Songket is a traditional Indonesian textile craft most common in the island of Sumatra. Songket is made by a weaving technique that can be found in some part of Indonesia such as Sumatra, Bangka and Belitung Island, Java, Celebes, and Nusa Tenggara. However, songket is most prevalent in the province of South Sumatra, in which most commonly known as songket palembang.
Songket’s origin can be traced back to the time of the ancient Buddhist Kingdom of Srivijaya / Sriwijaya in modern-day South Sumatra. Sriwijaya, was once a major kingdom that conducted trade with Chinese Empire and India. The Chinese brought textiles such as silk woven with golden thread to Sriwijaya in order to trade local herbs and spices. There were also many Chinese settlers that brought their styles to Sriwijaya. The Indians as well as utilized textile as a mean of the transaction with Sriwijaya. This also influenced the woven textile style in South Sumatra.
Those foreign influences made woven textile not only using cotton thread, but also incorporating gold and silver thread. The influence of China and India also played a part in defining the motive of the woven textile. The incorporation of gold and silver thread in the woven textile is the embryo of songket.
Songket is made from gold thread, silver thread, silk thread, and cotton thread. The process of making songket starts from the preparation of the threads, involving dyeing, drying and rolling. After that, the songket process starts. The word songket is derived from the Indonesian word “cukit” which means to lever, in this case the levering of the thread to be woven with other thread. Songket is woven using a non-machine weaving apparatus. This levering process requires great skill.
The levering device is locally known as duri landak (porcupine thorn). In the earlier times, a real porcupine thorn was used as a levering device. Nowadays, the crafters use a wire-like bamboo as a levering device. After levering, two sets of thread are woven crossing each other then aligned to make the desired patterns.
There are various symbolic meanings in the pattern of songket. The patterns are classified into three: flower pattern, geometric pattern, and combined pattern. These symbolic meanings are inspired by nature and social surroundings.
For example, songket pattern bunga mawar (rose pattern) is believed to have the ability to keep catastrophe away. Bungo cino (Chinese flower) pattern that has red and gold color is a product of Chinese influence. Back then, bungo cino pattern is reserved for the women of the royal family only. In today’s society, songket palembang is utilized for many ceremonies. When a South Sumatran baby reached 40 days old, their family will hold a haircutting ceremony. In this ceremony, the baby’s head is covered with a small songket called as singep, while the other songket is used to cover their body. The wider and most well-known usage of songket is in South Sumatran Wedding.
In South Sumatran wedding, the bride and groom wear a songket with real gold thread. South Sumatran also utilising songket as a dowry for the groom’s family to give to the bride’s family. The dowry consists of seven pieces of songket clothing for daily wearing, one golden songket for formal occasion and another one golden songket with a special pattern for the wedding.
The number of songket crafters is declining in general due to lack of regeneration. These songket craftspersons can be found in South Sumatra, especially Palembang, the province’s capital. The example of this craft can be seen in Jakarta Textile Museum, Sumatera Selatan Textile Museum, Tangga Buntung songket Craftsmen center in Palembang.
The craftspersons in Tangga Buntung Songket Center in Palembang, South Sumatra is considered the masters of songket. They showcase the making process, the songket, as well as selling the crafts to tourists. There are several songket galleries in Tangga Buntung Songket Center such as Zainal Songket, Cek Ipah and Cek Ilah.