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The Hand that Weaves - THE ART OF SONGKET

MOVING THROUGH TANOTI’S WEAVING WORKSHOP in an old house on Tabuan Road, you get the sense of walking through the streets of a miniature city. Laid out in a grid, the looms - each an almost-perfect open cube of timber and threads - form a scaled-down cityscape with streets and alleys, except that you can peer inside each house to uncover the treasures contained within. The weavers themselves, all women, sit with arms poised as if playing pipe organs, plying their craft as an orchestra playing a symphony. The effect is heightened by the earphones most of the weavers wear, for better concentration. Justin Bieber is an apparent favourite. Like organists, they operate using both hands and feet, suspended off the floor as if in some aerial ballet. Except that what they produce is not music - at least not an audible one - but a visual feast of gemlike colours and fantastical shapes.

You dream when you weave. Not in a distracted kind of way, it’s that sometimes you can’t tell whether you’re dreaming or weaving. When you dream, it’s like moving through a thick cloud, and your mind pulls stories and people out of the white. You create outlines, you fill them in with colour and you give them meaning. Weaving is the same, except that you’re doing it with thread.

Dr June Ngo, an associate professor at Unimas’s Faculty of Applied and Creative Arts, is Tanoti’s Creative Director. Together with fellow Director Jacqueline Fong, they look after the 18 or so women employed full-time by Tanoti to practise the ancient art of handweaving songket.

From time immemorial, the princely rulers of the Malay world have employed teams of weavers to produce the luxurious fabrics known as songket to be worn at court and for ceremonial occasions. In songket technique, silk or cotton threads are combined with metallic silver and gold to create elaborate designs in a heavy, lustrous textile that has come to embody Malay art and culture.

You hear that some people dream in black-and-white, but your dreams are suffused in colour. They have names and personalities. Turmeric yellow, buddhist monk yellow, rose red, flame red. Modern dyes are more vivid, but you prefer the old, natural dyes. Old colours are quieter, less boisterous; but they take on a mysterious quality in the evening. Someone once showed you the work of a famous western painter whose paintings were made to be seen in the dark. Like them, natural colours glow in the half-light.

From its inception in 2012, Tanoti’s unique mission has been to preserve the unique art of handwoven songket in its totality, from dyeing and spinning thread, through to design and loom weaving. For Tanoti’s founders, preserving the process intact also has a social dimension. “It’s also a way of empowering women,” Dr June says. Tanoti insists on training young women in the entire process by hand - the lack of reliance on specialised machinery means that they can replicate the process anywhere, even at home. At Tanoti, trainee weavers are given an allowance as well as training. “But we only offer them full-time employment when they have completed their first Songket Sarawak,” Jacqueline informs, “From start to finish.”

The older colours come from the kitchen, the garden, the forest. Red from cinnamon, black from coconut husks, blue from indigo leaves. Colours so familiar, you can taste them in the back of your mouth. They come from earth, from water, from sunlight. It’s no wonder then that images of the natural world keep finding their way back into the weaves. Flowers sprout in profusion, leaves unfurl, stars twinkle in between the threads. Your garden outside enters in, spreading familiar tendrils and petals and foliage across the loom. Here are your roses, hibiscus and pedada. Your songket is a fragrant garden.

Keeping alive the laborious, time-consuming process of handweaving at the heart of Tanoti’s mission has meant that songket has had to transcend its traditional strictures. It has had to find new applications and markets outside of the rarified world of formal ritual and official gifts.

If traditional songket has its feet mired in native earth, Jacqueline is its advocate for interstellar travel. She envisions that one day songket techniques might incorporate industrial materials, be combined with other textile media, or be even used in building construction. Tanoti has kickstarted this process of evolving the medium by asking its weavers to experiment with unusual materials – paper, leather, rattan, and even stainless steel. For her, the workshop is also a laboratory.


In all this experimentation however, she insists that the handwoven aspect of songket is meticulously preserved, no matter the medium.

There is something of you in every songket you weave, some tangible trace of your energies, your emotions, your moods. Even the act of spinning thread for the loom – subtle variations in the speed of hand-winding result in minute differences in the tension of each length of thread. You might be sad that day, or happily energetic, or simply contemplative. At every stage, something passes from you into the material, into the weave, into the final product. Your songket is not coldly mechanical in its machine-made perfection. It is full of subtle imperfections that change with every drape, every movement of a shoulder, a hand, a finger. It is a living thing.


