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Old Song, New Tune
Where once reserved for royals, modernising the songket means weaving it into the everyday fabric of Malaysian life.
As a child, Sabrena Shamsul would watch in wonder as her mum created beautiful songket pieces from scratch. Today, more than 20 years later, the power of songket remains in her still.
Her mother is Habibah Zikri, founder of Bibah Songket, a leading Malaysian songket design house.
“My parents worked for Kraftangan Malaysia and at one point, they were posted to Terengganu. It was there that my mum fell in love with the art of songket,” Sabrena explains.
Habibah, a textile art graduate herself who was already skilled in the ways of songket weaving, eventually decided to quit her government job to open her own business.
Songket is a brocade textile handwoven on a loom, made up of a cotton or silk base with gold and silver threads. These threads are embroidered on using the supplementary weft technique to create intricate and iridescent, seemingly floating patterns on its surface.
As every bit plush as it sounds, songket was once a fabric reserved for royals, and to this day retains its hefty price tag, due in part to the sheer craftsmanship that traditional songket weaving entails.
Sabrena Shamsul, Bibah Songket's director of marketing and sales, is continuing the songket legacy her mother started.
Weavers take years to master the technique, and work on a single piece totals a month at the least. However, mass-produced songket, woven from the jacquard loom machine and consisting of polyester threads, do exist in the market as cheaper buys alongside imported songket from countries like India, Pakistan and Indonesia.
The availability of cheaper, mass-produced songket makes the craftsmanship of Bibah Songket all the more valuable, as it still uses the traditional handloom method to produce its designs. Its headquarters are still in Terengganu, the home of songket, and it’s here that Habibah set up the first songket weaving facility in Malaysia.
Bibah Songket also produces songket-bound notebooks, table runners, cushion covers and more.
But more than just traditional wear, Bibah Songket’s designs have branched out to include cushion covers and table runners, bound notebooks and framed wall panels, to name a few.
And that’s where Sabrena, as its director of sales and marketing, comes into the picture.
“I joined Bibah Songket after university to drive the brand [to a wider audience]. My mum was producing beautiful pieces but still remained relatively unknown because she was dealing with her customers directly, still sending their pieces to them personally.”
To have songket reach a wider market is a goal shared by local label Yustie Dieanna, which started the Malaysian Songket Fashion Award (MASFA) after getting positive reviews for its own songket-based collection.
Yustie (left) with her daughter, Nurul Dieanna Atiqah Saifuddin, the designers behind Yustie Dieanna.
Inaugurated last year, the competition is a platform encouraging young local fashion designers, especially students and fresh graduates, to creatively apply songket to their designs. Designers are not only required to submit a functional, ready-to-wear design, but they are judged on their ability to present their work.
“The goal is for the competition to be an eye-opener,” says Noorma Yustie Abdul Majid, head designer of Yustie Dieanna.
“Even in organising the competition, where we handled entries from all over the country, we learnt something ourselves too – we think songket is exclusive to the east coast of Malaysia, but actually, Sabah and Sarawak have songket too.”
Yustie says it’s also a common misconception that songket is a fabric with limited uses, only suited to be cut for ceremonial events like weddings.
“In reality, songket is so versatile that it can be applied to any design and occasion. It’s just a matter of creatively combining it with other materials – and precise panelling, cutting and sewing,” she says.
“Songket is the king of fabric. No other fabric embodies our country’s history and heritage.”
And if it wants to remain king, then it must reach the people. Indeed, the continuing legacy of songket relies on it being a more visible fabric, both within and beyond our shores.
Encouragingly, steps in this direction have already been taken. At last year’s Couture Fashion Week in New York, Kuala Lumpur-based designer Sara Jamaludin presented her line of songket-based designs.
And just last month, at the Commonwealth Fashion Exchange reception in Buckingham Palace, our very own Bernard Chandran presented his songket-based designs, including a bustier dress and floor-length overcoat, to the Duchess of Cambridge herself.
Modernising the songket means broadening its purpose beyond traditional wear, so that it’s not just used for and experienced as traditional wear at ceremonials, but everywhere and anywhere else too.
By Luwita Hana Randhawa
Photos by Teoh Eng Hooi
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