) in 2002 and 2007 respectively.