86-years old Master Artisan of the KERINGKAM


Old family photo with young ladies dressed in keringkam  and songket

MEANWHILE ON THE OTHER SIDE OF TOWN, songket researcher Suhana binti Sarkawi is conversing with two individuals who may well be living embodiments of the traditional face of Malay textile arts. Sisters Dayang Siti Sa’adiah and Dayang Maslamah binti Saleh are acknowledged master artisans of keringkam (embroidered head coverings) and songket. In Puan Maslamah’s semi-detached house in Petrajaya, she passes her surprisingly youthful hands over a stunning collection of keringkam and songket in jeweled hues.

When asked why they chose to become artisans, the sisters burst into laughter. “Our mother made us learn, we had no choice!” Puan Maslamah exclaims. 86-year old Puan Siti specialises in keringkam, while her 70-year old sister became a master weaver of traditional songket. “Songket is more difficult than keringkam,” Puan Maslamah whispers with a wink. Their work is highly sought-after by government ministries as official gifts and high-ranking patrons.

Puan Siti still embroiders keringkam laboriously by hand on commission, now mostly for weddings. In the past, they were de rigeur apparel for official functions and important ceremonies. The gossamer- fine fabrics glisten with intricate, lace-like borders and images from the natural world - flowers, stars, and even traditional cakes. Her work, like her personality, is of a quietly introverted nature.

Puan Maslamah, a former police officer, is clearly the more outgoing of the pair. She gamely offers to model the songket and keringkam for the camera. So it’s startling to hear from her children that she has not touched her loom in ten years. Her husband, himself a skilled songket weaver, used to be her working partner, helping to set the loom and to arrange the threads. But since his passing, Puan Maslamah has not woven a single songket.

Handweaving requires a community. Everything, from dyeing, spinning to preparing the loom requires many, deft hands. You move in choreographed steps, like dancers across a stage. You look down in wonder at your many pairs of hands - threading, caressing, combing, compacting. You are not alone - you are part of a greater whole, a grand design. The threads pass from hand to hand, through countless fingers. You feel the vibrations of generations past humming in the strands. Someone stretches out fingers to you, an offering in silk and gold. You accept them, gaze on them for a moment, and you pass them on.

When asked about the future of handwoven textiles, the sisters acknowledge that it’s a challenge for young people to take up the art. It requires care, patience, and long training, all luxuries in today’s fast- paced world. But they, like Tanoti’s founders, believe that their heritage can still continue. Puan Maslamah has trained her son and daughter-in- law in the fundamentals of handweaving songket. Currently they can only afford to weave in their spare time, but at least there’s a chance for the family tradition to continue.

As for Puan Maslamah herself, after a decade out of action, those close to her have noticed a change. It might be the result of a sudden flurry of interest in traditional songket weaving; the State Library recently organised a songket exhibition, with the sisters called on as advisors. Whatever the cause, something in the air seems to have lifted. She acknowledges that it is up to master artisans like her sister and herself to ensure that the storied tradition of handweaving continues to live on. “It would be a shame if it disappears. It is our heritage. Who can make it again once it’s gone?” she says.

Puan Maslamah guides me into a dark, musty store room. There amidst the motorcycle parts and sagging cardboard boxes stands her loom, covered in a layer of dust. She removes a stack of papers, and suddenly there is a flash of colour. A half-complete songket lies stretched out on the loom. It has lain there for a decade unchanged, a snapshot of a frozen moment of grief.


86-year old  Dayang Siti  Sa’adiah specialises in keringkam and 70-year old Dayang Maslamah binti Salehis a master weaver of the songket


“When my husband died,” Puan Maslamah murmurs, “I lost interest in weaving songket. It made me sad to not see him there, helping meto set the threads as was his habit. So I stopped weaving.” She places her hands on the incomplete songket, tenderly. It’s radiant in the grey, dark space, in glowing shades of pink and gold, bright as a newborn child. She brushes fingers tenderly across the songket’s unbound warp threads – they thrum like the strings of a silent harp. Perhaps they are the last things her late husband had set, an offering of threads from long ago. When she turns around to face us, her eyes too are bright. “Tomorrow I will start to clean this room out,” she says firmly. It’s time to pass the threads on.

Alan is an architect by career, a singer by temperament, and a writer by duress. He loves collecting textiles, but he can’t stitch a button to save his life.

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