Weaving the future

Mechanisation and mass production have threatened traditional crafts of all descriptions, and songket weaving is no exception.

Creating this distinctly Malaysian silk or cotton fabric by hand, with its intricate motifs in metallic thread, is a demanding, painstaking and time-consuming undertaking, with even the most skilled workers able to weave at a rate of only four to six inches a day.

So as older artisans hang up their looms, it’s difficult finding younger people to replace them.

As a result, though traditional weavers can still be found in places such as Terengganu, Kota Bharu and Sarawak, their numbers have plummeted in the past two decades.

Jacqueline Fong, co-founder of Tanoti Crafts, considers it a national crisis.

“It’s important to keep (songket weaving) alive, because it represents our identity, history and culture,” she says. “We cannot afford for another generation to lose the skills, to have other sets of fingers not knowing the craft.”

Determined to play her part as a custodian of national heritage, former investment banker Fong, along with textile designer and lecturer Dr June Ngo, established Tanoti in 2012.

They did this by signing up an atelier of songket weavers initially employed by a foundation, the Yayasan Tuanku Nur Zahirah, established by Her Royal Highness the Queen of Malaysia in 2008. Due to withdrawal of funding, these weavers were about to find themselves out of work.

Fong says the aim was, firstly, to ensure their continued employment but, more holistically, to use this ancient art to improve the lives and livelihoods of women and rural communities.

Tanoti is currently comprised of a 15-strong community of weavers who practise traditional labour-intensive methods, including the hand-dyeing of threads.

Classical designs, from the pucuk rebung (bamboo shoot) to the teratai (lotus), continue to be used, reflecting familiar themes of culture, identity and faith.

Consistent with way in which traditional skills are passed down under the tutelage of elders, Tanoti employs a mentorshop model, in which highly experienced weavers train new hands.

“The things that we do are always highly progressive, while maintaining as much purity as possible in every step of the process,” Fong says.

Fong points out that while industrialisation has made the production of textiles cheaper and faster, contemporary trends like sustainability and slow fashion mean that more and more people are turning towards products which aren’t made by machine.

“This resurgence of interest in anything that’s handmade works to the favour of craftspeople,” she says.

While the history of songket is shrouded in some mystery, it probably came to Kelantan as early as the fifteenth century through trade, migration and intermarriages between royal families in the Malay archipelago and Indo-China.

Commonly worn for special occasions like weddings, formal functions and other ceremonies, songket remains a symbol of wealth, prestige and luxury.

But, as anyone who has donned traditionally-made songket will attest, while it looks majestic, it can feel stiff, scratchy, and itchy.

Ngo said these drawbacks helped inspire her 2008 PhD research on contemporising songket, with a view to making it softer, sheerer, lightweight and infinitely more suited for fashion.

Speaking from her adopted home in Brisbane, Australia, Ngo said there were plenty of naysayers who thought her task impossible: “They said they will chop off their heads if I can do it.”

However, she did. The trick was introducing silk filament threads, as fine as hair, to the weaving process.

Ngo’s work has dramatically improved both the wearability and comfort of songket. While no longer with Tanoti, her legacy lives on in its range of couture, homewares, artworks and more.

This story appeared in Issue #2 of Ikhlas magazine which is published by the Datai Langkawi. Read it there.

© 2022 Denise Cullen